A. Trevor Sutton: One-on-one accountability groups may be a solution to pastoral woes

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When a Michigan pastor realized that his accountability group was too big, he came up with a new solution -- pairs.

Stay in ministry. Stay married. Stay alive.

It doesn’t sound all that difficult. Yet for pastors who try to prioritize these aspects of their lives, it often is.

I began in parish ministry nearly seven years ago. And almost immediately, I noticed something alarming: seminary classmates were leaving the ministry.

The causes were varied -- church conflict, moral failure, family problems. But before they’d even put a dent in their student loans, these pastors were out of the ministry.

Given what I have seen among my fellow pastors, staying in ministry, staying married and staying alive is more difficult than you’d imagine.

Research confirms my observations. According to Barna, 1 in 3 pastors is at risk of burnout, and many pastors are at risk in their relationships, both with friends and with spouses.

It troubled me to hear of this research and to see it play out, as pastors I knew left the ministry prematurely. (I am, after all, a middle child, and I love to keep the peace.)

About five years ago, in search of a solution, I decided to form an accountability group for pastors. I reached out to several pastors in my region, and many of them agreed it was worth a try.

In my seven years of ministry, I have never been without some sort of accountability group or partner. This fact has been the most important part of my pastoral well-being.

A pastors’ accountability group has been a powerful force for keeping my life in balance. It has kept prayer and Bible reading at the forefront, it has kept pride and arrogance from growing within me, and it has helped me prioritize my relationships.

My current group began with six pastors meeting once a year for an overnight retreat.

We spent our time discussing a book, talking about successes and failures in ministry, and praying with one another. We all left the first retreat with similar responses: Yes! This is it. This pastors’ accountability group will be the thing that keeps us in ministry.

We were wrong.

Over time, it proved far less effective than I had hoped. It certainly offered support, encouragement and some degree of accountability; however, I worried that it wasn’t enough.

I reflected on why our group, and others like it, was not as successful as anticipated. I brought this up to the other five pastors, and two things became clear.

First, there are no sure things when it comes to fostering longevity in ministry.

It is naive and idealistic to think that simply being part of a pastors accountability group will solve the burnout problem. Thinking too big put pressure on the group and made it difficult for us to feel that we were accomplishing what we set out to do.

Second, our group was too heavy on learning and support, and too light on accountability. Even the small group of six was too large for radically honest self-disclosure.

In hindsight, this makes sense. It is hard enough to be fully honest with one other person about the hard things in your life; it is even harder to do so in a room of five other people.

Yet the group practice of honesty and accountability has been absolutely vital to me and my ministry, and I would never go without it. So what could I do to help make it more effective?

I mulled ways that we could work around the size issue without disbanding the group. I was out running with some of the other pastors when we came up with a solution: What if we had one-on-one accountability partners within the group?

We decided to try it -- restructuring to foster more honest self-disclosure. The group still comprises six pastors, and we still meet once a year for a retreat in which we discuss a book, talk about life and ministry, and pray for one another.

But instead of having only the larger group, each pastor now also has an accountability partner. These pairs meet -- in person, on the phone, by video chat -- quarterly. They are free to come up with questions for their conversations based upon their particular struggles or interests.

The point is to ask totally real, soul-piercing, conscience-checking questions about how things are going. It’s not a big group anymore; it’s just the two partners. In that setting, it’s easier to be honest.

After going through all the other questions, the last one that my accountability partner asks me is a doozy: “Have you just lied to me?” While this is a common accountability question, its importance cannot be overstated.

Posed at the end of each session, this question offers one final opportunity to come clean and be totally honest. It is a scalpel to the soul. It pierces the layers of equivocation and reveals the honest-to-God truth.

It took only one meeting with my accountability partner for the two of us to know that we had found something powerful.

I had a litany of tasks to accomplish that week, and exploring the nooks and crannies of my conscience seemed like the worst possible way to spend my very limited time.

I took the phone call from my partner in the parking lot of a health care facility, right before I went inside to make a pastoral visit with a parishioner. I sat in the car with my headphones on as I talked with him.

Each question penetrated a different part of my heart. My pride, self-centeredness and vanity were unearthed and absolved. This conversation was easily the least urgent thing on my list. And yet it was certainly the most important part of my week.

It has not been a full year since we have made this change to our pastors accountability group. But as we go along, I believe that it’s working. I have found the one-on-one meetings both painful and productive.

They are painful because they leave no room to hide.

They are productive because they leave no room to hide.

Although I enter these conversations with apprehension, I always leave them with peace. I am convinced that being completely real and transparent with my partner makes me a better husband, father and pastor.

Even if it’s not guaranteed to be successful, it’s a start.

According to the apostle Paul, all we can ever really do in ministry is never stop starting: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14 ESV).

My accountability partner -- together with my group -- helps me press on.