Several years ago, as I was preparing a sermon on forgiveness, it dawned on me that Peter and Judas were really not all that different. Both were deeply flawed – Judas was self-centered and dishonest, Peter was temperamental and impetuous; both had wronged Jesus – Judas by betrayal, Peter by denial; and both, when they realized that they had wronged Jesus, were overcome with regret – Judas was “seized with remorse” (Matthew 27:3), Peter “wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). So why are the legacies of these two flawed men so vastly different? The answer is most certainly multi-factorial, but at a base level clarity emerges when we consider how each responded in the moment they became fully awake to the harm they had caused Jesus.
Judas took matters into his own hands by trying to return the payment he had received for betraying Jesus, and when that didn’t work, by ending his own life. In contrast, Peter knew immediately that there was nothing he could do to make restitution for his betrayal of Jesus, nothing he could do to assuage his guilt. And so he wept bitterly … and was later fully restored by Jesus.
Moving forward a few thousand years, as pastors and church leaders, our reality is that we have all made mistakes, we all do make mistakes, and we will all continue to make mistakes. Being human, it turns out, is synonymous with making mistakes. Go figure.
Herman Melville once wrote, “Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly in need of mending.”
Yep, that about captures it. But what does it have to do with “accountable leadership?”
A lot, actually. Because given the certainty that we will in fact make mistakes, a fundamental question is, “Will we embrace accountability, or will we shun accountability?”
To embrace accountability is to enter into the pain that comes with acknowledging, taking responsibility, and learning from our mistakes. This is the path that Peter took, and ultimately it led toward restoration and renewed purpose. To shun accountability is to attempt to conceal our mistakes as we go along, avoiding at all costs the pain of having to deal with the damage we have caused. This was the path Judas took, and it led to destruction.
As difficult as it is, accountability is essential for all who follow Christ. And it is even more essential for all who are leaders in Christ’s church:
“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
If we are courageous to embrace accountability, a natural follow-up question is, “To whom are we accountable?” The answer, I believe, is three-fold: We are accountable first and foremost to God, then to others, then to ourselves.
Accountability to God
After God sent the prophet Nathan to confront King David about his adultery with Bathsheba, David’s first words were, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). As the story continues, the repercussions of David’s sin unfold, and they are devastating. Like David, regardless of how we sin, when we sin we sin against God, and there are repercussions to our sin. Yet the only way that we can truly grasp the weight of our sin, and truly experience the fullness of the grace of God in Christ, is to embrace accountability to God. This of course requires that we are diligent and intentional to connect with God.
As a disciple (and as a leader), how is your prayer life? Do you pray out of convenience or ritual, skimming the surface but never really going deep? Or do you pray with an open heart and mind, emptying yourself in order to be replenished as the Holy Spirit ministers to your soul? If your approach to prayer is the latter, you know the experience of coming under conviction for your sins, while at the same time being restored and renewed by the grace of Jesus Christ.
As a disciple (and as a leader), do you make the study of God’s Word a priority in your life? If you are serious about being accountable before God, you must be in the Word of God regularly. And you must invite and allow scripture to bring conviction and transformation:
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Accountability to Others
In Jeremiah 17:9, God speaks through the prophet in stating, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Because each of us have the propensity to deceive ourselves, it is critical that we invite others to speak truth into our lives, and to hold us accountable. There are far too many pastors who have lost their churches – and oftentimes, their families – because of a gradual deterioration of values, priorities, and conduct. Like it or not, we are prone to wander. Whether our wandering takes the form of spending too much time at work and not enough with family, or of lapsing into unhealthy and unholy habits, or of simply falling away from essential spiritual disciplines, we need people around us to hold us accountable.
Around three years ago, I transitioned from serving a single church to serving multiple churches under two half-time denominational roles. Interestingly, each of the new roles did not exist previously, and were very open-ended. In each case, to help ensure ongoing accountability, I quickly developed a scorecard of key activities and metrics that I am responsible for maintaining and reviewing monthly with other key leaders. No one asked me to do this, but I knew that doing so was critical for bringing out the best in me, and by extension the churches and leaders I work on behalf of.
Accountability to Self
It seems like every sports coach in America has at one time or another talked about an athlete “giving 110%.” The problem with that statement is that it makes no sense! After all, no one can give more effort than they are capable of giving.
What is true, however, is that all of us are guilty of giving less effort than we are capable of giving. I don’t always do my best as a husband. Or as a father. Or as a Classis Leader. Or as a preacher. Or as a … well, you get the point.
The reality for pastors and church leaders, in part because of conflicting priorities and finite capacity, is that we must pick and choose how and where we invest our energy. This is nothing to apologize for, it’s just part of life.
But it can also be a crutch, an excuse. In our busyness we can easily overlook tackling the things that matter most in favor of dabbling in the things that matter least. Whole churches have lost sight of their missional call as they have elevated programs, events, and activities above all else. Individual pastors and leaders have lost sight of the fact that the effectiveness of their leadership is tied directly to their followership of Jesus Christ.
Even as we are called to be accountable first and foremost to God, and even as we invite other people to hold us accountable, we must also be accountable to ourselves. Other than God Himself, the only person who knows whether or not I am actively praying, studying scripture, and making my life an act of worship is me. And other than God Himself, the only person who knows whether or not I’ve given close to my personal best when preparing for leadership meetings, sermons, retreats, etc., is me. Self-accountability starts with self-awareness and an unquenchable desire to be all that God created us to be.