During my ministry training I remember a well-known preacher coming to a chapel service at our Bible College and preaching a message from 1 Samuel 24:6. The passage relates the story of David and his men finding Saul in a vulnerable situation back in a cave, and it turned out to be a pretty bad decision by Saul as he picked the wrong place to find some privacy… exactly where David and his men were hiding! David refused to lay a hand on Saul, and even with his men urging him to take advantage of the situation, he said he would not touch the king because he was ‘the Lord’s anointed’. David even felt guilt at the small act of cutting the corner of Saul’s robe. This is a great story which reveals the character and the heart of this man David. The preacher went on to use this verse to “springboard” into talking about church leadership and the way everyone should treat a Pastor or Minister of the gospel. I remember clearly hearing him say that we should, ‘…touch not God’s anointed!’, (Interestingly he did not stretch the application to leaders and pastors lying and cheating and bullying their followers like Saul did…practising a popular but flawed kind of ‘cherry picking’ method of interpretation and application). Since that time I have heard the same ‘misinterpreted’ idea used in many churches to perpetuate a leadership structure which centres around one main gifted leader who seems to have all of the power and no accountability. Sadly we all know of the dangers and have seen the fallout of this kind of leadership and structure.
While it would be easy to focus on this misuse of Scripture and the interpretation issues, for the sake of this article I would like to deal with the matter of accountability in leadership. I believe that good leadership and good pastoring requires accountability. In all of my years of ministry I have known various levels of accountability in my role. In the early days, because the church was small and the leadership was very new and growing, I had much less accountability and it seemed, more freedom to do what I wanted. While this sounds good in theory, especially to strong leaders and those who are more independent in their style, it is quite dangerous and actually as I look back, it created more work and hardship for me in the long run of the ministry. That brings me to share three principles about accountability which I have learned in my 38 years of church ministry.
#1 Good accountability structures help us to spread the load and share the stress that comes with ministry to people. Any spiritual leader will tell you that ministry can be quite an emotional and spiritual strain that brings lots of stress and challenge. If you have people who share in that with you by holding you accountable, they help to shoulder that stress and the heavy load it brings. These structures can vary from helping you set boundaries with your time to making sure that you do not overcommit to things that you are not equipped to handle.
#2 Good accountability protects us from ourselves. I am often my own worst enemy when it comes to knowing my limits and being able to judge my capacity in ministry. My wife is the first port of call for that, (God bless her…!), but also the Elders help me to think carefully about rash decisions which I am sometimes prone to make when I am under a lot of stress or run ahead of myself. There have been times in my pastoral ministry when I have been disappointed when the Elders didn’t “go my way” on a decision and then later realised that God protected us (and me) through their wisdom.
#3 Good accountability fosters good decisions. Accountability doesn’t reduce the responsibility of leadership, but it does give us a framework in which to make God honouring decisions as we lead from a place of strength and confidence. US President Harry Truman’s famous statement, ‘the buck stops here’, is a good reminder of the responsibility we have as leaders and pastors. Having good accountability doesn’t change that, it just gives us a chance to allow for collective wisdom to lead us to good decisions and to have confidence as we lead. We are still responsible for the final word, but it is much easier to know that we have others holding us accountable as we lead.
Accountability is not something that we should be afraid of, in fact we should embrace it as something that will make us better leaders and pastors in our churches. Ultimately, we are accountable to Christ as the chief shepherd and head of His church. It is a great blessing when He gives us godly men and women who can help us to lead wisely and well.