What Does Accountability Look Like for Pastors?

In the fall of 1948, a lanky 30 year old evangelist who called himself “Billy” pondered the amazing successes he was experiencing and began to pray for wisdom: how could he avoid the dangerous traps into which he had seen other evangelists stumble? He gathered his closest associates at a motel in Modesto, California, to discuss what would become known as the Modesto Manifesto. [1]

What Does Accountability Look Like for Pastors

The evangelist? Billy Graham. And long before the recent fad of “accountability relationships” he was determined to do all he could to make ministry integrity a priority. Of the four traps they considered—finances, immorality, independent spirit, and exaggerated success—the one that has been longest remembered has been immorality. Billy Graham and his associates formulated the “Billy Graham Rule” to protect their sexual integrity: they would avoid all compromising situations with members of the opposite sex. In his autobiography, he recalled it like this:

“We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: ‘Flee … youthful lusts.’ (2 Timothy 1:22, KJV)”

Ministry accountability remains one of the most important and yet neglected priorities of a minister’s success. If an iconic figure like Billy Graham needed rules for maintaining sexual integrity, how much more do we?

In my counseling with ministers, I find that most agree in theory but actually putting it into practice is another matter. Some don’t want the scrutiny—especially the few who are already indulging a secret life.

For most it’s more complicated: how can I build accountability relationships? Who can I trust with the most personal details of my life? How transparent should I be? Having a “Billy Graham Rule” is a great idea, but what if I stumble and fall? To whom do I admit it?

These are all good questions. However, I want to share five ideas about ministry accountability in this area of sexual integrity.

No Minister Is Above Temptation

Billy Graham understood that the more success he enjoyed the more vulnerable to temptation he would be. Throughout church history God’s most successful servants have understood this. The Apostle Paul himself was under no delusions. He called himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15) and because of the incredible revelations given lived with a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him depending on God (2 Cor. 12:7-9). If you find yourself brushing aside the need for accountability and transparency in any area, that’s a warning sign.

Another example of ministry accountability comes from John Piper. He and his staff submitted to a regular routine of written accountability questions. It involved completing a written questionnaire assessing their own integrity in key areas like daily devotions, marriage harmony, and sexual temptation.

Related: Porn in the Church–How to Create Church Policies that Actually Help

The Greatest Obstacle to Accountability Is Fear

Real reasons exist why ministers avoid accountability relationships. Transparency can be frightening. Statistics suggest that ministers are among the loneliest and most isolated professionals in the community.[2] The demands of the job predispose them to this. Even worse than the demands can be the fears.

I recall one pastor who had been involved in pornography for several years and was terrified that if his board found out he would lose his job. When his guilt drove him to confess the problem to key officials, it all blew up and he got put on a leave of absence. That wasn’t the end either. After completing a three month recovery process, instead of allowing him to go back in the pulpit, they asked him to resign. He felt abandoned and betrayed.

If you fear losing your job, accountability may seem too threatening.

Related: Should a Pastor Be Fired for Viewing Pornography?

Accountability Requires Trustworthy Partners

The biggest excuse I hear from ministers is that they can’t find an accountability partner they can trust. This is why I often get involved. As a professional counselor I am perceived as a safe person to open up to. I don’t take this responsibility lightly. However, it highlights the special problem ministers have in accountability relationships. Whom can they really trust?

I wish I had an easy solution for this one. But since God knows we need accountability, you can take the need to him and expect him to provide.

Know this, however: when God sends an answer don’t be surprised if it doesn’t look like what you thought it would! Often the best accountability relationships are not the people we would naturally choose. Building the relationship may come with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. But that may also be exactly what we need most in our situation.

Accountability Is Not Just About Disclosure, But Discovery

In the generations since the Modesto Manifesto, accountability groups and relationships have become more common. I am glad. There is a danger, however. Accountability can be redefined and lose its focus. Accountability requires confession of sin. But that isn’t enough.

Though accountability demands disclosure, it also demands discovery. Sometimes accountability relationships get stuck in patterns of excuse-making and rationalization. Defeat and repeated activity may result. We all need a listening ear and non-judgmental partner. But we also need someone who will love us enough to challenge us if we are stuck.

Accountability Can Be Messy

Finally, because accountability involves relationships and sinful temptations, it can be messy.  If you are an accountability partner, you may find yourself in awkward or complicated situations. As a counselor I sometimes learn details about a client’s addiction I wish I didn’t know. I had one who was involved in criminal sexual activity. As a licensed professional I had a legal obligation to report it. I wrestled with my legal and moral obligations for a long time before I knew what to do. What finally pushed me to report (which I should have done much sooner) was when I heard that my client was picked up by the police days before on misconduct charges.

Even if an accountability partner is not legally obligated to report it, there is usually a moral obligation to do more than listen. That can mean getting our own hands dirty in conversations and relationships that take a lot of time and can be very stressful.

Beyond this, if I am the one admitting my struggles to another, what if my “trusted” partner betrays my trust? What if he shares confidential information with someone who should not have known? What if he reacts to my failure and makes me feel like dirt?

This is some of the messy part of accountability that can catch us off guard. However, I believe this very messiness becomes part of God’s larger purpose in our lives. If nothing else, it drives us to the “friend that sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).

Pastors Need Accountability Now More Than Ever

I had planned to conclude this article with a story about a high profile minister who failed to maintain sexual integrity and ended up in disgrace. The longer I spent looking for memorable examples, the more I found. In fact, it didn’t take long to be overwhelmed with too many—just from the last five years. Many of those would be names you know and stories still fresh in our minds. So, I decided against naming names.

Instead, I want to conclude with a few questions inspired by John Piper’s questionnaire. Rather than putting some famous name in the blank, how about putting your own?

  • Have I, [insert your name], been with or communicated to a man or woman in the past week in a way that could be viewed as compromising?
  • Have I thought about or looked at another person or image in the past week in a way that was sexually inappropriate?
  • If either answer is yes, what does God want me to do next?

[1] This is explained in his 2007 autobiography, Just As I Am, on page 127.

[2] More than 75% of ministers say they feel isolate and lonely. Statistics from these studies are found in many clergy websites, such as Ministering to Ministers Foundation and Pastoral Care Inc.