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Why Christian Accountability Groups Are Awkward, Unhelpful, and Often Fail

Last Updated: June 22, 2021

Traylor Lovvorn
Traylor Lovvorn

Traylor Lovvorn facilitates a weekly recovery group at his church for men wrestling with addiction to pornography and/or sex. He contributes regularly to LifeWay’s Stand Firm devotional magazine for men. Tray is also the "Chief Ragamuffin" of Route1520, a resourcing ministry for churches looking to combat pornography and sexual temptation and addiction.

My First Accountability Group

I remember my first accountability group well. Unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons! I bet many of you can relate.

The church I attended during the mid-90s had just held a men’s conference and strongly encouraged all of the men to sign up for an accountability group where we could be gut-level honest with its other members. I was selected as a leader and remember wondering to myself how I was going to pull off leading a group of guys toward honesty and transparency without being honest and transparent myself.

I had done a great job meticulously managing my reputation and I wasn’t about to blow it by being honest now.

The church assigned five of the conference attendees to my accountability group, and we met about two weeks later at a local coffee shop.

I knew most of the guys only in passing and our first accountability group meeting was pretty awkward. All of us had deep dark secrets and feared just how honest we were going to be required to be. I spent most of the first meeting covering logistical information about the group: when we would meet, where we would meet, and what material we would be going through.

Then I pulled out the questions.

This Is Accountability?

If you have ever been a part of a men’s accountability group, you know exactly what questions I am referring to. The ones that start with “Have you spent time with God every day this week?” and always end with “Have you been truthful in answering all of these questions?”

Our meeting went from awkward to downright uncomfortable.

Every list of questions I have ever seen that were written to be used in this context deal with intimate matters of the heart. Questions about personal finances, lustful thoughts, integrity, spiritual growth, and our relationship with our spouse.

Asking these personal questions outside the context of an intimate, trusting relationship most often leads to manipulation and legalistic, moral policing of another’s behavior rather than to a deeper walk with Jesus.

Our attempt at accountability felt awkward and contrived.

My accountability group lasted about six months as one-by-one the guys gradually quit coming.

Most men’s accountability groups sprang up out of the Promise Keepers movement of the early 90s. Promise #2 of Promise Keepers is:

A Promise Keeper is committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.

So how did the admonishment to “pursue vital relationships with other men” get dumbed down to meeting with other men and asking a series of probing questions about behavior? Have you ever wondered why women have fellowship groups and men have accountability groups? I’m not sure I have ever even heard of an accountability group for women.

I think the answer lies in the fact that as men, we tend to be very formulaic in our approach to life. We need a way to keep score. When we hear “pursue vital relationships with other men” and have no real experience at connecting at an emotional level with others, the best we can come up with is a list of questions to help keep our behavior in check.

Googling “Christian accountability,” I uncovered hundreds of articles that gave Biblical evidence of the need for men’s accountability. Taking a closer look at the verses that each article referenced, I realized that most of the verses were calling us to fellowship and genuine community, not accountability.

Biblical Accountability Is the Way

So is accountability not important? Of course it is. But true, Biblical accountability is a by-product of genuine, transparent community. It was never intended to be “stand-alone.”

Accountability that is not grace-centered and that is done outside the context of authentic community will always seek to serve the legalistic Pharisee in us all.

We must come together and connect at our weaknesses and not spend time and energy trying to impress others with our strengths.

We must look for opportunities to call each other UP to who we were meant to be in Christ and not call each other OUT for our shortcomings.

My propensity to hide and isolate is in direct proportion to how much I struggle to believe the Gospel. When I’m not believing the Gospel, my focus shifts back to me and my need to pretend I am better than I am [read that again–because it applies to all of us!].

But actively engaging men who know me as I really am and not as I would like to be provides an environment where my secrets are exposed. This is more in line with the “vital relationships” mentioned in Promise Keepers’ second promise. When we do this, God uses community in our lives to bubble up our own sin. The closer and more intimate we are in relation to others, the harder it becomes for us to appear to have it all together.

Which gets at the heart of why most of us don’t have genuine, authentic community—we don’t want to be exposed.  The reason we don’t want to be exposed is because at our core,  we don’t believe God loves us exactly as we are.

Luke Gilkerson, in his fantastic e-book Your Brain on Porn, emphasizes the vital importance of engaging in authentic community as we seek to successfully avoid pornography and other forms of sexual sin. Luke distinguishes what he calls “responsive accountability” that is motivated by love from the moral policing that often accompanies men’s accountability groups.

So what about you? Are you attempting to do “stand-alone” accountability in your life? How has that worked? In what ways do you shy away from genuine, transparent community and why? If you have a group, have you taken the vital step to also protect yourself when you’re not with your group? I rely on Covenant Eyes, and you should too [sign up today!].

  • Comments on: Why Christian Accountability Groups Are Awkward, Unhelpful, and Often Fail
    1. David Graves

      Thanks for sharing Tray. I can relate to try to manage a reputation or better yet, what people thought of me. Until my world unraveling and I found truth and true gospel in the fire, I was hiding. To anyone holding secrets I would simply say, “let it break.” In the undoing of lies, shadows, and secrets comes a freedom of community and gospel that we long for. I love that I am justified only through Christ and that my standing is firmly rooted there. Knowing this, I can confront moralism and behaviorilism in my own life that is offensive to the gospel. Thank you for being part of that journey.

      • Thanks for your comment, David. The paradox, as you know, is that when we are drowning in our secrets and double life, it feels like we will die if the secret ever gets out. Once it does, only then do we see that God uses it as part of the deep healing He wants to bring about. My prayer is that men and women who need to surrender will have the courage to do so…even in the midst of pain.

        Thank you for the courage that you display on a regular basis, brother! I’m blessed to have you as part of my authentic community!


      • Luke Gilkerson

        I think, in general, as long as we understand “accountability” as something more than being accountable for specific kinds of sins, then we fair far better. When accountability partners set the expectation that they are accountable to one another for their temptations, sins, and the state of their heart (in the broadest possible sense), this drives partners not only to a depth of conversation but to all the rich resources of the gospel.

    2. (Sigh) I wish my ex-husband would read this article is he still struggling with his porn addiction but unlike others, he still thinks he can overcome it threw himself mixed with a little prayer. Naturally, he’s failing miserably.

      • Most of us do think we can handle things on our own, Dee. The shame is so great that we can’t imagine someone else knowing the exact nature of our sin. God is writing your ex-husband’s story!

    3. sam

      I agree, if we weren’t so divided by computer mediated communication in the first place porn wouldn’t be so fife in our lives and we’d have a better grasp of TRUE HUMAN community.

      • Larry

        I agree with you. It’s become part of our culture. I don’t think that true Christian community can be found in social media. Often it is just a reflection of our successful or happy selves. Email often brings out the worst in people as well. Christians can fall victim to writing and sending something via email when they should wait an hour or a day.

    4. Mark

      I am now heterosexual, in a committed covenantal, Biblical marriage. I was a homosexual for twenty-five years before marriage and was celibate with women for twenty-one years before marriage. However, I occaisionally have have residual, purient curiosity regarding male sexuality in the form of lust.

      My accountability partner is considering paying a new subscription to Covenant Eyes for me. He knows my purient curiosity regarding male sexuality only and not the nature of my lust.

      Should I let him pay the subscription and not mention the nature of the lust? This is looked at differently from heterosexual lust in a fundamentalist congregation. I fear being ostracized and shunned from my men’s small group in that “intimate” setting.

      • Thanks for your reply, Mark! Many of the men in our community struggle with unwanted same sex attraction and deal with the deeper shame that goes along with it. You are doing a great job in naming your fear of being ostracized by your small group and that is very valid. But the genuine community that you long for is for guys to love you and accept you warts and all. By keeping the nature of your struggle from these guys due to your fear, you are hindering community at some level in that you are withholding information about who you really are. It could be that others in your group are also withholding secrets about themselves and, after witnessing your courage to be honest, decide the group is also safe enough for them to be honest.

        I again want to validate your fears, however. Two excellent blog posts that speak to the specifics of same-sex attraction and recovery can be found below. I encourage you to read them and pray through what it looks like to disclose your specific struggle to one or all of your small group.

        Unwanted Same Sex Attraction and What Men Really Need

        Recovery and Same-Sex Attraction (SSA)

      • Thank you Mark for your brave honesty and transparency. I participate in a 12-step group for those of us who struggle with lust, porn, and a multitude of sexual acting out behaviors, as well as a church accountability group. Knowing what I know about my own past deviant sexual behavior has given me so much compassion and empathy for my fellow foxhole brothers.

        When someone, both inside and outside the church, shares with me that they struggle with same-sex attraction, underage porn, voyeurism, exhibitionism, or the vast myriad of other “Unthinkables” I sincerely have such respect for them, because I know how hard it is to finally come out of the shadows, confess it and ask for help. In my heart I want only to help them, support them, and join with them in experiencing God’s healing (Jn 3:19-21).

        When, full of tears, I finally revealed my own garbage and wreckage of the past with others in the group, which cost me my first marriage of 14years, I was astonished at the level of compassionate emotion, sincere support, and acceptance received. I wasn’t shunned. I wasn’t ostracized. I was welcomed home.

        I have realized, Mark, that I am not a bad person. But that I am a good person, created in God’s image, whose strayed and done some bad things. Sharing the “Real” truth of who I am on the inside, not what I want the world to see, has opened my world to God’s love and mercy, and the reality that others will love and accept me even though I walked with the enemy far too long.

        Some may judge. Some may condemn. Some may even distance themselves. But some, maybe even most, will love you all the more. I believe what Tray says is true, that by you sharing the challenges you experience, others will be empowered to reveal their own. Prepare yourself to be blown away…and supported. I believe Christ supports the wayward, and most believers are earnestly striving to do the same.

        Starting small by sharing with just this one friend is a great start. God knows too that we need to take baby steps in order to trust Him and others more.

        Thanks for being an honest broken believer on the road to recovery and redemption.

      • Mark, I lead a mens purity group and I understand your concern with disclosure. In general, society perceives that some sins are less forgivable than others. We know that we have all sinned and need grace and forgiveness. You may want to look for a group that specifically addresses sexual addiction. Those groups should understand the trust, confidentiality, and grace needed. When joining one of those groups you are joining a group of men that have reached the point of confession and are sharing their issues with others that are in the same place. If the person you are sharing with has not walked down this road themselves, it may be hard for them to understand. I have men in my group from the full range of sexual sins. The specifics may be different but the road to recovery is the same for all of us.

        May God bless you in your journey.

    5. Thanks! Great Article. At Clergy Recovery Network we work with pastors who wrestle with all manner of sexual sin. I could not agree more with an article! We need honest, vulnerable conversation with safe men “in community”. We have discovered this kind of safety and honest vulnerability is unusual indeed when pastors are in accountability groups. Setting up “accountability groups” for pastors makes churches feel safer when they are not and I fear too often just sets the pastor up to create a greater gap between his integrity and secret life by being “forced” to lie. If a pastor talks openly in answering a specific list of questions his job is on the line. His fear and shame tend to overcome his need to tell his secrets. If one can lie to a spouse he can lie to a group.Recovery groups on the other hand assume everyone in the group struggles, there are no hall monitors, there is real confidentiality and no ones job is on the line. To have real honesty in a group setting I must not only trust the grace of God and “Good News” of the Gospel, I must trust the OTHERS in the group to respond to my sin with grace, confidentiality, and gospel. Lots of pastors have figured out God loves them unconditionally but few believe this to be true of those on their boards or in their congregations. Most of the pastors and missionaries who come to us while struggling with sexual sin are in accountability groups.

      • Luke Gilkerson

        Thanks for visiting our blog, Dale. We love the work you do!

      • Great points, Dale! Appreciate the work that you do, brother!

    6. >> Asking these personal questions outside the context of an intimate, trusting relationship most often leads to manipulation and legalistic, moral policing of another’s behavior rather than to a deeper walk with Jesus.

      Which is why men need to learn to develop intimate, trusting relationships. If men quit rather than go through the effort of making this happen, they’ll never get anywhere. Any group of reasonable mature males can develop this, even if they don’t know each other well beforehand, but its not something that men in our culture are taught to value.

    7. Excellent article . . . and so true. Authentic community is almost always ‘just around the corner’ for men. In general, it seems scary, intimidating, and for some, weirdly inappropriate to pursue. It’s also one of the greatest ingredients for long-term and well balanced discipleship and growth for the believer. Lord help us (and me) to press forward toward genuine long-lasting friendships with other men!

    8. Mike Rush

      This is a great start to the discussion the church so desperately needs about transparency and honesty. I have been a Christian since I was a kid, but was arrested about 80 days ago for acting out. My wife and I have learned that the Church has no hospitals because it shoots it’s wounded! The contemporary church, sadly, is caught in a culture of denial. It is most easily explained by the “I’ll pretend you’re okay, if you’ll pretend I’m okay.” When I was arrested, I broke the code of silence. No one could ever pretend I was okay, and I think they were terrified to be in my presence because, not being okay, I’m sure they were fearful I wouldn’t pretend they were okay. I mean, a loose cannon like me could just up and ask in Sunday school, “how many of you guys gratified yourself in the shower this morning?”

      If our blessed church, the collection of believers Christ died for and loves better than the best husband ever loved his wife, could just quit pretending that we are all okay and opened the doors to let in the rush of the Spirit breeze of honesty, we’d begin the process of being broken enough to get healed. We don’t need a revival in our churches, we need a revolution. There is so much the Word instructs that we just don’t give a care about. Confessing our sins to each other, confronting the brother caught in sin, forgiving like Jesus forgives, and so many more. I suppose sexual healing among Christians will have to wait for the revolution as well. How blessed that day will be when people who have never sinned sexually can hear the confession of a sexual sinner and make no more judgement or recoil no more than a fellow addict would. Jesus, bring the day to us as soon as you can!

    9. Tim Webb

      Hello, I’ve read the chapters on small groups / accountability groups in your book. I have a question about a recent blog post I read by pastor Tullian Tchividjian, where he called accountability groups a “Barrier to Honesty” (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2012/09/24/a-barrier-to-honesty/). Could you perhaps consider making a blog post that responds to the issues that pastor Tullian makes about such groups? That would really help me. Thanks, Tim

    10. Hey Tim!

      I think the crux of Tullian’s post on accountability groups can be summed up by this statement…

      “The tragic irony in all of this is that when we focus so strongly on our need to get better, we actually get worse.”

      The points he makes about accountability groups that flow out of the behavior modification paradigm instead of deeper surrender to the Gospel are right on. In our groups, we use the metaphor of a tree where each branch represents a type of sexual sin. Rather than trying to find sharper saws to remove branches of behavior, we help men bring the Gospel to the deep, root issues and wounds that are driving the behavior.

      Unfortunately, when we are trapped in the performance paradigm that is so focused on behavior, we construct all kinds of unhealthy masks to hide what is really true about ourselves. Thankfully, the truth of the Gospel—that in Christ we are loved for who we are and not what we do—frees us to remove our masks and to boldly enter genuine community with fellow strugglers.

      God bless!

    11. Tim Webb

      Traylor, thanks for the response. I noticed the difference you mentioned in “Porn-Free Church” (which is what I meant when I said “your” book, but it’s really a collection of articles)… chapter 8 is pretty much just a pragmatic / rational argument about how men can get together with little or no mention of the Gospel, but chapter 9 I felt was very gospel centered.

      Thanks! Tim

      • Luke Gilkerson

        Hi Tim. The book was not meant to be taken as merely a collection of article, but as carefully compiled resources, each stressing a different emphasis. David Dusek’s chapter (chapter 8) was written with a very pragmatic focus in mind, and he wrote it knowing about the rest of the content. Similarly, my chapter (chapter 9) was added primarily to bring a gospel-centered perspective to friendships. Those chapters were grouped together in order to offer both pragmatic approaches to community structures and a biblical vision for friendship.

    12. I agree that accountability that is legalistic, forced and not done in safe and supportive environment is doomed to fail. I see three main types of accountability. Cop accountability which is similar to what you describe here where the cop takes a “gotcha!” legalistic approach to the person being held accountability. There is also coach accountability where the coach tries to be very positive and encouraging and finally there is cardiac accountability where the person gets to heart level issues and matters with the person being held accountable. This gets at the underlying things that manifest with symptoms of acting out (porn, masturbation, affairs, etc.) The key with accountability is not just focusing on the symptoms which is how the person acted out (cop and coach) but to get to the underlying root issues or causes that were behind the acting out (cardiac). Check out some helpful men’s accountability group resources at: http://www.mymensgroup.net/accountability-resources.html which includes the excerpt that describes the three types of accountability that I mention above.

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