Leading Without a Net

Tuesday Re-mix –

The only people who should work without a net are people who have something to prove about themselves.  Honestly, but for the entertainment value, I cannot think of any good reason to do it.  Nonetheless, as I consult with churches and their leaders, I encounter leader after leader working without the safety net of an accountability group.  In most cases these are bright, well-meaning ministers with lots of good things going for them.  But they will fall at some point (we all do) and that deafening silence they experience just before the sharp pain of rock bottom will be the complete absence of any support structure in their ministry life…and it will be their own fault, because they never pulled any accountability around them.

More times than not, the reason we don’t subject ourselves to accountability is that we do not like being questioned.  This is perhaps even more true when we are following a calling God has placed on our lives.  In that case, depending on how comfortable we are in our own skin, we are capable of interpreting every question as opposition (rather than as a helpful thing).  And we all know that, when we are doing God’s work, we must either ignore the opposition or steamroll right over it.  There are no other options, right?

“I’m not accountable to anybody but God.” Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard this come out of the mouths of more than one pastor.  It is silly enough that any of us would think these words to ourselves, but to actually say them out loud demonstrates an entirely new level of both arrogance and ignorance.  It is arrogant because it implies that I, as pastor, am wired differently than everyone else–that I am NOT wired for community like all of you ordinary people.  It is ignorant because it fails to see that the purpose of accountability in my ministry (and in my personal life) is not to limit me but to make me better.  And a Christian leader who thinks he or she doesn’t need anyone to help him or her be better is, well, working without a net.

I remember working with one church whose pastor had a moral failure.  It wasn’t a huge failure by the world’s standards.  It was an “emotional affair” between him and a church member which had developed through the course of counseling.  To the pastor’s credit, he recognized it before anyone else did and cut off the relationship.  He even made a full confession to his wife and to the other family involved.  At their request, he then confessed it to the church and offered his resignation.  I suppose there was a part of him which hoped that the church would not accept the resignation and that his job and his ministry would be restored.  After all, it was not a “physical” affair and he had made a full confession and was genuinely remorseful.  Some level of forgiveness should have been in order.  What he felt, however, was a complete absence of support of any kind.  No cards, no phone calls, no visits.  Nothing.  After more than a dozen years of pastoring that church, he had not developed any intimate relationships with accountability partners who would love him unconditionally and who would walk with him through any trial.  In the end, he was alone.

If I had met this pastor a year earlier, I strongly suspect he would have told me he didn’t need a safety net, because he was not going to fall.  Or maybe he would have told me that he didn’t think it was wise to have close relationships with anyone in his church.  Or maybe he would have told me that the only accountability partner he needed was God.  Or maybe he would have agreed that he needed accountability, and that he would start thinking about putting it in place someday soon.  The irony is, any of these speculations might have been true, but the outcome was the same.

So, for my pastor/church leader friends,  here is the pointed question: How insecure must I be, how deep must my own issues run, in order to choose to lead without a net?

© Blake Coffee


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3 responses to “Leading Without a Net”

  1. Awesome writing and so true. Pastors are not to think they are immune to innocent ‘traps’. We all need accountability from God, a good friend and most of all our ‘loved ones’ and even MORE from ourselves but sometimes we cannot see the fog when we are in it. Thank you.

  2. Satan works hard at attacking our leaders. He likes nothing better than for them to fail so all the world will know.
    We all desperately need accountability. We may not necessarily like it but needed anyway.
    Saying extra prayers for the leaders of our churches and ministries!
    Thanks, Blake! You are right on as usual!

  3. You are absolutely right – all pastors need an accountability safety net. In fact, it is dangerous to worship in any church that does not insist on it, because too many pastors are tempted to use their positions of power and trust to abuse vulnerable members of their congregations (like the case you described as an emotional affair – it is actually clergy sexual misconduct). Baylor University has published excellent research on this at:


    What they found in their nationwide survey directly supports and expands on your conclusion. Here are some of their specific findings:

    For Religious Leaders and Those Who Supervise Them:

    1. Religious leaders should not offer professional services beyond their qualifications. If they have not been educated as mental health professionals, they should not attempt to offer counseling or psychotherapy.

    2. Religious leaders who have been prepared as mental health professionals should not offer mental health services (counseling or psychotherapy) to persons whom they also serve in the role of pastor, priest, rabbi, religious teacher, or supervisor.

    3. Religious leaders should have accountability structures such as supervisors, peer groups, or congregational committees to whom they report on a regular basis. They should share with this group the nature of the relationships they are developing in the congregation, particularly the development of close friendships and family-like ties. The accountability structure should also have direct access to congregants’ assessments of the religious leader’s functioning.

    4. Religious leaders should never use private information given them by congregants for leaders’ own purposes.

    For Congregations:

    1. Educate members on the role of sexuality and power in relationships, studying religious texts and principles that relate to our sexuality and handling the power we have (whether as parents, teachers, employers, supervisors, and leaders) and how a community is responsible for its members who are vulnerable to the misuse of power.

    2. Educate members about the “normalcy bias” and the “norm of niceness,” and the kinds of situations in which we have experienced these disincentives to act, and appropriate responses.

    3. Adopt written codes of ethics and clear role expectations for leaders. Those expectations should include proscribing congregational leaders from serving in the dual role of professional counselor or therapist.

    4. Conduct thorough reference checks on potential leaders, including persons in previous congregations not selected as references by the leader.

    5. Provide accountability structures with regular reporting expectations.

    Another organization working to address this issue, The Hope of Survivors, provides excellent resources for pastors and church leaders (in addition to supporting abuse victims).