Churches without leadership accountability have a one-way ticket to organizational implosion. This isn’t an overstatement. It’s the truth. When pastors lack effective accountability, eventually the ministry will fail. That’s why leadership culture is one of the components we assess in our Church Ministry Analysis process.
This doesn’t always mean a moral failure. Low accountability cultures lead to outcomes like gross mismanagement, high staff and volunteer turnover, high member attrition, or fiscal insolvency.
Let’s be honest. No church is bragging about a lack of accountability. In fact, I would venture a guess that most churches assume there’s no gap in leadership accountability. But the vast majority of churches only pay lip service to genuine accountability, even if it is unintentional.
The root of this gap is in the misconceptions and myths that surround leadership accountability.
Before we dive into the five myths of leadership accountability, let’s do a brief self-assessment. How can you know if your church has a low leadership accountability culture?
Church Leadership Accountability Self-Assessment
Rate your church honestly using this scale: 4 (true), 3 (somewhat true), 2 (somewhat false), 1 (false). Note, I’m using the term “board,” but you should substitute the term with whatever term is relevant in your context (elder, deacon, session, council, etc).
1) The senior pastor heavily influenced the selection of board members.
2) The senior pastor is the only staff member with a regular and consistent voice to the board.
3) The senior pastor sets the agenda for ministry and the board more or less rubber stamps the agenda.
4) The staff forms the budget and the board gives little to no input on the budget making process.
5) Board members are rarely visible to the outside congregation; regular attenders may or may not even know the names of the board members.
6) There are no clear job descriptions for board members outside of attending meetings.
7) Board members rarely interact with staff, meet with staff, or give input and insight into ministry.
8) The senior pastor does not receive an annual performance review from the board.
9) The senior pastor makes autonomous or semi-autonomous personnel decisions.
10) The decision making process lacks transparency to staff and/or the congregation.
If you found yourself giving your church more 3’s and 4’s than 2’s and 1’s, your church lacks a healthy leadership accountability culture. And I have to say it again, a toxic leadership culture is devastatingly common. The evidence is all around.
Most of us would point to high-profile downfalls as evidence of poor leadership accountability; it’s fair to do so.
But I think the more relevant data are the statistics and anecdotal evidence suggesting that thousands of pastors are dropping out or failing out of ministry every single year. Their stories won’t show up on Christianity Today or pop up on your Twitter feed. But you know the stories. Maybe you’ve even lived it.
If we can bust some of these myths, perhaps we can foster a renewed culture of healthy accountability. And by doing so, we might see leaders mature, grow, and maximize their gospel impact–and not failing out or dropping out.
Here are five common leadership accountability myths we’re going to debunk:
1. Myth: A good organizational chart is the same as high accountability culture.
Reality: Just because you have people in key positions, doesn’t mean they are effectively providing accountability.
Nearly every church has some sort of governing body: an advisory team, elders, deacons, session, spiritual council, etc. The first myth is that you have leadership accountability just because you have a governing body.
Unless the governing body is actually providing oversight, providing care, and offering Spirit-led guidance, the church still lacks leadership accountability. In fact, this is often the case: pastors assume that the appearance of accountability meets the minimum requirements. This is simply untrue. True leadership accountability requires not just a full organizational chart, but a governing body that is empowered and qualified to lead leaders in grace and truth.
2. Myth: Leadership accountability results in an organizational bottleneck.
Reality: Accountability is not the enemy of efficiency.
Some leaders fear accountability because they think that it will slow down the decision-making process, or associate accountability with bureaucracy. This is understandable because churches love red tape.
So why is this a myth? Because the problem is not leadership accountability but inefficiency. Church teams that have a culture with high-trust and high-focus on goals can still maintain high-accountability without a bottleneck. In fact, a lack of leadership accountability is usually the source of a bottleneck. If people are not allowed to ask questions or a decision-making process isn’t transparent, leaders will eventually find themselves surrounded by a lot more squeaky wheels.
3. Myth: Subordinates cannot provide accountability.
Reality: Subordinates provide a different type of leadership accountability, but equally important.
A common reason why church boards do not intervene in toxic staff situations until something drastic happens is that the only voice that is heard by the board is the pastor. The pastor reports to the board all of the things he wants to and leaves out any details that might cast himself or the church in a negative light. It’s only human nature.
Perhaps outside of a yearly report or special occasion, most staff never get the chance to speak openly with board members—because no bridge is ever built to them. The thinking is that it wouldn’t be appropriate, or perhaps it’s a liability. However, a leader is only as effective as the people who are following him. Senior pastors rarely receive performance reviews, and if they do, they rarely include input from subordinates. This is a mistake.
Those who serve under a leader generally have a clearer view of a leader’s strengths and weaknesses; good leadership accountability asks for the input of lower-level staff.
4. Myth: Accountability should make leaders feel nervous.
Reality: Increased frequency of feedback builds trust and lowers fear.
Many pastors avoid leadership accountability because they fear criticism or maybe discipline. They (wrongly) assume that a brighter light on their leadership would bring undue scrutiny and unfair criticism. Accountability should bring a healthy fear but also welcome support. Many times, pastors are forced into a two-dimensional puppet who is charged with bringing “vision” and “the Word” each week but isn’t allowed to be a human being.
Leadership accountability empowers pastors to be themselves, flaws and all. Consistent light allows for small course corrections; massive moral failings tend to happen in the dark.
5. Myth: Leadership accountability is just to protect against “big” moral failure.
Reality: Accountability doesn’t just prevent big failure, it makes even small things better.
We’ve spoken a lot about how a lack of leadership accountability creates the perfect environment for a major moral failure. That much is true. But good accountability is not there just to prevent the worst possible scenario. The statistics about pastors and issues such as loneliness and burnout are staggering. The daunting reality of carrying the leadership burden of a church can feel insurmountable.
By inviting a better culture of leadership accountability to grow, pastors will experience relief. They’ll be able to share the load. They’ll receive guidance and direction on big things and small things. And most importantly, they’ll remember that Jesus Christ is the true senior pastor—and they do not have to walk the leadership pathway alone.
Leadership accountability is critical.
The first step to building a healthy culture of leadership accountability is to debunk the myths and break free from the fears you have about accountability.
Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).