The Difference Between Accountability and Shaming

“Can you help me?”

Those four words have the power to transform our lives. We’ve all uttered these four words at moments in the past.

In the days before GPS, I can remember my dad stopping at a gas station because we were lost (I know! It’s a miracle for a man to stop and ask for directions).

I was in the gym a couple months ago when a guy tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to spot him on the bench.

One of my friends stepped in my office recently and closed the door. He needed ideas about how to address a problem on his team.

My wife recently asked me to make her get out of bed to work out when the alarm goes off.

Those four words—can you help me—have the power to change our lives. The moment where our desire for change overcomes our insecurity about asking for help is the moment we discover a new sense of personal momentum.

For many of us, we will not be able to make the changes we aspire to embrace without external help or accountability.

In the dictionary, accountability is defined as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”

The word “accountability” has a lot of baggage for some of us. When I dig into the hesitation my friends have about accountability, especially in a church context, I discover a history which includes accountability being forced on them by someone else. They became accountable against their will. A figure in their life said something like “I’m going to hold you accountable” or “you really need someone to hold you accountable.” Because of this history, accountability becomes a trigger word to trauma or even abuse. Accordingly, my friends run from it and miss out on accountability’s benefits.

I can remember the accountability conversations I had in college Bible studies. Guys would share about “their struggles” or how they’d failed to be pure the previous week. Sometimes, they’d get a pass and other times, they’d get shamed or a verbal “slap on the wrist.” But rarely did we experience true honesty, much less lasting change.

More recently, I’ve made a significant discovery. I realized the secret to a healthy kind of accountability.

True accountability can never be imposed; it can only be invited.

True accountability is something we submit to willingly, not something we’re forced to accept begrudgingly. If accountability will help change anything about us internally or externally, our hearts must be open to the input and authority of the person(s) who now hold power within our lives.

An Accountability Process

I believe asking four key questions leads us to healthy accountability, which can help us make changes we have been unable to experience before now.

1. What do I want?

We need to be clear about our desires and ambitions. While it might seem easy to identify our desires, it is often harder than it looks.

In my life, two areas where I found myself continually frustrated in the last couple years were inconsistency in writing and praying. I stopped writing for months in 2014 and my prayer time was like a roller coaster in 2014 and 2015 (high highs and low lows). I was tired of wasting my writing gift and I was ready for something more than an intermittent prayer habit.

In your life, what do you want that is currently absent? Or what is currently present but inadequate? What would like to see be different in six months or a year? Answering this question first will help identify where you want to invite accountability to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

2. What is missing?

Once you know what you want, you’ll need to lean into your frustration or dissatisfaction to discover what’s missing. Ask people close to you what you commonly complain or vent about. If you don’t know what’s missing, my guess is those around you do.

For me, I didn’t feel any pain or loss if I didn’t write regularly. No one was disappointed (to my knowledge) when I didn’t publish new words. No one knew how irregular my prayer time was as a pastor. I missed the satisfaction of sharing my words with the world and seeing them impact others. I missed the sense of connection I had with God through regular prayer.

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3. Who do I trust?

Becoming accountable to someone is a powerful, scary thing. We’re becoming vulnerable and exposed to that person. We are preparing to share with them the opportunity to either support or hurt us.

I became accountable to my subscribers for writing regularly. I promised hundreds of people I would show up with new content each week. As someone who values responsibility and integrity, this public promise became my accountability. In terms of prayer, I began praying with a friend five mornings a week over the phone. My friend had permission to call me each morning and ask me about my life, for the purpose of praying together daily.

Accountability that is imposed, not invited, runs the danger of wounding rather than healing. Accountability that is invited from someone we trust has the power to transform and empower growth.

4. What am I giving them authority to do?

It is imperative that we be very clear about what we want to be accountable to do. Boundaries are a healthy component of every relationship, especially within relationships that are defined by an accountability agreement. Some people might be nervous by the invitation to accountability, so clarity in expectations can help dial down the fear and anxiety.

By promising my readers new content each week, I’m giving them the authority to call me out when I don’t deliver an email to their inbox each Tuesday. By promising my buddy that we’ll talk each morning, I’m giving him the authority to call me back at lunch time or text me later in the day if I’m unavailable during the window of time we’ve set aside.

Once you’ve identified what you want, what’s missing and who you trust, all that’s left is to make an ask. “Will you hold me accountable to (action) every (date/time)?” If the person is smart and trustworthy, they’ll ask some follow up questions about how you’d like to hear from them if you fall short of your intention. They will also be timid to hold you accountable the first few times you break your promise, so take care in how you respond to their accountability. If you lash out at their attempts, you will likely find them to be weak in their commitment to you.

I don’t believe I’ve become consistent in prayer and writing solely because of my readers or my buddy Jimmy. But I do believe they’ve created the space within which I could do what I always wanted.

We all have places in our lives where we’re not yet where we want to be. We desire change and growth. And some of us will have the awareness to recognize we need external accountability to make that change reality. It’s not a sign of weakness to invite accountability; I believe it’s a sign of maturity and courage.

Where do you need accountability in your life?

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