Accountability vs. Encouragement: Do We Have The Right Mix?

Most of us are trying to change something about ourselves. Maybe we’re trying to lose the weight, eat a healthier diet, begin or stick to an exercise program, or all of the above. In addition, Christians may be trying to follow Jesus and be better disciples. They might be working on praying and reading scripture more, or being kinder and more compassionate in relationships, or any of a number of other steps to cooperate with the Holy Spirit.

But it is hard to change, isn’t it? Trying to put off the old and put on the new takes effort and persistence. It also often takes help – help from the Holy Spirit and help from our friends. Accountability and encouragement are two “flavors” of the assistance that we may provide to one another.  I think a lot about encouragement, but I hear a lot about accountability.

Maybe it’s just me, but in Christian circles it seems there’s lot more talk about an individual’s need for accountability than for encouragement.  It’s true that people can be helped by being held accountable or responsible for their  behaviors, by experiencing  consequences of their actions. I’m not against the concept, but sometimes it sounds like we’re supposed to develop a church police standing ready to catch us in our failures. And we all fail.  Overzealous “accountability” can morph into legalism and judgmentalism, which may drive individuals away from making hard changes. Even well-meant accountability conversations can be perceived as criticism and judgment. We need to be careful about that.

Ultimately we are accountable to Jesus for all of our choices, and we often do experience the consequences of our behavior without any intervention of our Christian brothers and sisters. From a health standpoint, many are reaping the negative consequences of their sedentary, overindulgent lifestyles. Will calls for more “accountability” necessarily help them? I’m not so sure.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t be too quick to rescue individuals from the consequences of their behavior. Done once or twice, in love, with wise counsel and help to change, this may be compassionate and merciful. Done repeatedly, it’s “enabling.” The parents who repeatedly bails their child out of legal or financial trouble enables the child to continue the same unproductive behaviors.  A common example in healthcare is insurance coverage that subsidizes the negative financial consequences of unhealthy habits.

So accountability has to be done just right. We don’t want too much or too little, and we had better deliver it in a loving and compassionate manner. Our brothers and sisters need to feel the love before feeling the accountability. As Jesus said, let’s make sure that we have the logs out of our own eyes before we get the tweezers out to remove the splinters of others.

Now encouragement is a whole different matter. Who among us wouldn’t like more support? Getting to your goal is a whole lot easier with friends cheering when you win and consoling you in failure. Is there such a thing as “too much” emotional support? I don’t think so, and I think most people could use a lot more than they’re getting. I know I could.

What’s the right mix of these two? A Google search for “Christian” with “Accountability” yields nearly 11 million results while “Christian” with “encouragement” yields about 15 million. That’s about a 3:2 ratio of encouragement to accountability. Is that what we’re actually doing, or just writing about? And what do we actually need?

Probably everyone has heard that it takes multiple positive comments to overcome one negative one. Some research from the world of business suggests that for improving team performance a 5:1 to 6:1 ratio of praise or positive comments to criticism or negative feedback is optimal. Other studies suggest that marriages do better with similar ratios.

Examine your own experience. How much does negative feedback, perceived criticism or mistimed accountability set you back? And how much are you helped by encouragement? I believe that many individuals with established emotional and spiritual problems (for example a deeply ingrained sense of worthlessness or failure) need as much support as we can offer, and may be devastated by small amounts of perceived criticism.

We probably don’t need an exact ratio to guide our actions. God gave us common sense and we can always ask him for guidance. I can’t see any harm in “too much” sincere encouragement, but I understand the sting of misapplied or misunderstood accountability. So I’m trying to use accountability in love and only when I think it will help, or when I need to stop being an enabler. It can be a fine line.   My goal is to encourage always, pray, and let the Holy Spirit decide if anything else is required.

Who gives you encouragement?  Who can you encourage today?