A friend of mine has been working for a large national Catholic apostolate for a number of years. He shared with me his appreciation for one aspect of the apostolate’s culture: accountability. Everyone in the organization has a mentor and most everyone is a mentor to someone else. This means that – in addition to his boss – there is someone to whom he is accountable for his discipleship. His mentor is someone he meets with regularly to talk about how he is doing as a Catholic. And after having been there for a year, he became a mentor to a junior employee. For this man, it gave him the distinct impression that it was not only his performance that the organization was concerned about. They also cared about how he was growing in his commitment to follow Christ.
Accountability is an indispensable aspect of discipleship for a variety of reasons. When we are not held accountable by someone else, it requires heroic effort to consistently do what we need to be doing. Our fallen human nature makes it easy for us to cut corners, give excuses for our bad behavior, and become sloppy in every area of our life, not least in our discipleship. Accountability requires us to humble ourselves and own up to our faults before another person. Only the holiest of the holy can persevere without accountability.
Anyone who has tried to chart a new course in their life understands this. From starting a diet or exercise routine, to reading more consistently, to breaking the habit of pornography, being accountable to someone else can often be the difference between success and failure. This is why apps that count your steps or calories, book clubs and competitions, and software such as Covenant Eyes are so popular. They help us do things we want to do but in our weakness we struggle to accomplish.
When you and I want to grow in our discipleship, we should look to ways to hold ourselves accountable in this area as well. Growing as a disciple – as a faithful Catholic who desires to be closer to Jesus – requires support. Turning away from sin, building the habit of a prayer life, regularly receiving the sacraments, knowing our faith better, and incorporating our discipleship into our lives is not easy. The path is fraught with challenges, and we have a real enemy who wants nothing more than to see us get discouraged and give up. But Christ gives us the victory in and through his Church. If only we receive these gifts.
No matter where we are on our spiritual journey, accountability is essential for success. But to whom should we be accountable? It is good to have someone who is not your boss. There are lots of reasons why it can be problematic to mix this relationship; we see the wisdom of the Church in giving the rule for seminary formation that a spiritual director for a candidate for priesthood cannot be part of the team which recommends him for ordination. But it is important to have someone who knows you, is a committed Catholic, and has permission to call you out on the areas where you want to grow. This can be a priest, religious sister or brother, co-worker, or a peer in ministry. It can be a lifelong friend or someone you have more recently met. But they have to know you. For most of us, it can be done in a small group setting, where there is mutual accountability to the goals of the group.
Being accountable to someone means that you share with them the area or areas where you want to grow. It means that this person understands the why and the how of what you are looking for. Therefore, he or she has to be a committed Catholic. Myriad are the ways for self-improvement or learning best practices, but discipleship is about growing closer to Jesus, and this means that grace has to drive. Accountability in discipleship only works for someone who knows the power of God’s grace. But because God chooses to work with our cooperation, it also means learning and exercising new habits. It is crucial to have someone who has permission to challenge you – in love – to give yourself more fully to Christ.
You want to grow closer to Jesus. This is done through prayer, repentance and penance, community, the sacraments, and inviting Jesus into your everyday life. These areas should be the focus of accountability. It is important to set goals – realistic but challenging goals – for your growth. Too often we are striving for something nebulous or ethereal and we find ourselves frustrated when we cannot obtain it. God works in the concrete of our lives – this is the backbone of the Incarnation – so set concrete goals.
If you have been slacking in your prayer life, set a prayer goal of 30 minutes of uninterrupted prayer daily. If you struggle with the sacrament of Confession, set a goal of going to the sacrament every month for one year. If you have an area of sin in your life you want to conquer: name it, and write down what victory looks like. Create a plan for this success and share it with your accountability friend or small group. Challenge yourself with some action by which to bring Jesus into your life each day, and be willing to be held accountable for it.
Join. A. Small. Group. There is no better way to be accountable than in community with people who know you and whom, in turn, you know. In the new year, the Department of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship will provide lots of resources for you and your parish to develop small groups – but you do not have to wait until then. Invite a couple of friends to meet weekly to read the Sunday readings, to pray the rosary together, or to go to Mass together one day during the week. Spend time together sharing what challenges and blessings you have in your life, and pray with and for each other. Challenge each other to find one way to want to grow in your life and check in on each other. It is simple, but it requires someone to take the first step.
Now! There is no time like the present. Recently, we celebrated St. Matthew’s feast day. He was called by Jesus to “follow me” in the midst of his work. If you are waiting for a better time to grow in your faith, you will be waiting forever. Too many people put off Jesus’ call to become his disciples. For those of us who have already answered it, we still need periodic “bursts” to dive more deeply into our relationship with him. If you want to grow as a disciple these days, pray about where you need to grow, and find the person or people who will hold you accountable.