What are gracious accountability groups? How do they function?

July 17, 2017

Last time, we discussed why are gracious accountability groups important. We reference three of Jesus teachings in Matthew and how He and also John Wesley used this type of group to make disciples of Jesus – disciples that make disciples. This time we will discuss the “how” of gracious accountability groups – what are some useful models to consider (there are several) in designing groups for your church. Also, what are some ideas and reference books for you to consider in your decision making process. Definition First, let’s define gracious accountability discipleship groups in more detail:

  • Members hold each other graciously accountable to their walk with God, and to a jointly developed covenant that becomes the agenda for each meeting.
  • This covenant could be one of the following:
    • Wesley’s question: “How is it with your soul this week?” or a variation of that question
    • The General Rule of Discipleship: “To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow His teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
    • A covenant written by the group members themselves, tailored to their current needs in deepening their walk with God
    • Another developed covenant to be used as an agenda for this purpose, such as used by Emmaus Reunion groups
  • Group meetings could take the form of Wesley Class Meetings, Covenant Discipleship Groups, Emmaus Reunion Groups, or another format, as long as:
    • The purpose of the groups is to hold each other graciously accountable to a deepening relationship with God through specific acts and that become new Godly habits. While books may be a part of understanding the process, Accountability Groups are not book studies or Bible studies, but focus their discussions on the state of the participant’s souls.
  • Groups typically meet weekly.
So, to be clear, we are not talking about:
  • Bible study groups
  • Fellowship groups
  • Adult Sunday School classes
  • Or, groups that “check the box” in a mechanical way to make sure we have each done what we said we would do.
Not that the above groups are unimportant. They can and usually are valuable for faith development and fellowship. However, we are talking about groups that are deeply relational with each other, typically deeper than you could go in a one hour Sunday School class with more than a dozen members. People articulate how they would like the group to hold them accountable each week. They journey to the point of vulnerability. They hold each other’s vulnerable parts with tenderness and caring. And Jesus meets us there in a deep way, often a way that leads us to places we do not expect. Often you find that a gracious accountability group is able to go deeper than a study group because, over time, you can open up more to others. This leads members caring for each other in a holistic and holy way. This becomes a place where Jesus meets those gathered in His name. If we are willing to be vulnerable to our Savior, the Balm of Gilead, deep healing occurs. Models There are several successful models for you to consider as you choose how groups in your church might function. Class Meetings Class Meeting was Wesley’s term for the basic group of the early Methodist movement. It was laity led and had a powerful effect on the participants. The class leader checked in with clergy on a regular basis on how the group was proceeding. Each meeting may have had a song and a scripture reading, but the majority of the time together was in each person answering the question: How is it with you soul this week? In today’s language there are several other ways to ask the same question:
  • How is your walk with God this week?
  • How have you experienced God this week?
  • How has God engaged to? Or excited you?
  • How have you been disappointed or angry with God this week?
  • What are the prayers of your soul today?
  • Where do you want to experience God more deeply?
  • Where have you experience the Kingdom of God this week?
  • How has God dwelt with you this week?
  • What has God revealed this week?
  • What do you need to work on?
  • What is holding you back?
Reference: A great reference that could actually be a study guide in helping groups become comfortable with this format is: The Class Meeting by Kevin M. Watson. It has eight chapters with questions at the end of each chapter that gradually go deeper, ending in: “How is it with your soul this week?” This question becomes the group’s covenant and agenda for each week. Some have found it helpful to begin their meetings with a short song, perhaps from the Taizé tradition, as a transition from the busyness of the day to their centering time together. The group that I am currently a part of started with this covenant and after several months transitioned to a more specific one, the General Rule of Discipleship: “To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow His teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” So, our weekly agenda is focused on our acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion. Covenant Discipleship Groups Another model is Covenant Discipleship Groups, which differ in two main ways from Class Meetings. First, leadership rotates among all the members of the group. At the end of each meeting, the group confirms whose turn it is to lead the next meeting. Second, group members write their own covenant with a preamble, several clauses, and a conclusion. The clauses are organized in acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion. Reference: Gayle Watson Turner’s Guide for Covenant Discipleship Groups is a great reference for why these groups are important, how they work, and how to write your own covenant. Examples are included and a worksheet to help you get started. Also, two brochures to help your congregation understand these groups are available from Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, TN. Contact:  877-899-2780 or www.UMCdiscipleship.org
  • The United Methodist Rule of Life, which unpacks Wesley’s Three General Rules, and also states the General Rule of Discipleship mentioned in the Class Meeting section above
  • Covenant Discipleship Groups, which briefly discusses these groups
These groups can be the formation groups for Class Leaders in a congregation. Emmaus reunion groups Reunion groups that meet weekly, and discuss the questions on the card in the spirit of what we have been discussing here, are great examples of gracious accountability. For more information about Emmaus groups, go to: http://emmaus.upperroom.org Classes, not Class Meetings Steven W. Manskar offers an interesting twist on discipleship in his book Disciples Making Disciples. Many of us today might not have time to add another weekly meeting to our schedule. If that is the case for some in your congregation, another option is to train and commission Class Leaders that offer to be discipleship coaches for up to 20 people. In the model, Class Leaders are Christian disciples with gifts and passions for discipleship in their local congregation. They are carefully selected by the lay and clergy leadership, trained, and commissioned for this opportunity. They contact each of the persons in their “class” periodically one-on-one. Eventually, class members may ask to meet, when it becomes a priority in their schedule to do so. But it does not start that way. Personally, I prefer to be in a group that meets physically once a week. However, I am intrigued with this idea; it may be best for some people. Do you have questions not addressed here? Please feel free to let me know; my contact information is below. Or, here are some additional resources you may consider reading. Additional Resources, from the 2017 Wesley Pilgrimage Reading List sponsored by Discipleship Ministries:
  • Accountable Discipleship: Living in God’s Household by Steven W. Manskar
  • The Radical Wesley: Patterns and Practices of a Movement Maker by Howard Snyder
  • John & Charles Wesley: Selections from their Writings and Hymns – Annotated and Explained by Paul W. Chilcote
  • The Early Methodist Class Meeting: Its Origins and Significance by David Lowes Watson
  • Recapturing the Wesley’s Vision: An Introduction to the Faith of John and Charles Wesley by Paul W. Chilcote
  • Praying in the Wesleyan Spirit: 52 Prayers for Today by Paul W. Chilcote
  • Wesley and the People Called Methodists by Richard P. Heitzenrater
  • A Perfect Love: Understanding John Wesley’s ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection’ by Steven W. Manskar
My prayer for you and your congregation is that God will guide your every step as you seek to make disciples of Jesus that make more disciples.   Ron Ballard District Lay Leader, Blue Ridge District, WNC Conference rkball@bellsouth.net 828-777-7509