My friend Beth smiles a lot. Some people think it’s a fake smile, as if no one could possibly be that happy. But Beth is that happy. Beth is one of my closest friends, and she’s no fake. She’s one of the people in my life who asks pointed questions and keeps me accountable to my relationships and ministry.

Beth is not one of those friends who tells me I’m doing everything right.

She’s not one of those friends who thinks I always make perfect choices.

She’s not one of those friends who just wants to boast about her own accomplishments or dump about her problems.

Beth is an accountability partner. We tell each other truth about what’s going on in our lives and ask each other the tough questions about how we’re responding. After 10 years together, we are the definition of transparent in our relationship.

Early on, we had a couple of other people in our accountability group. Andrea is a faithful bulldozer, a foot-washing bulldozer—but determined nevertheless. She once confronted me over an emotional issue and said, “You’re going to renounce this right now!” Some people might think she comes on too strong, but I would trust Andrea with my life.

Our fourth partner was Becky. When we invited Becky into our group while she was going through a difficult time in her life, we gave her a six-week option to drop out, because we talked about everything. And I mean everything. Not everybody can handle that. The group turned out to be a good fit for Becky for several years.

We were four distinct personality types. Suppose a bull came into your house and crashed around. Andrea would take the bull by the horns, wrestle it to the ground, and serve it for dinner. Becky would say, “It’s okay, Mr. Bull, would you like a drink of water?” Beth would be oblivious that a bull was in the room. And I would say, “Okay, Mr. Bull, what happened in your past that made you want to do this?”

You need a few friends to whom you can say anything and everything. You don’t have to broadcast the details of your life to large groups of people. Even plastic wrap is protective. You can see through it and see what’s there, but it’s still protective. But even more, you can be the woman to whom others can tell everything. If people perceive you as being safe, then they’ll be honest with you. The question is not only, “Who can I trust?” but also, “Can others trust me?”

When God gives you the opportunity to influence another person, stay that much closer to God and remember God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). When someone invites you into her struggles, it’s far too easy to assume a savior mentality and try to fix things. You’re not God. And what the person needs most is God.

You can be obedient to the role God gives you, which includes encouraging your friend to depend on God, without trying to take over God’s job. Remember that you want to lead the person to the foot of the cross, not have a relationship that raises you up or strokes your ego.

Accountability is mutual

I like The Message wording of Romans 12:10: “Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.” Enjoy what I call your “Ethel Mertz days.” On the classic 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy,” Lucy Ricardo had a best friend, Ethel Mertz. Lucy was full of big ideas and wild schemes, and Ethel was often the one who helped make them happen. Ethel was an example of unconditional love, loyalty, and friendship without having to always be the big idea. In fact, Ethel sometimes was the voice of caution and accountability to Lucy’s wild rides. Even when Lucy got everyone in a mess—on a weekly basis—Ethel was there at her side, loving her just the same.

The word accountability gets a bad reputation. It smacks of judgment, as if the person to whom you are accountable gets to tell you if you are bad or good. For many people, the word carries overtones of someone else being in charge and demanding accountability by calling the shots. You’re accountable to a boss who gets to decide if your effort is worthy of recognition. Accountability often seems one-sided or authoritarian.

But I’m talking about a mutual kind of accountability. Rather than trying to perform to meet someone else’s external standard, accountability builds on relationships rooted in trust and choice. You can choose to be honest with other people and invite their feedback. You can choose to have transparent relationships with a few close friends. Friends call each other back from the edge of pride, confusion, and discouragement. Friends launch each other into unknown territory and walk hand in hand where there is no map.

Accountability can be scary. You may feel like a small child jumping off the side of the pool with your eyes squeezed shut, not really sure if your daddy is going to catch you. But if you can’t trust anybody in your life, how can you find out what could happen when you take the leap into meaningful relationships and ministry?

Accountability is not judgment. It’s companionship on the journey, and it sets you free.

Adapted from A Place to Belong ©2011 by Lisa Troyer. Published by Barbour Publishing. Used with permission. All rights reserved.