If a pastor or minister meets with or visits a person and tells no-one the details, did he really do anything at all?
Defining a scope of confidentiality, whether in terms of ethics, morals, professionalism or theology is something a pastor or minister will have to face very early in their vocation.
In some instances, say, mandatory reporting of child abuse or expressing intent to self harm or commit a crime the minister has legal obligations and protection that requires him to pass on the information to police etc. In most cases though discussions between a person and their minister are in terms of personal concern or grief or, positively, a matter of personal growth and development.
Yet, conflict can still arise in how the minister guards or practices his ethic of confidentiality. Should there be, for instance, some inclusion of who has been visited and met with and who has not in ministerial reports to a Board/Session/Synod/etc? Who has visibility of these reports? Does a person’s mention or absence in a report show anything that might damage or boost their reputation in some way?
What if, during the course of a simple courtesy call, the person says something to the effect of, “Please don’t tell anyone”, or “Please keep this to yourself”? Should they be included in such a report? If they’re excluded, how does the minister account for use of this time with his Board? With his wife and family? With any other interested party?
e.g. Mrs Smith reprimands me for failing to mention from the pulpit that her husband is in hospital, even though she knew that when I visited him, he asked me to say nothing about it. She feels this is something the Church should know about so they can pray for him. She feels I ought to know this and override her husbands request for privacy. What should I do?
e.g. To further complicate the above: A Church Board member/director becomes aware that Mr Smith is in hospital – perhaps Mrs Smith told them. The Board member is concerned that I haven’t visited Mr Smith and haven’t informed the Board of his condition or prayed for him from the pulpit in public. What should I do?
The real life scenarios get much more complex than this of course. The minister needs to show what his ethic will be and clearly communicate that with all concerned. Even then, there will still be some conflict as to whether his ethic is too strict or not.
Generational and ethnic cultural behaviours will affect conflict intensity or support towards the minister in how he manages his ethic. Some cultures are very “community” minded and have a tendency to want to know everyone’s business. Others are so discreet that interpersonal relationships are next to impossible. Is there a happy medium to strive for?
- I treat every 1:1 (or 1:couple/family) conversation, telephone call, email, meeting, visit, counselling session, formal, informal or otherwise as confidential.
- I make it clear, when appropriate that if the person is about to express illegal intent that I will need to consult with authorities.
- I make it clear, in cases where the person is in need of help beyond my ability or morality, that with their permission, I would like to consult someone else.
- I tell my wife who I am going to meet with and where and for how long, regardless of the person’s sex or age. I don’t tell her anything about the content of the meeting, unless the person expressly asks me to or gives me permission.
- I don’t tell anyone else any details of who, when, where, except to say, something to the effect of, “I was out twice this week”. If I am pressed for details of who etc, I take a pretty firm stance and have incurred ire and anger about not divulging further information, even to the point of being accused of not doing my job and neglecting my responsibilities.
I’m ready, for the sake of the health (spiritual, moral, ethical, and physical and otherwise) of my congregation to take the flak for my position. I have a clear conscience and I have also been privileged to see and experience some significant personal and family victories as a result. I have also, sadly, seen a few crash and burn.
An ethic of confidentiality is, for me, a basic element of trust and respect for other people. Respect for their privacy, dignity and respect for them to make progress at their own pace and according to God’s timetable for them – not the broader community’s. Trust to keep a confidence, whether expressed or implied provides safety for the person seeking the minister’s help.
People ought to approach their minister without fear or concern that their conversation will somehow make its way to a report, meeting minutes, or worse into a sermon illustration. I have been at the other end of this transaction where a minister had a much less strict view of confidentiality. My constant thought, every time I spoke with him, was who else was going to hear this and as a result I became extremely guarded when I was around him. It was not a healthy relationship.
I suggest also, that ministers be very direct and upfront with their Church Board/session/etc what is their personal ethic of confidentiality. Both parties ought to have enough integrity to clarify any differences before the minister commences his appointment and have the option to walk away if either consider the expectations of both are not in agreement.
So, if a pastor visits someone, cares for them, loves them, sacrifices time with his own family to help them and yet, doesn’t report it or pray about it from the pulpit, has he failed? Or, should there be a level of professional courtesy and trust given to him that he isn’t a neglectful bludger? OK, that’s an emotive way to ask. What do you think are the boundaries for a pastor in this area?