Confidentiality and the Church

Donna Wright

Confidentiality and the Church

Donna Wright

Scenario 1: A staff member asked an elder body for permission to use a different building for her ministry. The elders met, and the staff member waited to hear. She asked one elder a day after and was told it was decided, but she couldn’t be said because the meeting was confidential. The elders had been told so often to be careful about confidentiality that their decisions could not be communicated to those impacted.

Scenario 2: A pastor’s search committee was looking for a new senior pastor. The committee of twelve men and women had narrowed down their list to two. Jeannie had excitedly shared about it with her husband. When they were at the lake in another town, Jeannie’s husband mentioned it to the couple who rented the camper spot next to theirs. He said they were looking at a pastor in their area and named the church. That couple messaged their information to a friend they knew who attended there. Phones began to buzz, and by Sunday morning, a hand full of people at the candidate’s present church were whispering about why their pastor was not preaching that day. When the candidate got back into the office the next week, he realized that lack of confidentiality had wrecked his ability to continue there since they felt he was not committed to them. He knew that if the new church did not choose him, he would have to leave in the near future or could be fired immediately.

Confidentiality runs along a continuum between total secrecy and everyone knowing everything. In the first scenario, the elders had confidential meetings, except there was no opening to allow information out on decisions so they could be implemented. In the second scenario, even offhand comments can put a pastoral candidate at risk of losing their present job.

In the church office, what can be sent out by phone and on email? If someone calls the church to get medical information updates on another church member, what happens? If the information is relayed and then someone shows up that afternoon to visit the patient at the hospital, it can create a problem if the church member had wanted to keep his medical issues to only a small group of people but decided to ask for prayer.

How can problems like this be avoided? Should everything that happens in a church be confidential? Aside from that, where are the lines of demarcation where church staff, leaders, and members should take to protect people, their information, and decisions made by leaders? Finding this line is not about keeping secrets, but it is about wisely handling important information appropriately.

Counselees of ministers depend upon ministers to keep information between them, and it is protected in court. If someone around the situation does not keep confidence, the ability to minister to counsel in private can be impossible.

Free talkers create issues all around them. Staff members and key volunteers should be fully informed on your confidentiality policy and be asked to sign one as appropriate for their position. Exercising self-control and keeping information to oneself is not the norm with social media documenting every move. But continuing confidence will result in people being more transparent and sharing information they know will be protected and respected. This will, in turn, build trust and allow the needed ministry to flow from person to person.

In one church, communication cards were collected at the end of every service. The cards were placed in an undisclosed location until they were picked up on Monday by an assistant to the pastor. It was reported that someone had removed them from their secured spot and read them in plain view of anyone who walked by during a Sunday evening event. The secure place had to be changed, and leaders reminded that the cards were to be read-only by a designated group of people and never in view of the public.

Personal information can be released that hurts people when done without their permission. Churches can be terrible incubators of information if care and attention are not paid to it. How much time do leaders spend on communicating well but handling information inappropriately?

Here are ways this can happen.

Remind staff, leaders, groups, and committees that information gained because of their position in the group should not be shared. Information announced publicly is public. If they learn it at a deacon, elders, or committee meeting, it is not open. Why? Leadership is often trusted with information that would never be announced in a church service. But if the leaders in that meeting share it with people who are given no instructions regarding how to handle the information, it could be widely shared with whatever additional information the person talking about it cares to add. It is not that the church is keeping secrets, but it is protecting its people by sharing it with those who have the responsibility to steward that information to accomplish the mission of the church.

Get ahead of the information cycle by announcing it.

Prepare announcements ahead of time so that when they are announced publicly, the church can immediately post an official statement ahead of other people’s interpretation of that information. Then, church members can just share the post, and it goes out accurately.

Often, church members are curious or feel that everyone treats their information just like they do. If they want everyone to know they are having a medical procedure, they may conclude that others would also want everyone to know about their hospitalization or surgery. People need to be reminded that news to share is decided by the owners of that information. The church is to communicate to further its’ mission, but it is not to communicate instead of the person. It is perfectly fine to spread the news with the owners of that news’ permission. It is not your responsibility to “break” news without it. 

Teach church members how and what can be shared. Death announcements are good examples of sharing information. With social media, people very close to the deceased can find out there rather than getting a call from the family. Posts can be made prematurely, and the family, mainly if it is sudden, has not had time to make calls. Often those who post mean well, but their desire to spread the word can interfere with private moments of grief and create extra stress on them. People at church should wait to post until the family posts publicly or gives permission.

Give extra reminders to keep confidences in special cases and ongoing ones regularly. People often don’t think beyond the information and fail to see ways releasing it can hurt. Their limited view can cause them to consider the release of information is harmless. But at the same time, don’t give your people any excuse to share the content of the leader’s meetings even without warning. Remind group members and committee members occasionally that part of the job is to keep group information in the group.

Someone who is a part of a lot of information may forget to handle the information with care. Signing confidentiality agreements can be an annual reminder to create a culture to say this is taken seriously.

Ministers are told things in confidence that, if repeated, could create huge problems not just for the person who told but for many more people. Newcomers to ministry environments need to be informed and reminded of the policy of release of information.

People should have a reasonable expectation of privacy as they deliberate and make decisions in meetings at church. If what they say in a meeting will be repeated widely by anyone in the room, it can shut down the freedom and willingness to share and make suggestions in leadership meetings. This hurts your organization when you are unable to have a meeting and leave with the best idea on the table. That idea may never be voiced if there is fear. Prayer requests may not be freely shared if even one member uses the information beyond prayer. When this comes to light, people will be hesitant to share them.

Admit your failures. Everyone gossips at some point or another. That fact does not negate the fact that it is a sin, and repentance must happen. It is natural for people to want more information. They may like to speculate on people’s motives and to talk with others about what the info known might mean. Curiosity is a part of all human DNA, our sinful nature. To be able to deal with confidentiality and communicate the need authoritatively, you must repent from your gossip. If you don’t, people will see right through it.

The information gained while in the performance of church duties should remain confidential. No truer statement can be written than that. The person who counts the money, answers the phone, handles a personnel issue, knows a medical condition, or is privy to a juicy backstory on a situation must exercise self-control and not breach trust to reveal information. Hinting that they know something is sometimes just as wrong as gossip.

Recognize that information is a valuable possession. People are much more hesitant to fill out a guest card or offer their cell phone number today than in years past. Why? Because they expect or want privacy. So much of our lives are public and out of our control that people desire control over the information they can. The innocuous call into the office asking for the phone number of another church member that was readily given years ago now is not.

A culture of confidentiality can only thrive when the journey’s off-course is dealt with immediately. Gossip destroys teams because solutions don’t come out of it—only negativity, insecurity, and lack of trust thrives there. If your team members will police gossip, it will benefit them because they won’t have ever to be concerned about talking behind their backs. They know that any issues will be brought directly to them, not to those around them.




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