Privacy, Confidentiality, & Secrecy

Elephant calf with front leg raised to shield its eyes.

Holding healthy boundaries for ourselves and respecting the boundaries of others is especially important for leaders. When handling sensitive information, leaders need to understand what they can share and what they need to keep confidential.

The following framework (from the Rev. Nell Newton and the Rev. Adam Robersmith) may provide more clarity:

Privacy Protects Dignity

Humans have a basic need and right to keep to ourselves important parts of ourselves, including thoughts, bodies, identities, relationships, conversations, health, etc. Avoid probing about personal matters, and never share such information that you may be privy to. Respecting privacy is important to respecting dignity.

Confidentiality Protects the Vulnerable

Where privacy applies to important parts of a person, confidentiality applies to information about them. We keep confidential any information we might have about what is happening in people's lives -- it is theirs to share. Personnel evaluations, interpersonal conflict details, pledging levels, etc. are areas where leaders need to hold confidentiality. This enables people to work out--if needed--their problems without fear of being judged or shamed by others.

The need to protect the vulnerable is even more important when they have been abused, marginalized, or have experienced other types of harm. Providing confientiality can assist in avoiding further harm.

Secrecy Protects the Powerful

When someone is intentionally causing harm or abusing others, withholding information can lead to further harm. When an institution helps to keep such harm secret, it amplifies the harm. It's important that leaders be able to talk about harm and what is being done to address it. As the saying goes, "sunlight is the best disinfectant." But at the same time, leaders must provide appropriate confidentiality for any victims (based on their request and/or consent) and the uphold the dignity of all who are involved.

This framework is especially helpful in personnel matters or in cases of professional misconduct. As always, if your congregation is experiencing a situation where you are navigating a need for privacy or confidentiality, contact your regional Congregational Life staff.