Main Content

Boundaries and Confidentiality

Rebecca Edmiston-Lange

Is everything a congregant tells a minister confidential? Is everything a congregant tells another congregant “in confidence” confidential? When is it okay to break a promise to “keep a secret”? When does confidentiality become secrecy and an abuse of power? Are all secrets bad? What is the difference between privacy and secrecy? What is the difference between anonymity and confidentiality? Is any gossip “good” gossip?

How members and staff of a congregation answer these questions has a great impact on whether or not a congregation can be deemed “safe.” Unfortunately there are no easy answers because there is an unavoidable tension in the appropriate handling of sensitive information. Our congregations should be places where individual privacy is respected, where individuals feel they can risk being vulnerable and can rely upon clergy and other congregants to treat personal communications with trust and discretion. On the other hand, especially in an association governed by congregational polity and an emphasis on democratic practices, our congregations should be places where leadership, both clergy and lay, is committed to a certain level of transparency in its operations, to truth telling, and to the sharing of information vital to the well-being of all.

Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in clergy sexual misconduct and child abuse cases. Too often in such cases we have seen how a destructive cloak of secrecy can be confused with legitimate claims to privacy, how claims of confidentiality can be abused to shield injurious behavior, and how desires to avoid “unpleasantness” have led to silence, which compounds the betrayal and cripples a church’s effectiveness as a spiritual institution. As a consequence, we have recognized the need to “break the silence” about such matters, to cultivate openness in dealing with such violations of the public trust. But sometimes such an emphasis has led to further confusion. Any claim to confidentiality can be viewed as suspect and secret has almost become a dirty word.

Now more than ever, we need shared clarity about definitions and insight into how ethical distinctions should be made concerning these issues, not just for clergy-congregant relationships but also for members of our congregations involved in shared ministries or leadership positions. While there are no hard and fast rules and no substitutes for personal judgment and moral discernment, there are some problem-solving techniques that can help guide our way. Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge that not all secrets are bad. Some secrets can be delightful and strengthen relationships. But how do we tell the difference? As Evan Imber-Black writes in her book, The Secret Life of Families, “Enforced silence, selective telling, covert talking, and whispered confidences all can be used to plan a surprise party or to shield a pedophile.” Imber-Black distinguishes four kinds of secrets. Sweet secrets are of short duration and kept for the purpose of fun and surprise, such as those involved in planning surprise gifts or parties. Essential secrets involve those areas of privacy that are central to a person’s or community’s identity and well-being. They help to promote necessary boundaries, define relationships, and preserve dignity. For example, details of one’s personal history or the intimate secrets that committed couples share are essential secrets. Essential secrets can also provide necessary protection, as in keeping secret the location of a battered women’s shelter.

Sweet and essential secrets are positive and beneficial. Toxic and dangerous secrets, on the other hand, are destructive and threatening to emotional and possibly physical safety. Toxic secrets, while not posing any immediate physical danger, poison relationships with others, disorient identity, and promote anxiety. Maintaining a toxic secret has a chronic negative effect on emotional well-being and energy, both for the person carrying the secret and for others in relation with that person. Toxic secrets create barriers between those who know and those who don’t. Living inside such a secret makes us question our perceptions and second guess others’ responses to us and cuts us off from vital resources. We wonder what others would think of us if they knew. Living outside a toxic secret creates confusion and disequilibrium and inhibits growth. We know something is amiss, but not knowing what it is, we begin to doubt our reality. A philandering spouse is an example of a toxic secret in a family system. Knowledge of clergy sexual misconduct is an example of a toxic secret in a congregational system.

Carrying a toxic secret feels like living inside a pressure cooker. The pressure to reveal the secret can build until the secret erupts in damaging ways, or it can leak out in subtle clues that force someone else to uncover it. Toxic secrets most often need to be revealed both for the health of the person carrying the secret and for the health of the relationship system, but because a toxic secret does not involve immediate physical danger, its revelation can be planned carefully. Revealing toxic secrets is always painful and upsetting, sometimes shattering. Healing and the reshaping of relationships takes a long time and much therapeutic work. But such healing may take even longer if the toxic secret is revealed in a reckless or explosive fashion.

Dangerous secrets are those that put people in immediate physical jeopardy or debilitating emotional turmoil. In contrast to toxic secrets, which allow time to carefully consider the impact of revelation, dangerous secrets require immediate action to safeguard persons. Examples of such dangerous secrets are physical or sexual abuse of children, plans to commit suicide or homicide, or incapacitating substance abuse. In many jurisdictions, there is a “duty to warn” if one discovers such a secret; the need to protect outweighs any claims to confidentiality or promise not to tell.

Dangerous secrets often involve power dynamics, intimidation, and fear. The powerless person in a dangerous secret is often threatened physically or emotionally and led to believe that revealing the secret will result in even greater harm to themselves or someone they care about. The powerful person in a dangerous secret often invokes a false notion of privacy, saying, “This is no one else’s business but ours.” By their very nature, dangerous secrets must be disclosed.

Understanding the different kinds of secrets helps to distinguish between truly private matters and unhealthy secrecy. The same information, depending upon the context, may be either. For example, not telling my neighbors about my positive HIV status might be maintaining an appropriate level of privacy. Not telling my fiancé the same information is keeping a dangerous secret.

The distinctions among different kinds of secrets are also helpful in defining the limits of confidentiality and a “promise not to tell” within a congregation, both for professional ministers and lay leaders. Most people assume that whatever they tell their minister in private is confidential—and in the majority of cases that is a safe assumption. We expect ministers to respect individual privacy and autonomy and, indeed, they are bound by professional ethics to do so. Without the expectation of confidentiality, those who need pastoral help or spiritual counsel might never seek it. But clergy are not only responsible to individual congregants. They are also stewards of the overall spiritual and moral well-being of the congregation as a whole. In addition, clergy feel, and may be mandated by law to consider, an obligation to the good of society. At times these other considerations may outweigh an individual congregant’s expectation of confidentiality.

Generally speaking, in both law and ethics, confidentiality is considered only a prima facie duty, meaning that it can be overridden by other more compelling duties in certain circumstances —to protect someone from harm to self or to protect an innocent third party, for example. Here we are dealing in the realm of dangerous secrets, and decisions regarding whether or not to divulge information may seem rather straightforward. If a congregant confesses to a minister that he abused a child in the church’s Sunday school, the minister cannot keep that information secret. If an otherwise healthy adult reveals to a minister a plan to commit suicide, most ministers would not hesitate to break confidence in order to avert the suicide, whether or not they are legally obligated to do so. (Many jurisdictions do have laws imposing a “duty to warn” or a “duty to divulge” when clergy possess knowledge of child or elder abuse, potential homicides or suicides, or participation in criminal activity.)

But not all cases where a clergy person may feel the need to break confidentiality are that clear cut. Toxic secrets, because of the lack of immediate physical danger, may present more complex choices about how, what, and to whom to divulge them. A teenager confesses she is pregnant and intends to seek an abortion and wants to keep this secret from her parents. In many cases the minister will most likely try to assuage her fears regarding her parents’ response and urge her to talk to them directly, even offering to accompany her. But if the teenager refuses, is the minister obligated to tell the parents, to whom the minister also has an inherent, obligatory relationship of trust? A variety of factors might enter into the decision—the age and maturity of the girl, what the minister knows about the health of the family system, the stage of the pregnancy, and so forth.

It is important to note that the issue of clergy confidentiality is further complicated by the laws regarding whether or not clergy-congregant communications are deemed inadmissible as legal testimony. Further, states often have laws specifying who can waive confidentiality, the congregant or the clergy person or both. Such laws may vary from state to state or even from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. (Note: Generally speaking, courts consider four factors in deciding what is confidential—whether the information was disclosed in a setting where it might be overheard; whether the information conveyed implies harm to the discloser or to another person; whether the disclosure was made in the sacramental context of confession of sins; and whether the person receiving the disclosure is ordained professional clergy. (Read “Confidentiality in the Church: What the Pastor Knows and Tells” by D. Elizabeth Audette and Confidentiality and Clergy: Churches, Ethics and the Law by William W. Rankin for fuller discussion of these matters.) It behooves clergy to acquaint themselves with the relevant state and municipal laws, particularly those regarding the situations in which one has a “duty to warn” or “duty to divulge.”

However situations can arise in which one’s ethical judgment appears to be at odds with the law. One might, because of a higher duty to protect, feel the need to divulge confidential communications regarding a potential suicide even when there is no legal obligation to do. Alternately, one might consider a form of civil disobedience under certain circumstances in order to meet the demands of conscience and choose not to report, for example, a planned suicide by a mentally competent and terminally ill person. Under such circumstances, legal counsel should be sought so that the decision is not made without full understanding of the legal consequences. It should not be the policy of a congregation to condone disobedience of existing laws.

Nevertheless, as Sissela Bok stresses, any decision to override confidentiality requires a rigorously derived justification. William Rankin, arguing from Bok, offers four guidelines to aid in the decision:

  • Is the request for secrecy a fair request? In other words, could you reasonably make the same request of another if your roles were reversed?
  • Is what is being asked of you in consonance with your deepest values?
  • Is what is being requested of you something that you would regard as undesirable if anyone else did it?
  • Does the request allow you to respond in ways compatible with your religious tradition?

Both Rankin and Bok caution that confidentiality issues in churches can become clouded by a tendency to treat some ethical problems as purely pastoral problems rather than as wrongs for which redress is needed. While this tendency may be motivated by a laudable compassion, it may just as likely be motivated by an overestimation of one’s ability to change another’s behavior. Honest reflection on Rankin’s four questions mitigates these tendencies since they acknowledge both obligation to one’s self as a promise-keeper and obligation to justice in community. Given that compelling reasons to break confidentiality can exist, perhaps it is always more honest to state one’s intent as “I will try my best to keep confidential what you are about to disclose but if you reveal something illegal or that puts yourself or another person in danger, I may feel obligated to break your confidence to protect you or another person.”

When confused about which course to follow, clergy should not hesitate to seek counsel from other colleagues or district executives. In many cases it is possible to talk about a situation without divulging identifying information.

Much of the discussion on clergy confidentiality is applicable to lay people in positions of leadership. While lay people do not possess any legal privilege concerning confidentiality, they are often privy to sensitive information and are bound by their covenantal relationship with the church to take issues of confidentiality seriously. Lay leaders must also distinguish different kinds of secrets and may, at times, feel compelled to consider higher ethical considerations, such whether to warn or to protect, when confronted with toxic or dangerous secrets. Lay leaders, like clergy, bear responsibility for the welfare of the church as a whole and will, at times, need to balance individual requests for secrecy with the community’s need to know. Like clergy, lay leaders should feel predisposed to honor confidences, but if a rigorous moral justification to override a confidence exists, they should not feel they have betrayed another by divulging the information. Even when a “promise not to tell” has been exacted, confidence can and should be breached if secrecy would allow violence to be done to innocent persons or involve complicity in a crime. As Sissela Bok puts it in her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, “We can properly promise only what is ours to give or what is right for us to do,” that having “made a promise” does not justify participation in wrong doing. Again, there is no substitute for personal discernment. There will be times when the right course involves potential conflict and pain. Such is the burden of leadership. But the guidelines offered for clergy can be helpful to lay people also. Like clergy, lay people should not hesitate to ask for advice, either from their minister or the district executive.

The positions of lay pastoral ministers and covenant group leaders warrant further discussion. Trainings for such lay pastoral ministries as the Befrienders Program or Stephen’s Ministry explicitly address confidentiality issues, recognizing that congregants in those roles will need ongoing supervision to strengthen their ministry. When discussing a case, these programs suggest omitting names or disguising identifying characteristics to preserve the person’s anonymity and the confidential nature of the information. Such an approach can be helpful in other situations as well; for example, when seeking advice from another (one’s minister, a colleague, or district executive) about whether or not to break a confidence. Furthermore, there will be times in congregational life, as in clergy misconduct cases or child abuse cases, when it is necessary to disclose facts and, at the same time, protect the vulnerable by preserving the anonymity of the victim.

Most covenant groups within our churches do not have an expectation of complete confidentiality. It is expected that members of covenant groups will have conversations among themselves outside the group meetings. It is also expected that members of a covenant group will want to share their experiences with non-members. Rev. Robert Hill recommends a “covenant of discretion and respect for privacy interests of members.” Some groups have rules that members sharing particularly private information within the group should identify it as such or that one must ask permission to share another’s identifying story. Discussion of confidentiality and privacy issues should be part of the covenant building process for such groups.

There should be ongoing conversations in our congregations about confidentiality and privacy issues. All members of the church need to understand the limits of confidentiality and recognize that blanket assurances of confidentiality, even from clergy, are neither possible nor wise. Furthermore, our congregations are covenantal communities of people responsible to and for each other. An appropriate sharing of information is necessary if we are to minister to one another through the trials and sorrows of life and if we all are to grow spiritually. By joining a covenantal community one has made a choice to be in relationship, to have others involved in our lives.

Certainly none of us wants to encourage malicious, intrusive, or even trivializing gossip, but a certain level of is probably inevitable and maybe even desirable in congregations. Writers like Sissela Bok have pointed out the many supportive uses of gossip: It allows us to learn life-lessons by observing others; it conveys information vital to a group’s functioning; it spreads the word about who is sick or in need of help; and, it teaches through example how others navigate the trials of life with grace. Phyllis Rose argues in Parallel Lives, Five Victorian Marriages that gossip is the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the ladder that leads to self understanding. In Dakota, Kathleen Norris coins the phrase “holy gossip” to describe gossip that strengthens communal bonds. She points out that gossip is derived from the words for God and sibling and thus means those who are spiritually related.

Whether or not we want to reclaim a positive definition of gossip, we need to share information about one another if we are to truly minister to one another. If we err too far in the direction of an unqualified right to privacy, our communal life will be stifled. On the other hand, we need to be respectful of personal autonomy. Whenever we talk about someone who isn’t present we need to ask ourselves if we are talking out of genuine concern for the other person or whether we are talking out of a need to feed our own ego—to feel superior, to seem important or “in the know.” In this, as in so much, there is need for discernment and judgment.

And that is why we need to talk about how we talk. For it is through congregational conversation, which honors our commitments to one another, that we will best find the ways to live creatively with the tension between openness and privacy, truth telling and confidence keeping.

Read Next >>  Mental, Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Self-Care

Table of Contents