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The 15-year-old son of one of our elders, seated before our youth minister, shifted nervously in his seat.
"Look, I need your help," he said. "Can I tell you a secret without you telling anyone else?"
Sensing something serious and wanting the teenager to open up, the youth pastor agreed to keep quiet.
"My dad is a tyrant, and I can't handle it anymore. I got a ticket to Florida, and I'm gone, man. I want you to give me a week and then give my mom this." He handed over three folded sheets of white notebook paper, stapled shut.
The minister tried to change the boy's mind or get him to at least talk to his father first. He offered to mediate and let the boy live in his home until things could be worked out. The boy stood firm and finally left.
The youth pastor felt the far-reaching implications of the decision he faced. He stood eyeball to eyeball with the "Mr. Hyde" side of pastoral confidentiality. Even though he'd agreed not to break the secret, he wondered Shouldn't I tell someone? The parents? At best the senior pastor. Ethical absolutes left him little room to maneuver.
In a previous ministry we started a branch church and called a young pastor, fresh from seminary. Most of the people in the branch church were mature believers, but I had experienced problems with a few of them and knew they could cause this young pastor problems as well. I advised him (as Paul did Timothy regarding Demas and Alexander the metalworker) so that he could be prepared.
I expected my comments to be kept in confidence among peers. Unfortunately, in the heat of one confrontation with them, the young man revealed that I had "warned him" about them. They demanded to know what I had said, and, since the secret was out, he told them I considered them divisive. It was difficult to reconcile with them because they felt I poisoned his mind and jeopardized their chances in the new church.
Breaking a confidence is not something to take lightly. From early childhood, the negative image of a tattletale is deeply ingrained. And in the ministry, breaking confidences can be seen as a form of tattling, gossiping, or worse.
In this information age, those who possess secrets possess power. That power can break confidences in a number of ways.
One pastor I know uses things he heard through the week as sermon illustrations on Sunday. He begins, "Just this week, so-and-so told me a problem she was having. I know she wouldn't mind if I shared it with you. … "
He has mistaken the attention he gets with such stories as good preaching. Most, however, are uncomfortable, even though they listen intently. They think to themselves, I know I would mind if it were my problem. As a result, many decide to keep their struggles to themselves or go to counselors other than him. Few aspire to be sermon illustration material.
A prayer request can also break confidence. It can demonstrate I am knowledgeable about sensational situations, but in the long run, sharing such information can damage our credibility. An "unspoken request" for prayer frustrates me as it does many: how do I pray for what I don't know? But I know many people are reluctant to speak their requests because they've seen abuses of confidential information shared as prayer requests.
Recently some churches have experienced legal problems for making sins of certain members public for church discipline. In one well-known case in Oklahoma, a woman was publicly disciplined for immorality and excommunicated.
She sued the church for "inflicting emotional distress and invading privacy" and won. She insisted she had told church leaders of her deeds in confidence, and the privileged information had been publicized.
Some pastors try to solve the legal threat by having the counselee sign a document releasing them from confidentiality in certain situations. While this may help establish ground rules between minister and counselee, minimizing the risk of misunderstanding later if the minister needs to tell someone else about the case, a signed waiver doesn't eliminate the legal threat. Even a signed waiver may not stand up in court if a pastor is accused of invading privacy.
Breaking a confidence can be serious, and yet at times, the alternative seems even more devastating.
Several years ago, a counselee told me that a friend of hers-a prominent woman in our church-had confessed her involvement in an adulterous relationship. My counselee didn't know what to do with the information, so she spilled it to me.
"This is serious," I said. "You know I will have to check this out right away."
Wide-eyed horror crossed her visage: "But you can't say anything to her! She'll know I told you. She'll never talk to me again! I only told you because I needed help, and I thought it would be kept in confidence."
She was right. And yet sin had snared a key member of my congregation. The longer I let it go, the more damage it would do to the woman, her family, and-if Achan still acts as a model-the church. But could the obligation for confidentiality actually tie my hands from doing anything about it?
Such ethical dilemmas defy easy resolution. Does knowing such information create a responsibility toward the one who is or may be harmed? Or should a secret be kept at all costs? If we maintain confidentiality, won't we be partly responsible for damages?
In my first years of ministry, I embraced the absolutist position: breaking a confidence equaled sin-period-and I will never knowingly do so. But circumstances eventually forced me to ask: Does God have ethical priorities which, at times, supersede the promise to keep information quiet?
As I've wrestled with my conscience, I've formed some opinions. Naturally, every minister must define his or her own limits. Neither will my conclusions resolve every situation. But they may help others clarify some of the issues they face.
Not all secrets are created equal. The tensions of confidentiality increase, I believe, as the information revealed becomes more serious. How the counselee communicates such information often determines how serious the situation is. Confidences fall into several categories.
The don't-tell-anyone-I-told-you-this rumor. Pastors often hear things from those who do not wish to be identified as the source and who are uncertain of the facts. Such information requires cross-checking to determine its truthfulness. But the people I'm probing may ask, "Who told you? Was it so-and-so?"
I received a call from a parent whose married daughter attended my church. "We think they're having tremendous problems in their marriage right now. Can you help them?" the father pleaded.
"May I tell them you called and were concerned about them?" I asked.
"Oh, no! Promise you won't do that, or they'll think we're meddling in their business. That will cause more trouble."
"Okay," I said.
Soon after I approached the daughter. "How are things?" I asked.
She shot me a suspicious look. "My folks called you, didn't they?"
She put me in a dilemma: I could lie, or I could lie. I couldn't keep my promise to her father without lying to her. I couldn't tell her the truth without lying to her father. So I chose to lie by telling the truth.
I told her that her parents called me. My conscience did not bother me, however. The information was not that serious. Furthermore, I could express her parent's concern in a positive way.
The counseling confidence. Some people presuppose private words to a pastor are automatically cloaked with confidentiality. Situations may arise, however, where the minister needs to share the information.
1. When I need advice. I have a list of resource people to call when I require additional information. If I think they may guess who my counselee is, or if I must reveal the identity, I ask for permission before I call. Otherwise, I don't have to.
2. When I make a referral. If I refer the person to another counselor, I will give the counselor as much pertinent information as possible. The new counselor will soon be privy to my information anyway. Rather than start with a blank slate, he or she may be able to cut to the heart of the issue much faster. Confidentiality is not broken when two counselors share facts divulged to one when the counselee has agreed to see the other.
After six months working through one young woman's hurt-the result of incest-I reached an impasse. She agreed to see someone experienced in reconciliation ministry to help her resolve the situation. I called the new counselor and summarized six months worth of information. That helped him lead her to a successful resolution of her conflict after only two weeks.
Later I counseled another woman with similar problems and arrived at a similar impasse. Once again I asked if I could bring in another counselor, to which she replied adamantly, "No!" She wanted no one else to know about her struggle. I respected her wish.
3. When other people are involved. Sometimes I hear information that directly involves others, either as victims, care-givers, or perpetrators. Even still, confidentiality is expected. Adultery commonly falls into this category. A man is discovered having an affair. Should his wife be informed?
I have found the dangers of silence are often greater than other dangers. I sat on the ordination council of a man who, with his family, intended to become an overseas missionary. We examined his doctrine and practice, laid hands on him, and off he and his wife went.
In a short time he returned in disgrace, having committed adultery with a teenage girl. That's when we found out he had had this problem in Bible school and before. Neither the leaders of our church nor the mission were informed by those at the Bible college who knew. When asked why, the people at the Bible school said, "He repented, his wife forgave him, and they went for counseling. We believed that was the end of it." They operated by the standard rules of confidentiality.
Had we or the mission been alerted to his history, we could have satisfied ourselves with the sincerity of his repentance. We probably would have still commissioned him, but only if further safeguards and accountability mechanisms had been in place. Our ignorance caused tremendous damage to the work of the gospel in a foreign culture.
Many churches exercise "containment procedures" on the sexual affairs of church leaders, not only failing to inform the denominational hierarchy but also the next ministry to which the pastor or leader goes. A bargain is struck: "You leave, and we'll forget the whole matter." A misapplication of confidentiality keeps the information under wraps and perpetuates the problem.
The oath of silence. The ethical dilemma increases with the seriousness of the information, especially where specific promises have been given to keep it silent.
Our youth pastor promised not to tell in order to learn vital information. He did not intend duplicity, but to keep quiet about what he learned would have made him an unwilling accomplice in the destruction of that family.
He struggled with the tension: to keep his promise meant he would contribute to damaging the family. Or he could tell the parents, but that meant he had to break confidence.
Some time back I spent an hour on the phone with a suicidal woman. She had attempted suicide before, and I sensed I was not denting her resolve to try it again.
"I can't handle it anymore. I'll see you. Thanks for all your help," she said. I heard the distress in her voice and the distinctive "pop" of a prescription bottle in the background.
"Cassie, don't! Let me come over and we'll talk."
"No! Stay away!" she screamed. She hung up. I called right back, but there was no answer. Did she have a right to die without interference? Should I divulge her troubles to others who could help? I didn't pause to debate the ethics of confidentiality.
I rang up a church member who lived near her and explained the situation: "I hate to tell you to do this, but if she doesn't answer and the door is locked, kick it in." I jumped in my car and rushed to her house.
I arrived as the ambulance was pulling away. The man had kicked the door in and found Cassie unconscious, curled in a fetal position on the sofa, an empty bottle of epilepsy medicine on the coffee table.
Fortunately he was in time. The hospital confirmed she had taken a lethal dose. Later, when lucid-and grateful-she said, "I thought things told to a pastor were a sacred trust. How could you tell that church member what I was doing?"
I hadn't yet worked through all these issues at that time. So I could only answer, "Sometimes there are things at stake more valuable than a pastor's credibility."
This choice of the greater good and the highest value is the most complex issue in the ethics of confidentiality.
Norman Geisler believes Scripture offers an alternative to the absolute position of never breaking a confidence: "When any two or more . . . values happen to conflict, a person is exempted from his otherwise binding obligation to a lower norm in view of the . . . higher norm" (Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, Zondervan, 1971).
Jesus said there were "weightier matters of the Law" (Matt 23:23) and "greater sins" John 19:11); that God desires mercy more than sacrifice and justice more than tithing (Matt. 12:7; 23:23). Using this approach, Geisler demonstrates Abraham was right to sacrifice Isaac, the Hebrew midwives were right to lie to Pharaoh, Rahab was right to lie to save the spies, and Daniel and his friends were right to disobey the king.
I once believed it was never right to break a promised confidence. I couldn't see how I could without sinning, even if people were helped.
Now I look for the greater good and the higher value. To Jesus, it was better to heal than keep the Sabbath. To the tenBooms, it was better to harbor Jews than to tell the Nazis the truth. A hierarchy of values governs such decisions. I had to recognize that God is pleased when we operate according to the higher values.
In a case that received national attention, a pastor counseled a man later indicted for sexual battery of a child. The pastor was subpoenaed but refused to testify on the grounds of pastoral confidentiality. The court charged him with contempt and jailed him.
He defended himself on the basis of the First Amendment, claiming the court's demands were a threat to the separation of church and state.
"There is no way a pastor can minister to his flock without jeopardizing them," he said. "This infringes on the sanctuary of the church and the integrity of the ministry. The question would always be on the mind of parishioners as to whether I would tell on them in something else."
He felt he could never break confidence.
While I respect his decision, I don't think the answer is that absolute. I have to ask myself, Whom do I help by maintaining absolute confidence? If someone has done evil, do I help that person when I keep confidence? If I hide someone's sin, have I solved the problem? Do I serve the church if I always maintain absolute confidence?
I've decided I cannot keep a confidence if a greater harm or a lesser good is the result of my silence.
This principle prompted the youth pastor to come to me against the wishes of the would-be runaway. Together we worked on a solution. With a clear conscience, he called the parents, told them what was happening, and offered himself as a mediator. At first the boy felt betrayed because his confidence had been broken. The youth pastor accepted the short-term costs to achieve the greater good. He worked with the family, and, after some difficult sessions, achieved a breakthrough.
I convinced the counselee that to do nothing about her friend's adultery would be as irresponsible as letting her take poison and not calling the doctor. She saw that a damaged relationship did not compare with the greater good of winning this woman back. She let me break her confidence.
Simple answers are difficult to find. But I've become more comfortable with the complexities. Confidences are not to be broken lightly. But I will break confidence with a clear conscience if something more important than my credibility is at stake.
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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