I've come to believe that an institutional church is not a safe place for one person's confession.
Several years ago, while we were attending a small nondenominational church, Pastor Donn* announced at the end of Sunday worship that we would have a special mid-week meeting. "It's important that all members attend," he emphasized. "We have an important family matter to discuss."

Most of the hundred or so members who showed up Wednesday watched Pastor Donn summon the Hickmans, respected leaders in the congregation, and their pale 16-year-old daughter, Missy, to the front of the sanctuary. He put his arm around Missy's shoulders and told us he'd summoned us in order to snuff out gossip about Missy before it had a chance to begin.

He then asked Missy to confess her sin to us. Without lifting her eyes, the tearful, trembling young woman told us she had just found out she was pregnant. Missy's boyfriend, the birth dad, did not attend the church and wasn't present that night.

I couldn't deny that the congregation rallied around the Hickmans throughout Missy's pregnancy and into the first years of motherhood. But Missy was never again just Missy. She became Missy the project, Missy the Girl Who Got Pregnant and Stood Up in Front of the Entire Church. And while the meeting effectively cauterized gossipy tongues and rallied prayer and practical support for the Hickmans, it also served to make Missy Exhibit A whenever the church's youth pastors gave an abstinence sermon for the next year or so.

Missy's own Hester Prynne experience taught me that personal confession is too big to be entrusted to an entire institution. In a church setting, I think public confession should be prefaced with a spiritual Miranda warning: Anything you say may ...

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