As I have mentioned previously, for more than 30 years of pastoral ministry I have operated on the basis that maintaining confidentiality is important but not ultimate. Particularly in counseling situations it is important that the person with whom I am speaking has confidence that what is said will not be indiscriminately spread to others. A pastor must be trustworthy in this or else it will be extremely difficult for people to open up to him in ways that are essential to access the help and power of the gospel.
However, as a husband, I have always made it a matter of policy that, under normal circumstances, I am free to share with my wife anything that is shared with me “in confidence.” I do not share with her everything I hear and in fact, through the years, I have shared with her comparatively little of what has been said to me in such settings. Often people have approached Donna with comments like, “I guess you know what is going on about…” assuming that I have passed along information about a situation that was brought to me for counsel. Almost without exception she has been able to say, “No. I have no idea what you are talking about.”
That is how it should be. Most of the trials and difficulties that arise in peoples’ lives that require my pastoral counsel are matters about which my wife has no need to know. The sorrows and burdens are often so painful that I wish I could remain ignorant of them, as well! But entering into such sorrows is inherent to pastoral ministry and, by God’s grace, I am willing to engage in the kind of “hand-to-hand combat” that such gospel ministry occasionally requires. It always comes at a cost, however. Every pastor I know who has not out-sourced pastoral counseling regularly loses sleep and must endure emotional, spiritual and physical fatigue that inevitably results from such ministry. Hearing about and seeing the ravages of sin up close and personally takes its toll.
Why in the world would I want to expose my wife to that kind of information needlessly? She has not been called to pastor the church. By God’s grace, I have. She has not been gifted for such work. By God’s grace, I have. Beyond the concerns for the person being counseled (and they are real and important), my concern for the emotional and spiritual welfare of my wife keep me from passing along to her information about people and situations about which she has no need to know. That is part of my shepherding responsibility toward her.
I realize that there are differing views on all of this, and I am open to learning from others. Iron sharpens iron. So feel free to push back or challenge my thinking. This is a vitally and practically important subject for pastors and the church. The policy below is my attempt to serve the best interests of the church and ministry in the realm of pastoral counseling. Let me know your thoughts.
Tom Ascol’s Pastoral Confidentiality Understanding
Appropriate confidentiality is vitally important to me. I take very seriously the biblical admonitions not to be a tale-bearer, not to engage in gossip, idle speculations or spread rumors. In addition to this, I recognize the folly of unnecessarily repeating information that could be embarrassing or harmful to the one from whom it has been received. I am, after all, a pastor, and take seriously the call to shepherd the flock of God. My desire is to be redemptive and helpful to everyone I counsel.
Therefore, I want those who seek counsel from me to have confidence in knowing that I will not haphazardly share any information that is entrusted to me in the process of seeking help. I do, however, want to make sure that everyone who seeks my counsel understands my approach to and practice of confidentiality.
In summary, the following principles govern our practice.
1. I am free to tell my wife anything that you tell me. This is for my protection and the protection of my marriage. I am not, however, obligated to tell my wife everything that you may share with me. Much if not most, and sometimes perhaps all, of what you tell me would not be helpful for her to know. As a husband, I try to protect my wife in appropriate ways. As a pastor, I try to help my congregation as much as I can.
2. I am free to share with my fellow elders anything that you tell me, unless there is specific reason and agreement for me not to do so. This is for the protection of the church. The elders have been called of God and set apart by the church to lead the body. We must be unified to fulfill this calling effectively. If information is shared with me that I deem poses a potential threat to the welfare of the church at large or to the elder body in particular, I am obligated by my vows as a pastor to consult with my fellow elders about such matters.
3. I am free to share with appropriate authorities (civil, family or church) anything that you tell me. This is for your, my and the church’s protection. If I deem your welfare or the welfare of others to be at stake if I do not pass on information you share with me, then I would be derelict in my duty as your pastor not to do so. This could mean speaking with police, legal courts, parents or spouses about matters discussed in counseling.
Confidentiality is important but it is not absolute. It is neither wise nor helpful to allow anyone to bind one’s conscience unconditionally. I assume that you are seeking my counsel because you trust my judgment. My practice of confidentiality is governed by that same judgment. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not afraid of exposure. When rightly appropriated, it sets us free from the fear of being known because it assures us that, as believers, we are already fully, perfectly known and fully and perfectly loved and accepted through Jesus Christ our Lord.
If you are unable to trust me on the basis of the principles outlined above, then it is unlikely that I will be able to help you through counseling. In such a case, I will be glad to refer you to other possible sources of help.
I will be glad to discuss these principles with you further at any time. Please sign below to indicate that you understand these principles and are seeking my counsel in the light of my commitment to them.