Over the last few years I have read quite a bit on the nature of confidentiality in the work of pastoral ministry. The result of my study led me to clarify and formalize a policy that reflects the procedures by which I have operated for decades. Simply stated, while I consider it a matter of integrity to protect the privacy of people with whom I speak, I will not allow my conscience to be bound for any and every reason. Specifically, I am free to tell my wife anything that is said to me by someone else, but I am not obligated to tell her anything. In other words, the same wisdom and discretion that I employ in trying to help someone through counseling are used in deciding what, if anything, to share with my wife.
When I began serving alongside fellow elders in the church, the issue of what to share amongst ourselves had to be faced. Sometimes matters must be brought to the attention of the elders for the welfare of the church. This point is noted in our church constitution, which states,
Any matter involving controversy within this church, within the officers, or between the congregation and the officers, if it threatens to cause dissension and injury to the welfare of the church, must be called to the attention of the Elders.
Thus, if anyone shares with me information that could divide the church or the eldership then I am bound to relay that information to my fellow elders.
Beyond that, there are times that the collective wisdom of the elders is needed to address a particular issue in a member’s life. In such situations where the matter is sensitive, I make sure that the member is agreeable before seeking that wisdom.
Because I refuse to allow anyone to bind my conscience on their own terms, I have occasionally stopped a person in mid-sentence when I hear the words, “You cannot tell anyone what I am about to tell you.” My reasoning goes like this: if you cannot trust my judgment regarding what to do with the information you share with me then you probably should not trust my judgment to give you counsel in the matter at hand.
Confidentiality is important, but it is not ultimate. There are limits. In pastoral ministry, those limits need to be clearly in mind and carefully followed for the sake of the church, the one doing the confiding, and the pastor.
I have recently formalized the confidentiality policy that I have have followed for the last thirty years of ministry. I will post that policy in the near future for those who are interested.