“Pastor, there’s an issue in the church I need to tell you about. It’s big and explosive – but you mustn’t tell anyone you heard it from me!”
“Pastor, I’ve got myself tangled up in something. I need to share it with you, but please don’t tell anyone else about it!”
“Pastor, Trevor confided to me that he is involved in something illegal. I don’t know what to do – he’s an elder of the church, but he’s also my best friend – he’d be so mad at me for telling you!”
What do you do? Do you promise not to say anything?
As Pastors, when is it appropriate to keep a confidence and when is it not? It is certainly a very difficult situation, and may also make us look out of touch when we can’t explain our actions to the church as a whole.
Example: Mike told me in confidence that he was battling with depression, making leaving the house difficult. He was taking anti-depressants and the medication was causing fatigue. At my request, he gave me permission to share the information with my wife and with the church leaders, but said he did not want it to be common knowledge.
Lauren noticed he wasn’t attending the Church on a regular basis anymore, and wanted to know why and if she and her husband could help. I told her, “Some things that are personal and need to be kept that way”. She countered with James 5:16 (NIV) “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” adding “How can we pray for Mike if we don’t know what to pray for?”.
How do we deal with this potential minefield?
It is a vast subject and I do not regard myself as an expert in this field. I can only refer to my experience as a Pastor for over 30 years. It requires a heap of godly wisdom and common sense, and should be marked ‘Handle With Care’.
Is keeping a confidence Biblical?
Is there ever a point where we might have to breach a confidence?
Do we need a policy to protect ourselves in this area?
Let’s start by defining confidentiality.
Confidentiality means respecting someone’s privacy and abstaining from sharing personal or potentially sensitive information about an individual.
What does the Bible say about confidentiality?
Although the actual word isn’t used, the concept of confidentiality does come up in the scriptures.
Obviously, it’s impossible to keep anything confidential from God.
“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.” Hebrews 4:13 (NIV) as the King of Aram found out. He tried to keep his invasion plans secret, and couldn’t understand how the Israelites were always ready for their attacks. Where were they getting intelligence from? One of his officers discovered the source of the leak, as seen in 2 Kings 6:12 (NIV) “Elisha the prophet who is in Israel, tells the King of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom,”.
The point here is two-fold:
- God knows everything
- If God wants something known, it will be known.
So, any attempt to keep secrets from God is pointless.
However, there were times when God instructed his people to keep things secret.
For example, in Joshua 2:1 “Then Joshua, Son of Nun secretly sent two spies.”
In Judges 16, Samson was instructed not to tell the Philistines the secret of his strength.
The Bible makes it clear, that there are times in our lives that are just between ourselves and God. Matthew 6:6 (NIV), “but when you pray, go into our room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
The Bible does demand confidentiality in Proverbs 11:13 (NIV), ”A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret”. Here, the Proverb writer tells us to honour things told to us in confidence. In fact, the Proverb writer goes a step further and tells us to avoid those who cannot keep secrets in Proverbs 20:19 “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much”.
Even if you have to challenge someone about their sin, confidentiality has to be applied, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 18:15 (NIV) “if your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you”. And remember Joseph’s response to finding out that Mary was pregnant; he was aiming for a quiet divorce, done in confidence, and this choice was because he was a righteous man.
Biblically, there is value in having the discernment to know when to keep something private and when to pass the information to others. We should be wary of hiding personal secrets so that we don’t have to deal with our sin and the temptation to expose others out of spite or vengeance. Rather than be gossips we should take the high road, with what we know. Holding a confidence therefore is important, but it must be done in a Biblical way.
Problems of Holding Confidences as Pastors.
Many years ago, Peter and Carol came to see me about a confidential matter. They told me that Carol was seriously ill, and she was going to die. I wasn’t sure how we were supposed to keep a death confidential, but then she went on to explain that in her youth, before she became a Christian, she had led a promiscuous lifestyle. She was HIV positive and in the early stages of AIDS. Inevitably, people would know she was seriously ill, and she would die, but they didn’t want anyone to know the nature of her illness.
The difficulty for me was when asked what was wrong with Carol, how was I to answer that question? There are all sorts of problems with keeping a confidence. Let me suggest some:
- Misunderstanding. We know that this is one of Satan’s favourite tools. The person asking you to keep something to yourself has often asked several other people to do the same. So while you are keeping something to yourself, there are other people who know that you know and seem to want to draw things out of you, to maybe talk about it. This can lead to an atmosphere of distrust. There are those in our churches who think that the Pastor should confide in them, and become disappointed with him, when previously confidential matters are subsequently shared. Remember Lauren, who wanted to know about Mike’s troubles so that she could pray intelligently for him?
Confidentiality is a problem for the ‘Laurens’, who say we should create an atmosphere of openness and anything else is seen to be undercurrent.
I believe the answer to this is to ensure that we have a culture of trust in our churches. The people in the Church need to trust their Pastor, trust their Elders, trust their Leaders, that what’s told to the Pastor it will be kept with utter respect. Years later, when Lauren had an issue within her own family that she wanted to be kept confidential, she could safely bring it to me, assured that her own privacy would be respected.
- One-sidedness. We all know that there are always two sides to a story.
Lesley came to tell me – in confidence – about the problems she was having with her husband and his unfair and harsh treatment of her. Why was she telling me in confidence? Was it possible to get her side of the argument in first? From the outset of this conversation, I made it clear to Lesley that if she was going to bring accusations against her husband I would have to take them up with him. She agreed, but it was clear to me in this case that her intention had been to discredit him first.
The danger with hearing only one side of a story is that it can cloud our judgment: we must always make clear that we will need to establish all the facts.
- Gossip. Whenever someone comes to you and asks to tell you something in confidence, you must ask yourself the question, why are they telling me this? In my experience, over the years as Pastor, that there are always people who like to drop gossip on your lap, and they are particularly good at spiritualizing everything. The tell-tale phrases are, “I am concerned Pastor, that we haven’t seen so and so recently”, or “Pastor, I would like you to pray about this situation.” then some salacious story is dropped on your lap.
The problem here is discerning the difference between gossip and genuine information. The Greek word for gossip translates as ‘secret slander’ and every Pastor should consider carefully and prayerfully whether the information passed on is secret slander. If so, the information must be ignored. The next problem you have is dealing with the slander next and also the slanderer. A tell-tale technique used by a gossip is to draw information from you by suggesting that they know all about it already. Extreme caution is required to ensure that such a person does not glean information from you by luring you into such a trap. Clearly, Pastors must pray for discernment on this matter, because there have been cases where Pastors have had to leave their Churches because they have been accused of gossiping.
- TMI! I want to suggest to you that there are people hiding within our churches who simply get a kick out of sharing inappropriately.
In the early days of my ministry, whilst in my late twenties, I was asked to visit a middle-aged married couple, Eric and Sharon. After I’d been settled into a comfy armchair and handed a cup of tea I enquired as to Eric’s whereabouts. Sharon casually told me that he’d unfortunately had to go out, but that she was pleased because there was something she wanted to confide in me about. Brothers, if ever you find yourself in this situation, I urge you to run for the hills! Sharon proceeded to regale me with stories of the efforts she was making to spice up their bedroom life. Being young and inexperienced at the time, I was at a loss, because quite frankly it was embarrassing. I shared the experience (not the detail!) with an older, experienced Pastor, who was acting as a mentor to me. He was very clear that she shouldn’t have shared all of this, and questioned her motives.
- Misrepresentation. Being told something in confidence can be extremely awkward, especially when you suspect that others have also been told. In our attempt to avoid being caught in a gossip trap we may find ourselves saying things like, “I don’t know” or feigning ignorance … when that is not entirely true. This ‘economy with the truth’ leaves room for people to say “well the Pastor didn’t tell the truth here”. For this reason, we must guard our language against using such phrases. Sometimes it may be more appropriate to maintain silence or say something like, “Thank you for your concern, I am aware,” – whether you verbalize the additional “… but it is not for you to know, and it’s not relevant for you to know.” will entirely depend on your knowledge of the person in question!
- Burden. You have been told in confidence of an issue that you know is a potential minefield. Clearly, the fewer people that know about it the better, or perhaps it’s not helpful or edifying for others to know. The problem is, how do you carry the burden alone? Is it ever appropriate to share it with your fellow elders, or with your wife, or a trusted confidante who is independent of the situation? Whatever the answer you give, the burden remains, and that can be draining.
Sharing Confidences – Who Can a Pastor Share the Burden With?
Let’s consider for a moment the role of our wives. If we have been blessed with a good wife, she is our help-meet in the trenches of ministry. She knows the importance of our role as Pastor. She is our rock. She can tell us things that if someone else said them, we would take offense. We also know about the union of husband and wife, where we become one. Therefore, we don’t hide anything from our wives, or at least we shouldn’t. I remember hearing a preacher say, if you have secrets from your spouse, there’s a problem.
The question here is two-fold: firstly, should we share with our wives, and secondly, how much do we tell our wives? The first answer is yes, everything. Next answer, very little.
I tell my wife my every movement, as this safeguards trust. I will tell her the gist of a confidence if possible. In almost every case, when someone is about to share a confidence with me, I stop them and ask, “is this something that I can share with my wife?”. If they say no, I want to know why, because I want to be able to tell my wife everything. However, my wife understands that I don’t tell her everything. She understands that sometimes this is for her own protection and sometimes for the protection of others. Pastors’ wives have a big responsibility especially when it comes to confidential matters.
There are certain things that Church leaders need to be made aware of. There ought to be within our culture an understanding that discussion within deacons’ or elders’ meetings is confidential, even if the subject will be made known at the Church meeting. Our church has a policy, that if a confidential issue is made known to one Elder, it will be made known to all the Elders. It is absolutely essential that the Elders stay united to keep that matter discreet. I am privileged to have unity amongst my eldership team. I recognize that in some situations there may be division amongst an Eldership, making it difficult for the Pastor to be at liberty to share. The same can be true of Deacons. However, wherever possible, if you have an eldership team you can wholeheartedly trust, then it’s good for the Pastor to offload to them.
When Must a Pastor Break a Confidence?
Information about abuse, theft, or crime of any sort should not be kept confidential, and this must be made known to the person bringing the information. If there is a moral failure, addiction, or a mental health disorder, it will often require that the person receiving the information take some action. While the person may be requesting confidentiality, the sharing of information indicates that help is needed and resolution is desired.
When someone comes and says, “I need to tell you something in confidence” we must be careful not to be backed into a corner. Ask questions first:
“Can I share this with my wife or the elders?”
“Does this involve another person?”
It would be wise to add the caveat “it depends on what you tell me” to any promise of confidentiality.
Each case has to be treated separately.
There may be some cases where a confidence is best kept. Some secrets will have to be taken to the grave with you.
There may be other cases where the burden is too great and you need to share it with others. Your wife may be best. If you have Elders you trust, then they are good people to turn to. Or it may be that you need to go to someone independent of the situation, such as a fellow Pastor. Remember you are asking others to keep a confidence and you should consider the impact of that burden on them.
Finally, as in all things, the need for grace. Wisdom is required in all confidential matters. Do we say anything? How do we answer? Have we conducted ourselves well? Is this piece of information too much of a burden for us? With the extra burden of the ministry, confidential issues need to be handled with care, delicacy, and with all the grace and wisdom God can give to us.