- What do you do when a volunteer tells you they need to share something with you that they have gotten involved in? You suspect it’s something that could cause them to be removed from serving…and they ask you up front to not tell anyone else.
- What do you do when you catch wind that another staff member may be involved in something that is questionable…and the person telling you asks you to keep it a secret?
- What do you do when a parent tells you that there may abuse going on in another family in the church…and then they ask you not to say anything because it will cause the family to get mad at them because they’ll know who told it?
- What do you do when a volunteer tells you they need to tell you something another volunteer did that was illegal…but wants you to promise not to say anything because it’s their best friend?
I’m sure you have faced situations like this. Someone wants to tell you something but wants you to keep it confidential…no matter what it is. What do you do? Do you promise not to say anything? When is it appropriate to keep confidence and when is it not?
Recently Ken Behr, who is one of our Executive Pastors, addressed this tension with a great article. I want to share it with you.
Appropriate Confidentiality by Ken Behr
It’s not unusual for someone to come to me and say, “Pastor, can I share something with you in confidence?”
My response usually surprises them: “Depends on what you tell me.”
Often, church leaders are unsure of how to handle sensitive information that is received within the church body. The Bible actually has a lot to say about what we would understand as someone coming to another person in ‘confidence’ and disclosing a personal or moral issue.
As Christians, we are instructed that we are to ‘confess’ to one another. (Matthew 6:14; James 5:16) Questions immediately surface, however, when it comes to confidentiality that may be expected. While we are often asked to ‘keep this confidential,’ there are many times we cannot promise that, when we hear certain information, it won’t require a follow-up or other appropriate type of action.
- Information disclosed about abuse, molestation, theft, and vandalism typically obligates the receiver to further disclose the information to appropriate leaders who often have an obligation to disclose the same information to the civil authority.
- Moral failures, addictions, and even mental disorders often require that the person receiving the information take some action. While the person may be requesting ‘confidentiality,’ the sharing of the information indicates that help is needed and a resolution is desired.
And then there is the other issue: Gossip.
The Bible speaks about gossip. Gossips and ‘busybodies’ are to be avoided (1 Timothy 5:13). Gossip breaks up friendships (Proverbs 16:28). The word often translated ‘gossip’ is the Greek word for a whisperer, a secret slanderer, or a detractor. However, while gossip is to be ignored, factual information that threatens the integrity of the Body of Christ is a different matter and should not be ignored. These matters involving the spiritual health of the church, the protection of the sheep from wolves, and the restoration of the individual take precedence over a request for confidentiality and secrecy.
The leadership of the church has a responsibility to restore a person that is ‘caught’ in a sin. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” Galatians 6:1 However, just like a request for confidentiality, restoration is secondary to protecting the rest of the church. Protection is often accomplished through appropriate church discipline. Pastors, and by extension other church leaders, have the responsibility for discipline within the church. Anything that compromises the integrity of the church or will ultimately harm other church members or cause dissension needs to be dealt with by the church leaders from the Biblical aspect of church discipline.
In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus gives us a four-step approach to dealing with these confidential and sensitive matters in the church. The first step is to confront the individual alone. Steps two through four escalate the discipline, particularly for the non-repentant. “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love. Matthew 18:15-18
As believers and members of the Body of Christ, we are all under authority. Local church authority is a great place to start when dealing with an issue as described above. The first response should always be to encourage the offender to submit to the appropriate authority. If the person is hesitant, the church leader should let the person know that any consideration of confidentiality was presumptuous and cannot be honored because of the nature of the issue.