Here’s a guest post by Matt Murphy about breaking confidence in youth ministry, it’s actually a fragment from his recent book so check out the details at the end of the post!
Loose lips sink (relation)ships
Parents and youth wonder without asking ‘Are you trustworthy?’ Teens look to see how you handle who they are and if they’re safe around you. One key that I use to help me know that I’m breaking confidence is that if my heart is telling me “This is too good not to tell someone else (drool)…” then it is confidential. Keep in mind, breaking confidence unnecessarily will sink your relationship with that person and anyone else who hears of it. Unless you have permission directly from an individual to share a story, just don’t. While loose lips sink relationships, sharing stories that are ‘too good not to tell’ are the torpedoes of effective caring.
Not seduced by secrets
When asked, “Can you keep a secret?” it means you are about to get hit with some pretty deep material. Never promise to keep a secret. In most cases you have an obligation to get help for that person if they are going to 1) harm themselves, 2) harm someone else or 3) cause damage to property. Assure them you will walk them through whatever they’re going through no matter how ugly. Often this involves getting in touch with your Senior Pastor and determining who needs to know this information (parents, police, paramedics, etc.). Never do this part alone.
When sharing IS caring
Sharing with staff/supervisors
Generally, going up the ladder to a direct supervisor is not breaking confidentiality when they need to do their job and for you to do yours. If the situation may turn legal, keeping the information confined to a need to know basis is crucial for a fair investigation and away from creating a witch-hunt and media circus.
Sharing with your spouse
Sometimes you’re both part of a ministry team and sharing is collegial. However, there are times when I’d advise against sharing with your spouse. A big one is when there’s no benefit to your spouse’s soul to know information. Another is when the potential for the information you’re keeping confidential may cause tremendous damage to your ministry or youth if it gets out in a poorly handled manner. I would share confidential information with my spouse when they need to be protected from and alerted to potential danger.
Sharing with parents
Confidential conversations with minors who have parents who have a vested interest in their children’s well-being is tricky. Adolescents are entering an age where they begin to have some expectation of privacy and legally may have claim to it. When you need to break confidentiality, parents often need to be in the loop. However, there are times when the information is not “harmful” to the extent where confidentiality would need to be breached (see above). I find in these situations it is best to encourage the teen and their parent to talk with each other. If a parent comes demanding information, encourage them to talk directly with their youth. Let them know it will help build a stronger relationship. My disclosing the conversation could harm their relationship with their teen (by being a nosy, busy-body, helicopter parent) and the youth and their friends will no longer trust me. Affirm your support for the parent and evaluate if you could help by offering the student to mediate this conversation. If you ever find yourself in one of those meetings, try to brief both sides separately on what is about to happen, then work to have them take turns talking. Stay as neutral as possible.
This post is a fragment from Matt Murphy and Brad Widstrom’s new book, 99 Thoughts on Caring for Your Youth Group: From Coffee Shop Counseling to Crisis Care. Matt Murphy is a 14-year veteran of youth ministry across multiple contexts. He is married to his wonderful wife Darcy. He combines his background in clinical social work, education at Denver Seminary with his passion for helping hurting teenagers and youth workers. You can find more about him on his blog at EngagingTheShadowsofYouthMinistry.com or find him on Twitter @MattMurphymswym