How do leaders proceed when they are asked to "keep it confidential"? Let's explore this common leadership pitfall.
I have found confidentiality a tricky issue. Other church leaders tell me they have too, so I thought it would be good to explore some of the problems.
The Gossip Trap
This is one we all have to guard against. Beware a hungry ego’s need to be at the centre of the information being passed around the church. But how can you guard against it, at least in part?
Well, if someone comes to me with a problem or complaint about another member, before they start I invariably ask if they have seen that person first. Only if they have got nowhere will I get involved (Matt 5:23, 24; 18:15-17). This practice helps a lot.
What do I do with things that have been told to me ‘in confidence’? First I need to be clear whether it was explicitly or implicitly understood that the confidence was limited. What were the limits – was it just for me? Or me and my wife for our prayers? Or for other leaders and their advice? Making this clear by asking the person will help a lot.
We may need to speak to someone before they ask us to keep a confidence: “It depends on what you say. I may have to share this with someone else who can be trusted by you as well.” Wisdom would say that a male pastor always includes his spouse in the circle of a conversation if a woman wants to share something confidentially. Alternatively he may need to ask that woman to share with, say, a woman worker in the church instead.
There can be no equivocation if something is disclosed which is related to criminal activity.
Such matters have to be mentioned to relevant authorities: a leader in the church, the police, or Social Services. I once had to advise a person to disclose something to the police on Christmas Day because it related to a suspected criminal action. I had to say that if they did not contact the police I would have to, or otherwise we would all be complicit in an alleged crime.
Complex Pastoral Matters
What if the matter shared with you is not criminal but it is very complicated and you are not sure what to say? You may feel you need another's input, but are grappling with having been asked to ‘keep this confidential’.
- Remember the medical model of confidentiality is complex. Whereas a GP will keep personal matters confidential, doctors often have to ask colleagues for help by ‘painting a scenario’. Names and identities are left out but a trusted fellow practitioner can be asked for their input. I have used this method when I was confused about pastoral problems and I sought help from a range of others by ‘painting a scenario’.
- Remember there is also an alternative medical model – ‘the mental health team approach’, where all clients will be discussed by the whole group so that they can provide the best possible care together. This keeps practitioners and clients safe. So to gain a person's permission, it could be very helpful to say: “I would like to share this with some trusted colleagues so that we can help you more. It will be kept only amongst us.”
One of the most difficult areas of confidentiality is what we say in public meetings, such as members’ meetings.
Many leaders feel caught on the horns of a dilemma; say nothing much and you get accused of secrecy or authoritarianism, say something too openly and people will feel that they can't trust you with sensitive information. You may also be aware that a lot of misinformation is flying around and you are sorely tempted to ‘put the story straight’.
Several things have struck me about public statements:
If you describe a pastoral problem you have come across in your preaching, make it explicit that you're not describing anyone the people who are present know. And, of course, never use your publicly privileged role as a smokescreen to get at others.
In my experience of matters of church discipline, the less said the better. Only if what a person has done is clearly public knowledge (1 Cor 5:1), should it be mentioned.
Otherwise I have found it right and good to say something like this: “We are having to remove X from our membership due to them not living out their Christian profession, and by their unwillingness to change after much discussion with leaders. We say this with great sadness and pray for that person’s restoration.”
Some members will always want to know more detail, but I think leaders must create a sense of trust and ask people to rely on their judgment in complex situations. Leaders often face criticism here, especially from church members who feel, “We have a right to know!” But love, "always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (1 Cor 13:7) and leaders will form a culture of integrity if they do not use public discourse to share unnecessary personal details, or their own side to a story.
Here’s a suggestion about how to handle a contentious public matter when, say, a member or a worker speaks out against the leadership and then moves on feeling aggrieved.
I would suggest trying to achieve ‘an agreed account’. Both parties write down their side of the story, they meet and seek to come to an agreed ‘one story’ which both parties sign up to. If the differences are very severe what can be achieved may only be, “Mr X felt he had to leave the church.”
But, with both parties able to write down and edit the other side’s version and coming to a summary statement that both are happy with, it will usually be fuller than this. Both parties then promise to stick to that one story, and add nothing more.
If, in the future, either side is asked, “What happened?”, this builds trust and confidence, and can help towards healing and resolution. It stops bitter recriminations caused by the retelling of the story to others who may not be in the know, and who hear just one side’s version.
This method of is a type of ‘conflict resolution’ that is fair to both sides and it avoids future nastiness. It also saves a leadership from getting too much into ‘defensive mode’ and publicly putting ‘their side’. Instead of that they can read out the statement that both parties have agreed to. It may be well worth you investing in its use.
Has this little note solved all the complex issues to do with confidentiality? Of course not, but maybe it has offered some wise pointers to avoid common pitfalls. It will certainly be worth you talking with other leaders about the matter of confidentiality as it can be a source of real difficulty in church life.