How do you handle confidential information?
The stewardship of confidential information is one of the greatest conundrums of pastoral ministry. Mismanaging confidentialities can destroy a ministry. Withholding information when information is essential or sharing information when it should not be are the extremes to avoid.
Unfortunately there’s a large area in the spectrum between “sharing” and “withhold.” In some cases, laws define–and proscribe–what is considered “privileged” information.
What Is “Confidential” Information
Many states and countries have laws regarding confidentiality and privileged information. In broad, general terms, many laws simply state that any information shared exclusively between a pastor and a counselee in a private setting, cannot be subpoenaed in court. Pastors cannot be forced to reveal or testify to such information. This of course, varies from state to state, country to country, and from time to time.
Confidential information is any information–spoken or written–which is specifically privileged. It is also information which, if released, would violate either the letter or intent of the commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, has a classic exposition of the Eighth Commandment. The central intent of this commandment, he taught, is to preserve as much as possible the valuable esteem and reputation of others. In settings other than those which are legal, information of a sensitive nature is simply best left unspoken.
James’ Two-Pronged Motivational Approach
The Epistle of James, though not using the word “confidential” (in fact, the word “confidential” does not occur in the Scriptures), uses a two-pronged approach to motivate Christians to uprightly manage confidences.
First, James refers to the “Principle of Self-Advantage.” It is to our own advantage to hold confidences and other potentially damaging information. “We all stumble in many ways,” James reminds us. No one is “able to keep his whole body in check” (James 3:2 NIV). Since none of us are perfect, no one ought to rejoice in another’s weakness. Indeed, it is to our own advantage to heed the Golden Rule in this regard. After all, it is to our own advantage.
Second, James refers to the “Principle of The New Man.” Those who “harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition” (James 3:14 NIV) are among those most likely to violate this principle.
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be” (James 3:9-10 NIV)
This second principle underscores an essential aspect of confidentiality. Confidentiality is something which the “old man” decries and the “new man” in Christ embraces.
Furthermore, it is the very nature of the grace-redeemed Christian to be transformed in the renewing of the mind in every area of his life including confidences. The stewardship of confidences must, in biblical context, flow from the awareness of one’s “new life” in Christ. It compels the Christian to manage confidences as Christ did.
- Four Aspects Of Confidences
Confidences have at least four aspects. These are diagrammed in Joharian fashion below.
Four Aspects Of Confidences
Intended Unintended Active 1 2
1) Active Intended Confidence: An Active Confidence is one that is specifically and intentionally communicated to a confidant in a confidential setting with the specific intent that it remain confidential. Active Confidence emphasizes the intent of the confider.
2) Active Unintended Confidence: An active confidence that was communicated to a confidant in a confidential setting. However, though other peripheral information was intended to be spoken, Active Unintended Confidence includes those “Freudian Slips” and other unintentional release of information.
3) Passive Intended Confidence: A passive confidences relate to that which is overheard. Passive intended confidences are those confidences that the hearer intended to hear. In simpler terms, it’s snooping. It is, of course, unethical and unbecoming of any Christian.
4) Passive Unintended Confidence: In this situation, the one hearing the information just happened to be in the right place at the right time to hear what another had no planned intention of revealing. This information often provides volatile fodder for gossip. From a Christian ethical perspective, this, too, must be kept in strict confidence.
Other Aspects Of Confidences
1) Confidences can be helpful or hurtful. Either type of confidence presents a challenge to proper stewardship by those holding the information.
2) Confidential information may be time-sensitive. Confidences which must be closely guarded today at the risk of great consequence may, at another time, be of no consequence at all. Governments routinely de-classify top secret information after the information poses no threat to security and only historical interest. Some confidences, however, are durative and should never, ever be revealed.
3) Confidences are a coping mechanism. Often emotionally-loaded, individuals share confidences as a way to release a whole range of emotions including overwhelm, stress, anger and hostility.
4) Confidences cause fear. Counselors often find that people who have a “crisis” need to talk with the may share all kinds of personal information regarding the most intimate details of theirs and others lives. Sometimes this information is necessary for supportive intervention. After the emotions have subsided and the need for the information diminishes, counselees may regret the surprising amount of information revealed. This can cause withdrawal, fear, distrust or other reactions.
5) Confidences are subjective. They are rooted in the eye of the beholder. They may or may not be factually true. Things which are considered “unspeakable” by one individual may be part of casual conversation for another. Since what is confidential is determined by the counselee, pastors may have different perceptions of confidentiality. Thus, they may make mistakes by misjudging what is and what isn’t confidential.
6) Confidences are subject to misinterpretation. The confidant also receives the confidential sharing and processes it in their own subjective framework. Active listening and painstaking efforts to fully understand the confidence are also essential.
7) Confidences have an internal, essential rumor-fueling momentum. It is the nature of secrets to want to be told. Like children anxiously awaiting opening the presents in anticipation, adults anxiously await what secrets they might hear next. As soon as they hear them, they immediately share confidences without checking for possible misinterpretation. This creates an unstoppable, energetic momentum for rumors and gossip.
8) Confidences may be motivation-related. For what reasons does one share a confidence? It could be for support. It could also be a trap. More than one pastor has had the experience of having information shared in confidential counseling sessions be published freely in a damaging manner throughout the congregation or beyond.
9) What is told in confidence may not be confidential. Whether by reason of public record or by obvious circumstances, information some consider to be confidential may not be confidential at all. Such cases are often related more toward “face saving” than toward maintaining confidences.
10) What one shares without knowing it is confidential may, in fact, be confidential. Just because others have talked about it does not make it right for others to talk about it. Christians always need to keep up their character.
11) Sharing or Keeping Confidences is not dependent on the information. It is not necessarily the nature or content of the information that makes a confidence confidential. It is the desire of the confider. By not observing the stated wishes of the confider, even the most well-intentioned confidant can cause irreparable havoc to both confider, confidant and others.
12) Sharing or Keeping confidences is not dependent on the person. God is not a respecter of persons. Trusted confidants are also not respecters of persons. Whether powerful or weak, intelligent or less intelligent, male or female, influential or private, big givers or inactives, a confidence is to be held confidential because it is a confidence.
13) Keeping confidences is one of the highest indicators of the highest level of integrity and Christian character. When confidential information comes their way, Christians ought always be the person who stops the rumor, the gossip, or the sharing of confidential information. The ability to harness the inclinations of the evil heart and to tame the tongue is, perhaps, the greatest indicator of character for any Christian pastor.
The Problem With Confidences
The problem with confidences is trying to find a formula which can be applied simply and universally. That’s the problem. It is hard to find a way to provide for all eventualities. In the final analysis, it is really impossible to find a “one-rule-fits-all.”
In spite of this, there’s no reason for pastors to throw up their hands in frustration or disgust. There are some considerations which, if considered, may be of assistance in maintaining the ever-so-delicate balance of confidential information.
An Issue Of Character
Keeping confidences is perhaps more an issue of character and casuistry than of laws and universal statutes. Legalist formulas and proscribed approaches for withholding or sharing confidential information do not always best serve the confidant, the confider, or the confidential information. At the other extreme, “good intent” does little to help fix the damage done by mis-managed confidences.
Ultimately, the greatest issue in confidentiality is the character of the confidant. “Trusting” information to one does not mean that the information shared will always be handles as the confider wishes. Indeed, when someone indicates they are going to commit suicide or murder someone, the integrity of one’s Christian character mandates that appropriate sharing of the information be given to save lives.
- Approaches To Confidentiality
Confidentiality is like ethics in that there are different approaches and assumptions for different situations.
1) Legal Approach:
2) (Do a consideration of various ethical approaches…and name the levels after them).
Nor does having “good intent” cover the mistakes of judgment which may occur.
The pastor has to make judgments according to the needs of the situation.
Levels Of Confidentiality
Perhaps an effective handle for dealing with confidentialities are “Levels Of Confidentiality.” These levels are based on two major criteria: nature of the information and the relative organization effect (if any).
- Level 1: Absolute Confidentiality: (i.e. personal information that has
absolutely no affect on the church). Not shared at all.
Level 2: Immediate Confidentiality (i.e. when someone shares information
about things which affects the credibility of leaders). Though not “confidentiality” in the strict sense, the information is still carefully guarded. It is considered “confidential” and shared only with one trusted leader/confidant (e.g. Elder Chairman) to determine course of action (e.g. another conversation with the individual who initially shared the information). It is, broadly speaking, confidential in that the those privy to the information are limited and controlled.
Level 3: Intervention Confidentiality (i.e. when someone is in need but
doesn’t want others to know). Need may be mentioned to a trusted leader with
access to resources to assist the person.
- Level 4: Discreetness. When the information is no longer confidential but, for the sake of upholding the individual, unnecessary information is neither provided nor volunteered.
Of course, confidentialities usually seem to raise more questions than they answer. Questions might include, “What about correcting a confidentiality that is misstated?” “Or are there certain exceptions where the confidence should be shared, though normally it might not be?” etc. are just some of the many questions that can be raised.
The overall concern with confidences is to balance clergy confidentiality and the highest standards of churchmanship, the legal requirements for pastors, and the interests of the local church. Most importantly, it’s putting all of these considerations–and any others–on a solid Christian foundation motivated by the love of Christ. We love, John said, because He first loved us. Our stewardship of confidences is a telling witness of that love.
Certainly, it is in the highest interest of the church that the pastor remain confidential. There are no easy answers for every situation. Perhaps the levels of confidentiality may provide an effective handle, a good starting point for managing the confidential information in your ministry.
Thomas F. Fischer
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