By Eddie Lowen
“Can I speak to you, confidentially?”
A church leader is asked some form of this question at least several times a year. Normally it comes from within the church, but it can also be voiced by nonattendees. For relationally gifted leaders with a pastoral bent, requests for confidential conversations are more frequent.
The most important response to a request for confidentiality is the initial one. Many church leaders feel an ethical or pastoral obligation to grant the request without qualification. With no clue about what will be reported or confessed, many church leaders indiscriminately reply by saying, “Of course, you can.”
But what if the person . . .
• Tells you of his or her affair with a married person in your church?
• Informs you that a staff member or elder has behaved illegally or immorally?
• Tells you about a child or teen who is being abused?
• Shares that a subversive staff member is recruiting people to start another church?
• Tells you he or she is thinking about you often and/or feels attracted to you?
If any of these things is said to you, you’d better tell somebody! In most (perhaps all) of the instances above, it would be impossible for you to protect the information without being negligent or foolish. At least one of them carries a legal obligation to speak-up.
So, why would you commit to confidentiality before knowing what will be said?
When someone asks to speak to me in confidence, I respond, “Unless you tell me something that I have an obligation to share with someone else, we can speak confidentially.” The word obligation gives me room to discern whether or not I have a biblical, legal, ethical, relational, or leadership responsibility to share what I learn. But notice that’s a relatively long list of exceptions—which is exactly the point. While some people may not speak without receiving a blanket commitment of confidentiality, I prefer to risk not learning of something important, rather than risk being bound to keep a secret that I have a greater obligation not to keep.
If the person asks me for an explanation, I say, “If you speak to me about a purely personal matter that does not obligate me to involve someone else, of course it is confidential. But if you tell me about something that my leadership role or relationships require me to act upon, I will have no choice. I can’t know until you share the concern.” In my case, no one has walked away because he did not accept the ground rules. In fact, some people immediately see the wisdom in such a response.
Confidentiality Among Leaders
There are numerous confidentiality scenarios that arise between church members and leaders. Discussing and distilling them with your team would be valuable. But since this column is primarily intended for leaders, let’s explore confidentiality among leaders, namely church staff and key volunteers.
Two guiding principles shape confidentiality expectations in the church I serve:
• First, church leaders comprise a single team that works for unity and in unity. One of the most clarifying principles I’ve discovered is that great church leaders do not withhold vital information from one another, even under the pretext of confidentiality. In fact, healthy teams proactively share information when doing so protects or promotes church health. Are you in a leadership role? If you can help your church prepare for a difficult reality, correct a wrong, avoid further damage, or address an unhealthy attitude, it is your responsibility as a leader to help it happen.
Like most principles, unity principles can be stretched beyond reason or justification. No church benefits from a tattletale culture. There is information that need not be shared because the timing isn’t right, the stakes aren’t high, or because a resolution is nearly complete.
However, information that enables leaders to better protect or lead the church should be shared out of a sense of obligation. Granted, it can be difficult to know the difference! But if you have wise leaders, they know the difference! If you’re unsure, give your supervisors an overview, first with redacted names, then ask if they need more detail. If not, you’ve been discreet. If so, they will seek more information. Your leaders will know you are sensitive to the church’s health. You will know you didn’t inappropriately sit on information leaders need. Let your leaders help resolve your confidentiality dilemmas.
Psychology isn’t my area of expertise (I doubt I fully recognize my own motives). But it appears to me some church leaders treat information like currency, holding it back for murky reasons. Some personality types are prone to building personal networks (or even fan bases), even if it must be done at the expense of the overall ministry. This is subconscious for some, but intentional for others. When you accept a leadership role in a church, your personal calling and influence never outweigh your responsibility to those who provided that context. Unless those who lead you are the source of obvious wrongdoing, share the insight you gain. All of it. That’s unity.
• Second, ignoring or hiding dysfunction (especially by other leaders) damages the church. Ironically, holding back information in a misguided attempt to protect people and their privacy often backfires when the truth comes to light. More damage is done. More trust is lost. More momentum is sacrificed.
Here are some of the invalid reasons church leaders give for failing to communicate openly about dysfunctional church members or other leaders:
• “That person was my friend before I ever became a church leader.” I have two names for the person who offers this excuse: Ananias and Sapphira. God did not excuse Sapphira for cooperating with her husband’s scheme to misrepresent their generosity. When you become a leader in the church, your loyalty to Jesus must take precedence over your desire to avoid conflict with those you love. Jesus commanded us to love him more than our closest family. We don’t love them less; we just love him more.
• “I wasn’t wearing my church leader hat at that moment.” Church leadership is a calling and identity, not a disguise we don for meetings and worship services. If you accept a church leadership role, you’re a church leader.
• “I promised I would keep it confidential.” Yes, but you should not have. You need to correct your error, not solidify it. When you realized you were being given information that needed to be shared, you should have said, “I am truly sorry that I spoke hastily. I should not have guaranteed confidentiality before knowing what you would say. This info needs to be heard by other leaders, so do you want to tell them over the next 24 hours, or shall I?” That’s an uncomfortable (but honest) fix for a confidentiality commitment that should never have been voiced.
• “I was afraid the leadership team would overreact.” This might be a valid concern. But the fact remains those leaders are the ones to whom God has given the responsibility to respond. It’s simply not your call to divert or withhold information.
Beware the trap of hastily offered confidentiality. And if you know someone who could benefit from this advice, don’t keep it a secret.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.