Confidentiality in the local church

Beth has been part of your church for many years. You’re her small group leader and a close friend. You’ve been part of celebrating her recent engagement to George, another small group leader, having watched their relationship blossom over the last few years. But all is not well. As the wedding planning has intensified, there have been more arguments and more tension between them. Beth has sought you out to talk things through and pray. George’s frustrations have become increasingly loud, aggressive, angry outbursts, and she doesn’t feel she’s helping by aggravating him with poor decisions and not listening carefully enough to what he asks. Beth explicitly asks you not to tell anyone. She just wants someone to share it with and to pray with. She says she doesn’t want to aggravate things with George, or potentially damage his reputation and role within the church.

What do you do?

Confidentiality in the local church presents a wide variety of challenges. We often have multiple roles. We often have multiple responsibilities. And, maybe most crucially, we often have unspoken expectations of how confidentiality should work.

The cultural context

The culture we live in has a significant effect on our expectations. There are variations across the UK – some people are happy for everything to be known by everyone around. Predominantly, however, the expectations associated with the caring professions form the assumptions most people have for confidentiality within the local church.

We could summarise this as:

  • My information belongs to me,
  • I control with whom, and when, it should be shared,
  • Except for when a legal requirement to share exists (currently centred around safeguarding issues and the spread of contagious diseases).

We might describe this as an individualistic approach to confidentiality, or strict confidentiality, with a few critical exceptions.

Of course, it’s not an accurate view – the caring professions work in teams not alone. And this hasn’t always been the prevailing view of confidentiality. But it is likely to be both our starting position and the implicit expectations of many of those to whom we speak.

The role of experience

Some of us love that model – some of us don’t. And our experiences of it will often frame our opinions of how confidentiality in the church should be. If this strict view of confidentiality has made you feel safe in conversations, then challenges to it will feel threatening and you may quickly be tempted to reject any hint of something different. If you have been harmed by it, or found it difficult to work within, then alternatives will feel liberating, and you might be tempted to accept them too quickly and without nuance.

If we are going to operate differently, even if we believe that our approach is more biblical, then we need to tread carefully, explain clearly, and act with integrity.

Beginning a biblical framework

There are lots of different ways the bible describes God’s people in the New Testament: family – body – temple – bride. None of these models have a professional carer-cared for dynamic. Therefore, when we try to import a model of confidentiality based on that professional dynamic into the church setting, we tie ourselves in knots.

For example, let’s consider the image of being a body in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. What does this tell us about the form of the relationships we should have in the church? What implications does this have for confidentiality?

Here are two key things we see:

1) We are intimately connected together by the work of the Spirit. We all have a place and need of one another. If one of us suffers, it affects all of us. If one of us is honoured, we can all rejoice (v26).

2) Yet we are distinct and varied. We have differing gifts, roles and needs. Some are stronger, some are weaker. Some need more protection, others less. We “are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (v27).

This has significant implications for how we think about confidentiality.

First, we cannot approach the question at an individualistic level. We are connected, like a body, so we must consider the implications on the wider church family when determining what information we share or conceal. What an individual might instinctually believe is in their best interest might not be best for the wider body of Christ. Go back to the story at the beginning of this article – you can see this tension at play.

Second, we can’t approach the question of confidentiality uniformly. There are those in our church families who we need to treat with greater modesty. Those we love well by guarding their information carefully. And, whilst there is never a place for casual gossip or for forcing deeply broken people into sharing in ways that feel out of control, there are those we love well by sharing their information within clear, necessary groups.

This is much more nuanced and complex than a strict confidentiality model. We have to consider the wider church family as well as the individual. We also have to consider the specific circumstances, gifts, role and place of each person. Confidentiality is not uniform.

Two questions to help

What questions might help us work out how to proceed? Here are two:

1) How do I use what I have been told to best love this person as part of the church family?

This means considering the individual, their role and circumstances, and the wider body of Christ. It also means considering their expectations. Trampling on their wishes is unlikely to be loving them or the wider church well.

2) How can we shift our expectations of what it means to trust someone with information from ‘I trust you not to tell anyone this,’ to ‘I trust you to discern with me how to share this information in the best way for me and my church family’?