One of the challenges I faced when I started work in the church was learning new ways of thinking about confidentiality. I came out of 14 years of service with a mission organization that prided itself in its sense of community, which was sometimes interpreted to mean that everyone knew everything about everyone else and had a presumed right to “speak a word from the Lord” into any situation. At the back of this were values of openness and vulnerability, and this aspect of the corporate culture did, at times, provide the solace of knowing that one was not alone in one’s troubles. However, it also ingrained in us a casual attitude with regard to keeping our own or other people’s issues private and confidential.
I remember one particular gathering where a senior staff member asked us to form groups of four with whomever it was we were sitting near. We obediently did so. Next request: share with one another your most secret sins, so that these things will be out in the open and no longer have power over you. I looked around at the other three seated in my group, none of whom I knew very well and all of whom were looking nervously down at their hands as they rubbed them together. Finally, breaking the silence, I said, “Guys, this is bullshit, and I’m not going for it.” To which they all immediately agreed.
That occurrence was a one off, and obviously extreme. I’m all for openness and vulnerability, but the purpose of baring my soul to whoever happens to be seated next to me…well, that’s just completely irresponsible in my view.
Caution was necessary when I started my training with the church, started making the rounds to visit people at home or in hospital, hearing their stories. It was a genuine challenge for me to learn to keep what I knew to myself. But as the years have gone by, and I was ordained, I have come to appreciate that my pledge of professional confidentiality is one of the most powerful tools I have in pastoral ministry. When people have the assurance that what they share with you in confidence will go no further – ever – it generally opens up such a level of trust that it really IS possible to share deep hurts and secrets, and have them addressed.
Naturally there are levels of confidentiality, and it is not always wrong to share information with others – given, of course, that the person in question is fully aware of and concurs with the purpose and extent of the sharing. I think the Church would be a much better place relationally if we could all be a bit more counter-cultural and learn again to respect each other’s privacy.