Suppose a deacon in the church came to his pastor and confessed committing adultery against his wife. At the end of his discussion with the pastor, he said, "Well, thanks pastor! I feel so much better about this now that I've gotten it off my chest. And remember, you have to keep everything I said confidential. See you at the Deacon's Meeting on Sunday!" If the pastor promised absolute confidentiality, he would not be able to speak to the deacon's wife, nor would he be able to take action to remove the deacon from his position as a church office. The pastor could, of course, break his promise, but that would raise additional ethical (and even legal) issues.
There are other circumstances where an understanding of absolute confidentiality is either unwarranted or unwise:
When a person confesses to committing a major crime, especially against a minor. The police need to be informed.
When a person is a danger to himself or others. Again, civil leaders such as the police or the Department of Human Services need to be informed.
When church discipline should be instituted. Other church leaders (or the entire church) need to be informed.
When wise counsel from others who have overcome similar situations is needed. To confer with someone who can help is not gossip. Gossip is defined as discussing something negative with someone who is not in a position to help.
When conflict in the church needs to be addressed.
To complicate matters, a pastor usually does not know beforehand what will be confessed to him in a counseling situation.
Pastors must determine what they are trying to accomplish: keeping secrets or bringing healing.
I never promise absolute confidentiality. In fact, I try to make it clear, in writing if possible, exactly what level of confidentiality I offer.
Below is a confidentiality policy that I have adopted as my own. It is based on a confidentiality policy in Christian Standard 118/10 (March 9, 2008): 182. I have the one being counseled sign it.
As church leaders--pastors, deacons, staff, counseling volunteers, and ministry leaders--we welcome and encourage you to be open and honest with us about the experiences you have had. We want you to know that we will treat you with caring and respect, and we will seek to hold in confidence the information you share.
The level of confidentiality we offer, however, has limits that you should be aware of from the outset of any communication with us.
We have a responsibility to speak to legal authorities if we learn that (1) you pose a threat to yourself or others; (2) sexual or physical abuse of a minor or a vulnerable adult (physically or mentally handicapped, or an elderly person) has occurred; or (3) any other serious crime has been committed.
We also have a responsibility to remain faithful to biblical instruction in the matter of church discipline (cf. Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:12-13; Gal. 6:1; 1 Thess. 3:6-15). As an exercise of God's love and grace, church discipline is designed to assist the sinning Christian to repent and to restore him to a harmonious family relationship with God as Father and with other Christians as brothers and sisters. Our commitment to church discipline, therefore, may require the disclosing of relevant information to certain others and, in rare situations, the entire church.
We will on occasion confer with others to ensure that we are providing the kind of care and support that we deem to be in your and the church's best interest. Therefore, please understand that the leaders of the church maintain the right to do the following:
To speak to our church's pastors about information deemed necessary for the benefit of the church.
To speak to other affected individuals. When other people at this church are involved--e.g., when relationships are broken; when there is anger or disappointment; when gossip is present; when actions affect the lives of others--we may approach those other people in an effort to understand better the story and to foster reconciliation, harmony, or the spiritual well-being of the church.
To speak to others who have experienced and overcome problems similar to those at hand. When we are made aware of a struggle that someone else in the congregation or the larger Christian community has dealt with successfully, we may speak to that person and enlist their wisdom and help in assisting you with your struggle. We recognize that God offers many resources for healing through His family.
We do not want the fear of exposure to keep you from approaching us. However, we also want you to understand that we are not making a promise of absolute confidentiality. Such a promise would hinder us in offering you our best help. If you have something that cannot be shared with anyone else at this church, we will be glad to help you find a professional Christian counselor who may be able to offer you a higher level on confidentiality.