Dear Members and Friends,
I want to describe a frustration I feel as a pastor. I want to support and participate in the prayer and pastoral ministries of congregations. At the same time, the pastoral role carries a unique responsibility — to honor pastor/member confidentiality. This responsibility has two dimensions which are accurate information and privacy.
Here are illustrations of these dimensions. It was my second Sunday as interim pastor in a congregation that collected written prayer requests when the offering was received with the expectations that each request would be spoken before or in the prayer. One of the prayer requests that day asked for prayers for the family of someone who had apparently died Saturday night. No one had mentioned his death before worship, during the church school hour, coffee gathering, or anywhere else. I knew it was important information for the congregation, but I didn’t feel right about mentioning it. After worship I asked an elder about the circumstances of the death, and he said, “I talked with him this morning!” On other occasions I have rushed to hospitals where I was told someone was “dying” only to find them sitting calmly in a chair beside the bed or saying they would soon be discharged. I have seen caring people announce genuine concerns in church without realizing there were others (children, close friends) who should have been given information before a public announcement was made.
It is important to the community of faith to be prayerful and caring. I value the information sent to the office or given to me about pastoral needs. I respond to those, but always in the context of honoring pastor/member confidentiality.
I have learned that vulnerable people appreciate my asking if they want information shared about their hospitalization, condition, or even that I’ve made a call at their home. I ask, “Would you like me to place your name on the prayer list?” or “Can I let people know you’re in the hospital?” or “If I am asked about your condition, do you want me to say anything?” Most of the people I visit say they do not want me to say they are in the hospital and a larger number of people do not want me to say anything about their condition. It is their information. What is said in pastoral conversation is privileged communication. Still, when it is appropriate, I remind people of the valuable support they can receive from their community of faith if, for example, people know they’re in the hospital.
I respect pastoral privilege and hope you cherish it, too. If you ask me to visit someone, I will visit. Trust I will go. It is that person who will tell you I’ve visited. You may suggest I visit someone because you sense tension in a family you care about, but the person or family may not want others to know they are experiencing turbulent times or even that the pastor has been there. It is my obligation to maintain their privacy.
My responsibility to maintain confidentiality places no obligation on anyone else. Members can talk about or pray for each other. You can communicate your concerns. The role of friends is different. If you have information and want to share it, go ahead. If it is public information (someone says “I’m going to the hospital Tuesday” to a group), then we can all talk about it together because the information is not given in the context of pastor/member confidentiality. But, if you ask if I’ve visited someone or how they’re doing, confidentiality applies to the visit. Know that I’ll visit. I hope you’ll understand that, if response to an inquiry about whether I’ve visited or how someone is doing seem vague, I’m honoring my professional obligation and their privacy.
First has a practice of reading names Sunday morning. I will ask you to mention joys and concerns during the time known as “Life in the Church.” The names you offer will be included in the prayers of the people. That’s very important.
I know I have a lot to learn about First and I am still and always will be learning how to be a pastor. If you want to talk about what I’ve written, I’m eager to talk.