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Confidentiality and the Ministry Spouse: by PW

posted by Scot McKnight

One of our constant readers and commenters is “PW”, who is helping us think about the issues surrounding the spouse of a minister — not always a female, we add. Do you tell your spouse everything? What do you keep back? What rules do you use? Now on to PW:

This has happened more than once in my life as a ministry spouse: I have had people stop me in the hallway of the church and start to talk to me about something that was confidentially discussed between them and the pastor (my spouse). I had no clue what they were talking about. In one case, you could see by the look on the person’s face that it just occurred to her that I was not privy to her discussion with my spouse.
 
I know for a fact this could happen to executive spouses and people in other professions. How do you handle confidentiality with your ministry spouse? Or your professional spouse?  We have a policy to keep confidential things confidential unless there is reason to first get permission to discuss it with our spouse. 



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Mike M

posted June 16, 2009 at 1:15 am


Now that “pastor” means more than “teacher” and includes “counselor” and even “therapist,” aren’t pastors bound by the same rules of confidentiality as physicians? I might discuss a patient with my wife who is an RN but never, never name names. I don’t even ask permission from my patient to do so. That’s not only illegal, but also unprofessional.



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Your Name

posted June 16, 2009 at 5:37 am


This is a good comment. Any relationship, sponsor, mentor, pastor,
doctor, even dentist or lawyer…….has rules of confidentiality. From experience as a nurse and teacher, not only are these lines not to be crossed…many of these professional roles have very severe laws that must not be broken about confidentiality.
There is nothing more refreshing than talking ‘in secret’ about a
problem to one person, and seeing the look of surprise on the partner’s face, beit pastor or mentor, if I mention it to them. To know that one can really keep things in private.
There is nothing worse than not being able to have some confidentiality with Someone in this world. To know that I can talk to another in private and not have it broadcast to the entire community.



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Cameron

posted June 16, 2009 at 6:00 am


I know that doctors will talk with other doctors about patients’ confidential issues to help clarify their thinking and to get the benefit of another’s experience. In a small town like mine, the second doctor may know the patient quite well in a different context, and it will be perfectly clear who the patient is.
Within appropriate boundaries that would seem to be quite acceptable.
Should the situation between pastors be any different? For example, if the youth pastor isn’t sure how to deal with a particular teenager in the church I would think it is quite okay for him or her to discuss the problem with the senior pastor, who may know the teenager well.
This is relevant in my particular case, because my wife and I are both ordained and are both installed as co-pastors of our church. It is quite normal for us to discuss the issues our church folk come to us with. Our church folk expect this—they know that if they talk to one of us they are effectively talking to both of us.
There have been a few times when people have expressly asked one of us not to discuss it with the other. Sadly, the vast majority of the times that has happened the person concerned has been trying to drive a wedge between us for whatever nefarious reasons they might have. The other times have generally involved plans for surprise birthday parties.
So in our case, we are very deliberate to make sure we both know what is going on in each other’s respective sphere of ministry. he risk of not doing so is far too great.



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Rick in Texas

posted June 16, 2009 at 8:14 am


Confidentiality has a place in the ECC’s Ethical Guidelines for Ministers, and I am glad it’s there – and that I am bound by it.
http://www.covchurch.org/uploads/7w/iB/7wiB9ljsXHuNT2KpnVR2BA/Ethical-Principles-for-Cov.-Ministers.pdf



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My 2 Cents

posted June 16, 2009 at 9:24 am


This is one of those topics where when you live by keeping confidentiality, you may have people who do not understand keeping those confidences and why. No matter. You keep the confidence. Examples of gray lines for things in our protestant background have been “prayer requests” and “sharing.” And yes, it can be a very touchy thing when a youth pastor discusses or “consults” about a confidence. There may be few people who would qualify as able to keep that confidence or worthy. My number one question has always been: why share it? what does it gain to disclose it to anyone?
On the other hand, I have also seen many a pastor and/or youth pastor who do not know when to exercise their “duty to report” when a keeping a confidence is hiding an abuse. There are some of these issues on which I feel that pastors and denominations need much more training than they receive in seminary. I do think with some of the child protective actions churches are taking for children in childcare and Sunday School, we are doing better at that.



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John W Frye

posted June 16, 2009 at 10:24 am


I was encouraged by a seasoned pastor when I was younger to not make quick assurances of confidentiality, but to say “I will handle this information you’ve given me in a very responsible way.” With this, I am free to keep the information strictly confidential if appropriate, but if I discern I need advice, I am free to get it. As mentioned above, calls for confidentiality may have a very dark side and may be used as a wedge or as leverage to pursue an unhealthy aim.



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Kathi Browne

posted June 16, 2009 at 10:27 am


The bible says that when a man and woman marry, they become one. In addition, it says that the man is to be head of the house and the woman is to serve. This is the basis for my position…
I have proposed to CEO wives that every successful company has ONE great leader, but that leader always has a right-hand man who he confides in, asks for advice, and listens to for feedback. The right-hand man proudly serves the CEO, and enables him to be more successful. The home is a company, too. A wife serves as the right hand (wo)man, but on a more intimate level. The head of the house counts on her to be there as he makes important decisions. Because the bible says they become one, sharing confidential information is not wrong. However, a wife must keep the secrets as her own or blow it for them both (remember the story about the apple?). This is how a man and woman grow closer and how an executive husband can purge from stress in the privacy of his home.
It is selfish and shameful for anyone to expect their secrets to take precedence over another’s mental health or to act as a divide between a husband and wife.



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Sue

posted June 16, 2009 at 11:55 am


Kathi,
Your reasoning is no doubt shared by many, but it wouldn’t hold up in court. As was mentioned in earlier posts, there are strict laws regarding confidentiality in many professions, and pastors would do well to abide by the same standards. When counselors or people in the medical field request to share information about a person, it is always with another professional and for specific, professional reasons, such as for supervision or for sharing expertise. Unless a professional’s spouse is in the same field and signed permission has been given to the professional to discuss a specific condition, a doctor, counselor, or pastor is breaking confidentiality by sharing with a spouse.
If a pastor regularly shares information with a spouse, the pastor should make that known up front. If a parishioner comes in for pastoral counseling, the pastor should say, “Anything we talk about today I might share with my spouse. If you don’t want him/her to know about it, don’t tell me.” I don’t know how others in this conversation would react, but I would then turn right around and get my counseling, pastoral or otherwise, elsewhere.
If what the parishioner has to say involves the spouse, then that adds a whole other level of wisdom.
A general rule of thumb is to assure someone that you will keep their information confidential unless you believe that the person is in immediate danger of harming themselves or others. Then the wisest thing is not to tell a spouse, but to get the appropriate medical, mental health, or public safety officials involved as soon as possible.



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pepy3

posted June 16, 2009 at 2:46 pm


Even the spouse of the pastor may have to set clear lines on who they are–not the pastor. I do think there are times when church staff and spouses can get sucked into real dilemmas when supporting people in a church setting. People in trouble or hurting will look at you and in essence say: Is this person I am talking to a representative of the church?
Some lives may get messy and they bleed the lines of who they are talking to.
I think we help people when we keep the boundaries clear. And we spouses are wise not to get caught up in the wrong things (discussions, gossip, prayer requests). My spouse does not disclose confidences. If it even gets close to a disclosure, I do not want nor need to hear it. I usually have plenty of insight as to what is going on without being told things directly. But, it is still not my information to discuss or share. This is an area that younger ministry people could probably use more training or case studies to understand how easily they could get hurt or hurt their spouse’s ministry by mishandling this or being naive in their handling of information.



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Mike M

posted June 17, 2009 at 11:20 am


For anyone to suggest that my commitment to serve others is “selfish and shameful” because I honor my patients’ rights to confidentiality is very offensive.



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Robyn

posted June 17, 2009 at 11:51 am


Lots of successful companies have MORE THAN ONE great leader who share decision making and treat each other as equals…
And marriage is a relationship, not a company.



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MatthewS

posted June 17, 2009 at 2:30 pm


We are more and more involved in ministry as I work my way through seminary part time. I am very verbal and I tend to process my thoughts by putting them into words. My wife is perceptive of people and supportive of me. She listens well and often has insight that I would not have. I am more interested in pastoral counseling than preaching. Obviously I am going to need to be very careful in this area of confidentiality.
I am curious if anyone here with experience in pastoral counseling has involved their spouse in any sessions? Is it possible that some clients would appreciate the added perspective?
Otherwise, is it possible that some pastors might inform their congregation that they discuss cases, when appropriate, with their spouse unless requested not to?



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Mike M

posted June 18, 2009 at 12:14 am


Matthew (12): may I make some suggestions for you? Keep confidentiality as precise as physicians do. You would never be found at fault for that (except by hopelessly romantic and unrealistic wives). Feel free to discuss your concerns about your flock with your wife, just don’t give names. I really mean that: no hints, no nicknames, no initials, no winks that are as good as nods. If she suggests a name, don’t acknowledge it, just say you are bound by ethical considerations not to disclose that. If she figures out whom you are talking about, good for her but is that in the best interest of the parish member?
I value my wife’s opinion immensely. She can shine light on corners of darkness I don’t even know exist. But that still doesn’t mean she has to know names. Don’t even inform your congregation that you might discuss cases with your wife. Perhaps you would scare off someone who really needs help. God bless you and your wife in your ministry together.



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Patrick C

posted June 27, 2009 at 10:45 am


My pastor, through exposure to others, confronted me to some extent, on my behavior. I did not confess to him whatsoever. I did concluded that through Jesus Christ, my belief in HIM, I could be saved from my abusive nature. I was saved, reborn to JESUS. Thank you JESUS.
My pastor then went on and told his wife, his kids, his friends, other pastors, other speakers, other others unending.
I feel abused and totally betrayed.



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DP

posted December 30, 2009 at 1:07 pm


Keeping confidence as a pastor can be really hard. There are times I want to share something with my spouse because I want her opinion, feedback, or, admittedly, just want to see the look of shock on her face when she learns something. However, I don’t toy with gray areas, i.e. “I can tell you this, but no names.” “No Name” will know who they are, and that confidence was broken. It seems safer not to share anything with my spouse that was said to me in confidence by a parishoner. She respects that, as she is a professional also. In addition to the professional and ethical reasons for keeping confidence pointed out by others in their comments here, I believe I am somewhat protecting my spouse from abuse by the congregation. If she knows nothing about a particular situation, and it’s clear to the congregation that she knows nothing, they will not try (or will try less) to subtly coax information out of her.



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DP

posted December 30, 2009 at 1:08 pm


Keeping confidence as a pastor can be really hard. There are times I want to share something with my spouse because I want her opinion, feedback, or, admittedly, just want to see the look of shock on her face when she learns something. However, I don’t toy with gray areas, i.e. “I can tell you this, but no names.” “No Name” will know who they are, and that confidence was broken. It seems safer not to share anything with my spouse that was said to me in confidence by a parishoner. She respects that, as she is a professional also. In addition to the professional and ethical reasons for keeping confidence pointed out by others in their comments here, I believe I am somewhat protecting my spouse from abuse by the congregation. If she knows nothing about a particular situation, and it’s clear to the congregation that she knows nothing, they will not try (or will try less) to subtly coax information out of her.



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