Peril: having a church full of secrets

August 4th, 2014

Ministers are privileged to see many things as we look out over the congregation during worship. As we observe, we may note differences from what we have come to expect. We see a lot, but at the same time, there is a lot that we cannot see and cannot imagine. It’s the unseen and unexpected that is the stuff of ministry.

These surprises are sometimes found in the secrets people carry—when someone says, “I have never told this to anyone.” The minister must be prepared to welcome what comes next—not to deny, doubt, diminish, or fear what is going to be said. Some secrets are kept until the person cannot carry them anymore. Others are kept until the secret-bearer finally has found someone he or she thinks will be able to hear the secret.

In ministry we find ourselves caught between enabling people to tell the secrets that burden them (opening doors for them) and keeping confidential whatever is given to us in trust (keeping doors closed). In both acts of pastoral care, we occupy sacred space with those in need.

It is only possible to engage in opening doors when we feel able to face whatever could be on the other side of the door. We need to be strong and capable. Then we are able to help doors open. In contrast, we may inadvertently keep doors closed, and locked. But once we have heard secret confessions, we are obligated to keep them secret. Working with elder church members, the “seasoned saints,” reminds me of the importance of the secrets people keep—individual, family, and congregational secrets. One does not have to deal in secrets for long before it becomes apparent that shameful secrets can be carried for long periods of time and may become life-distorting burdens.

Ministry faces such secrets as it enables people to fully realize the gifts they have been given. Ministry sometimes discovers that secrets that have been shared can become burdens for the minister. We know that there is a need for people to find someone to whom they can tell their shameful secrets and that, in receiving secrets (sometimes as confessions), we may be facing the dilemma of keeping what we have heard in confidence. Hearing another’s secret burdens is a strong argument for being sure every pastor has a supervisor or peer group for support and professional consultation. Of course the minister does not tell what she or he has been told in confidence, unless…. But this is not always true and clear. Some secrets we are obligated to tell. When a child is being abused or the home is suffering domestic violence, when someone plans to commit suicide or harm someone else, we become obligated by law to report what has been said.

Keeping confidence is sometimes distorted to mean that we keep confidence in some ways and not in others. We cannot take a parishioner’s struggle and make it a sermon illustration without getting explicit permission and then saying we have permission. Even when we “disguise” the story, the person might not be safe.

The other tragic abuse of confidentiality is when pastors feel they must tell their spouses the secrets of parishioners. This is not legitimate. If the spouse is a copastor and trained in ministry and hired by the church, then maybe there can be sharing for professional purposes—but breaking confidentially just to keep your spouse informed is not allowed.

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