Keeping Those Confidences

From time to time difficult moments arise for pastors because they know too much rather than too little. The trusted pastor will be the listener to many conversations where personal secrets, disappointments, failures and traumas are shared by the needy, the lonely, the hurting. These confidences are often unveiled as part of a desperate search for understanding, for grace, for forgiveness, for wholeness. Who is there in pastoral ministry who does not carry the burdens of another’s private tragedy, weakness, lost hopes and sin?

Transparency is high risk:

When a person in a tight corner shares their darkness, or the inner struggle to survive another day, or a failure of momentous proportions with calamitous implications, there is the dreadful possibility that a pastor may unintentionally lose perspective on the risk that is being taken….

  • The baring of the soul is always a costly enterprise. It carries with it the reality of admitting to unlikely failure, of the hosting of an internal battle that no one else suspects.
  • Internal terror takes up residence. Behind the composed exterior of many lives there beat hearts filled with anxiety, fear and appalling insecurity. When these very private battles are put on the table with a caring pastor, it is not simply a casual, common garden variety conversation.
  • The cry from the heart is an appeal to be heard. It needs to be listened too with care. All concerns expressed may be hard to grasp but they are to be valued in the face of great difficulty. Behind this daring transparency is a profound trust in the capacity of the pastor to keep a confidence, to receive and not to relay to others. Surprisingly, it is here that there is great danger.
  • A secret shared, especially a very painful one. It is also a statement of faith in the ability of the pastor to guard that secret well. Nothing can be more cavalier than to forget this fundamental basis of trust on which people open their lives to us.

The challenges of receiving confidences:

It is true that the receipt of such revelations may place the pastor in situations of extreme difficulty….

  • There is the problems of third parties. While a confidence will almost always cast fresh light on circumstances which seemed to be previously incomprehensible, there is a real tension in knowing how best to relate to other persons who may be connected with the information given.
  • There are few secrets which do not involve others in one way or another. It is especially hard to know how to handle these other players, especially those in the congregation, who have no idea that you have discovered something about them which would make them wilt if they realised that you were in command of such details.
  • Additionally, a confidence is usually offered in ways which make it near to impossible to check out other sides of the same story. Sometimes a pastor may engage in some high risk strategies themselves to try to establish a clearer picture with some greater balance. It is not easy and it can be perilous entering into studied, casual conversations with others while attempting to grasp a fuller picture without letting on what you have heard.
  • Further, some information, by virtue of the gravity of its content, may demand that some action be taken. There is an awful ethical dilemma in finding the best way forward. This is complicated no end if the informant insists on the confidence being preserved. Do you sit on the sidelines paralysed by the confidential nature of what has been disclosed to you knowing that, for example, some other person may be endangered in some way?
  • Keep the foot off the pastoral accelerator. Certainly the worst course of action (unless it is an absolute emergency) is to blast ahead for the purpose of sorting the problem out before the sun sets. It is essential to take time to ask the Lord for wisdom, grace and understanding.
  • Perhaps one of the toughest implications of being a listener to confidences is that we are often reminded of our own frailties and weaknesses. The suffering and trauma of another human being can be unnervingly close to our own experience of life. Indeed, if it cuts to close to the bone and we ourselves have unresolved issues of a similar kind, there will be a need to enlist the help of another pastor or counsellor. This may well be the correct and only avenue especially if the informant is of the opposite gender.

Some basic coping systems:

There are some coping systems which may be useful….

  • Get support. Outline to a trusted friend, mentor or counsellor the essence of the problem hypothetically leaving out names and pack drill numbers. Such a person will be able to grasp the principles of what you are dealing with and will hopefully be able to offer some other perspectives
  • Seek another conversation with your informant. It is highly likely that, having shared their situation with you initially, they may sense a greater freedom to offer more insight. It is often the case that the full story will not be told the first time. This is not because a person deliberately withholds information; it is because they want some assurance that you are able to cope with what you are hearing.
  • Beware of closing the door. The pastor who rushes in with a semi predetermined Bible injunction, or a call for repentance, or a hastily contrived “solution” may inadvertently be closing off the door to a clearer understanding of the whole situation. Do not hurry.
  • Ask your informant for some time to think about what they have shared with you. Indicate that you do not want to trivialise their concern by responding on the spot. A considered response is a more helpful one. It is not that you want to come back with a packaged formula for them. The fact is that time taken to ponder what you have heard will lead you to identify some clarifying questions (not of the third degree kind) which just may help to do some unravelling. Besides, one conversation will do little to relieve a truly complex circumstance.
  • Remember that rapid responses on your part are rarely the useful ones. The problem which you have just encountered may require attention of a kind which you are not able to offer. The wise pastor is the one who recognises quickly their own boundaries and limitations. There no loss of face in referring your informant to another person who has skills equal to the difficulty presented.
  • When the circumstances become even more complex. If a matter raised in confidence has dramatic implications for the congregation, you may need to seek the permission of your informant to share at least some details with a few select others whom you trust and who may be able to help in the situation. If such permission is granted, still proceed with great caution and relate only the details necessary for a sound understanding of the circumstances.
  • What if permission is not given? You may still need to alert one or two trusted co-workers that there is a sensitive situation the specific details of which you are not free to disclose. You may at least indicate to them the broad principles of what you may be needing to deal with congregationally. The confidence is still safe despite having to walk the thin grey line between protection and disclosure.

When confidences are not guarded:

Regrettably, there are occasions when a confidence has not been safely guarded….

  • It is not as if there has been a shouting from the house tops. Rather, it only requires an innuendo, a stray allusion, or a subtle suggestion to blow the cover of someone who has chosen to be vulnerable. “You do not know what the Smiths are going through right now” may be offered by a caring pastor to a third party out of pastoral concern for the Smiths but it is enough for the gossip network to crank up. All the more so, especially if no one had any idea that there was trouble in the Smith household.
  • The damage is done. True, the details have not been communicated but the signal has been sent. It is all that is necessary for the stories to start. There are few things more likely to bring a pastor unstuck than the suspicion that confidences are not safe. It is surprising how quickly a congregation can work out whether the pastor can be trusted or not. There is a collective intuition which is often unerringly accurate.
  • A crash is not far away. The pastor who shares a confidence with others in the congregation (or even hints that there is something amiss somewhere) is on a quick trip to trouble. Such an action may simply be for the unholy purpose of letting it be seen that they know a little more than the rest of the herd. It is a misdirected exercise of power, of massaging the pastoral ego, of advertising a momentous lack of wisdom. There is little hope of retrieving credibility if there is any evidence to show that this is a pastoral pattern.
  • Beware the inadvertent slip. True, a pastor may occasionally let a detail slip unwittingly and will need to correct this with great speed and sensitivity. But this is very different from the pastoral blabbermouth whose mind is unhappily out of gear at the wrong moment

Confidences and church meetings:

Consider the serious challenge to pastors which some church meetings may present….

  • Be careful when the church meets. For example, from time to time serious issues appear on church meeting agendas which could relate, in some way or another, to a confidence already shared in a pastoral encounter. These church issues can be tricky, even messy and often only the pastor knows the background to the whole story. Very difficult exchanges, heated discussions and odious suggestion may all part of the exercise.
  • So, the church meeting doesn’t know it all. The meeting is not aware that there is another piece of the jigsaw which, if known, would probably bring the whole issue into focus and even take the steam out of it. But that jigsaw piece is a confidence and it cannot be offered no matter how effective it may be in bringing the church meeting to order.
  • Many a pastor understands this circumstance only too well. Peace and order are only an unspoken sentence away but it cannot be uttered. Instead, there may be the wearing of unkind flak and criticism, much of it undoubtedly unfair and unwarranted.
  • Thank God for the caring people. Mercifully there are some angels in disguise in such meetings who are discerning enough to realise that there may be another element to the presenting issue. They will not know that key piece of information (and do not want to know it) but they are sensitive enough to realise that there could be another dimension to the tension.
  • Help comes in various ways. It is quiet, mature and wise support very different from some others who, if they took the time to reflect for a while, could probably reach a similar conclusion but who instead choose to wade into the bear pit of church argument wonderfully unaware of how unhelpful they are being.
  • Keeping confidences carries a price tag. The cost of protecting confidences can be very expensive indeed particularly if the conveying of confidential information might make life a lot easier for the pastor.

Real pastoral courage:

Sometimes the hallmark of courageous church leadership is not what is said but what is not said.  This is not an easy road.  But the willingness to have an open ear, an open heart and a closed mouth is a crucial part of the pastoral task. Any thoughtless alternative is unbecoming and unworthy of the privilege of being Jesus to others.

Rev John Simpson