Confidentiality is a virtue of the loyal, as loyalty is the virtue of faithfulness. -Edwin Louis Cole
A Dusty Pillar Amongst Newborn Stars-Hubble/NASA
Through the years, we have learned much about how some authoritarian churches conduct business from reading the SGM Survivors blog. Sovereign Grace Ministries was conceived of, and is led, by CJ Mahaney who was also asked to mentor Mark Driscoll. We believe that our readers can learn a lot from looking at membership covenants while considering the anecdotal reports on various survivor sites. It is fascinating how many of the same stories are reported from church to church, regardless of the denominational affiliation. We believe the one common feature is authoritarian leadership.
One issue that is consistently raised by former attendees of such churches is pastor confidentiality. There are many reports of pastors who breached the trust of individuals who have spilled their guts under the expectation of confidentiality. Most people of faith believe that pastors have a moral and spiritual obligation to maintain such confidences. In fact, most states have laws that limit the ability of the state to compel a pastor to divulge such information in a court of law.
Here is a thoughtful article on the subject. Pastoral Confidentiality: An Ethical and Legal Responsibility by David Middlebrook. The following four quotes come from this article.
Pastoral confidentiality is both a moral and legal obligation
“In recent years, however, people have brought an increased number of lawsuits against pastors for invasion of privacy and other tort claims arising out of the disclosure of confidential information by a pastor or other church official. The result of these suits has brought recognition that the obligation to maintain confidentiality is not only a moral obligation, but also often a legal one.”
The child abuse exemption
“If the counseling is pastoral or spiritual counseling only, in many states the only exception for divulging information is for reporting child abuse. If the counseling is mental health counseling, lawyers can argue that the exceptions of the mental health privilege would apply, and the court could compel the counselor to divulge the information in a suit involving a parent-child relationship.”
The legal out for the church-Read carefully
“Another situation in which the privilege would not apply is when the individual or someone authorized to act on his behalf signs a written waiver of the right to the privilege or confidentiality. This eliminates the privilege and the information is subject to disclosure. If a parishioner waives this privilege, the pastor has no legal grounds for withholding the information and must disclose it upon proper request.
The legal problem with pastors talking to one another
“A recent Washington state case regarding confessions made by a church member to a pastor dealt with the issue of waivers. The congregant made certain confessions to his pastor regarding a murder in which he had been involved. The pastor discussed it with two colleagues. At the church member’s trial, the court attempted to compel the pastor to testify regarding the confessions. When the pastor refused, stating they were confidential, the judge held him in contempt of court. The prosecutor argued the communications were no longer privileged because the pastor had waived the privilege by talking to others about the conversations. The court ruled that, while the pastor broke the rules regarding the confidentiality of the statements, the congregant’s rights regarding the privileged nature of the communications were still intact. Essentially, the court stated that only the communicant may waive his privilege”
Well, we at TWW have some bad news for all of you. It is becoming patently obvious that many of today’s hyper-authoritarian pastors/churches often divulge such information in order to “help” the penitent. In fact, they may also obligate others who have lesser leadership responsibilities to “report” on others. For example, over at the SGM Survivors sites there have been reports of small group leaders making “reports” directly to the pastors.
Now, you may be thinking that this has something to do with a really, really bad sin. But you couldn’t be further from the truth. Before I begin, I want to clarify an expected critique of this post. As many of our readers know, we believe that pastors and leaders must always immediately report, to the civil authorities, any potential issues of abuse such as pedophilia and sexual abuse We also add to this list the possibility of imminent physical harm to any individual. The law makes this obligation clear.
How a church does an end run around its membership on this issue.
Let’s take a look at a small section of the membership covenant which is posted on-line here at Knoxville’s Cornerstone Church, which a member of Sovereign Grace Ministries. This deals directly with the issue of confidentiality and the leaders’ responsibilities.
“Every reasonable effort will be made to protect confidential communications, especially those received in a pastoral counseling context. However, there may be times when CCK pastors deem it necessary or appropriate to share confidential information with one another, other church members, or others outside the church. These would be people currently involved in the church member’s problem or who may serve in the solution to the problem. The pastors may do this for the purpose of additional counsel, for the purpose of protecting others from the damaging effect of someone’s sin, or to assist one another in providing spiritual care to the people of the church.”
Churches rarely inform new members that they are signing a legal document.
It is important to realize that this paragraph gives the pastors wide latitude in “consulting” with just about anybody they deem to be of assistance to them. Due to their belief that they hold the keys of authority (the latest buzz words), they get to decide when such a breach is appropriate. And you, of the dumb sheep status, are to “understand” that this is for your own good. However, they are restricted in this activity by laws governing pastoral confidentiality. So, they get you to waive your rights!
Do not waive your right to confidentiality, ever!
Now, if such a church had advised the soon to be member that he/she is signing a legal document, that would be one thing. However, in most circumstances this “little” tidbit is not mentioned. TWW believes that anyone joining a church with which they are not intimately familiar should NEVER sign such a document without getting legal advice. In fact, we advise you to never waive your right to confidentiality.
Let’s consider a couple of real life stories that have been shared with us. We have disguised the names and venues.
Bob is a member of a church in which he was required to sign such a document at time of membership. Bob, attempting to be open about his life, shared that he struggled with a particular sexual temptation. Bob’s pastor decided to “share” that problem with Bob’s boss who attends the church. The boss decides he doesn’t want Bob around any longer and decides to “fire” him. Bob is still within his first 6 months of his job and he can be fired “not for cause” during that time. Angry, he confronts the pastor who shows him the confidentiality clause. Said pastor claims he was well within his rights to tell Bob’s boss because the boss could hold him accountable while at work. Bob had relinquished his right.
Scenario # 2
Your church requires you to be a member of a “care” group so you play ball. Assuming confidentiality, you decide to share with the group that you are not sure that you agree with the pastor’s teaching on the subject of pastoral anointing. The group tries to convince you that the pastor is correct but you are unsure. Imagine your surprise when the pastor confronts you about your “unteachable and questioning spirit.” He then puts you under church discipline and you are not allowed to take communion. If you leave the church, he will notify the next church you attend that you are “under discipline.” How did he find out? Your care group leader regularly writes reports on what is said in this group. These reports are distributed to the all the pastors who tell their wives who tell their accountability partners who are overheard by babysitters who tell their moms. And, of course, you signed a pesky little covenant with the confidentiality clause. You are hosed!
Recording devices in pastors’ offices
In fact we have had reports of some churches that have planted recording devices in the pastors’ offices to keep track of what is being said in private. Therefore, it behooves the “sheeple” to be very cautious in assuming that anything they say will remain confidential. As an aside, in many states you have the right to record a conversation without informing the other person. This is allowed in one-party-consent states. Here is a link to one article.
How does pastoral authority figure into this?
We anticipate the following response. “So, what gives these guys the right to divulge my personal confidences? “ Frankly, the answer is simple and, unfortunately, very sad. These men believe that they have the “keys to authority. ” Let’s takes a closer look at their assumptions. Oh, by the way, they do not believe that these are assumptions because the “know” they are rightly dividing the word of God.
Please read Johnathan Leeman’s blog post called What Are the Keys to the Kingdom? Here is an excerpt at 9 Marks.
“The local church has heaven’s authority for declaring who on earth is a kingdom citizen and therefore represents heaven.
Jesus has authorized the local church to stand in front of a confessor, to consider the confessor’s confession, to consider his or her life, and to announce an official judgment on heaven’s behalf. Is that the right confession? Is this a true confessor?
Likewise, the church’s representative authority in Christ’s kingdom is seen most clearly in its ability to remove a person from citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. In both cases, the full extent of institutional authority is indicated by the power to decisively end a person’s membership, through death in one case and excommunication in the other. “
The inviolable oath
It is vitally important that all potential members of such churches understand that the church leadership believes that the member has signed an inviolable covenant with said local church. If you decide to leave, they believe that the church is authorized to proceed in some action against you because you have broken an oath as defined by the signing of the covenant. Please read the comments under that article. You will clearly see that they believe you cannot break this covenant of membership until they give you permission to do so.
The church has already gone to the lawyers
Here is my take on this sort of covenant. I believe that they have broken fellowship with the signee by not informing said individual that they are signing a document that, in most cases, has been vetted by an attorney. These covenants were not developed primarily to encourage commitment to the church. They were developed to legally protect the church entity from litigious members. It’s just that the lawyers helped the leaders to word in it such a way to make such a document palatable.
We received an inquiry from one church, which claimed they did not use a lawyer in developing their covenant. I asked if they used sample covenants from other churches. Although I never heard back from them, I surmise the answer was that they had. Attorneys, protecting churches, developed most of the samples in widespread usage.
It is even strange for me to discuss protecting the church. The church, according to the Scripture, is the assembly of the believers. Yet, somehow, this has been perverted to mean the entity and it’s assets. So, in some respects, it is schizophrenic to divorce the signatory from the rest of the church entity.
Yet, there seems to be a great divorce happening within the church today. The pastors are now anointed and separate from the rest of the believers. The building and the trustees of the assets are separated from the community of the believers. We are a fractured community.
I bet you think I am exaggerating. Join me on Wednesday when I show just how fractured the church has become. There are two classes: the anointed few and the rest of the followers. As Rush Limbaugh often says “I was born to talk; you were born to listen.” Hmm, if the shoe fits…
Lydia's Corner: Jeremiah 6:16-8:7 Colossians 2:8-23 Psalm 78:1-31 Proverbs 24:26