By Dennis Wiggs

Pastors are entrusted with privileged information that should not be shared with others. The young pastor must learn early in his ministry that this information must be kept confidential. An effective ministry depends upon a trusting relationship between church member and pastor. If a member of the congregation cannot trust the minister, who can be trusted?

Long Arms of Confidentiality

-The young preacher must learn to be extremely careful:

-When giving sermon illustrations.

-When preparing members to visit inactive members.

-When nominating church officers and workers.

-When listening to church member listing the faults of other church members.

-When writing in the bulletin or church newsletter.

-When talking with the spouse or a family member.

-When giving prayer requests.

-When conversing with a former pastor.

-When conversing with the incoming pastor.

-When giving advice or counsel over the telephone

Confidential Information

A church member will often seek counsel from a trusted pastor. The grieving, guilty member will confess wrongdoing, sin or thoughts of transgression. The confession should lead to repentance, either in the pastor’s study or at a church altar. The Lord forgives the sin. We preach that the Lord forgets. So should the pastor.

It is wrong to use privileged information in the pulpit, even if names are omitted. I heard one minister say, “Illustrations should not go beyond me.” That may be good advice. The pastor can use himself as an illustration, but going beyond that may be treading on dangerous territory.

Pride can creep into the pastor’s mind when he knows something no one else knows. It may boost his ego when he says, “Yes, I know…” when another church member mentions a person who has fallen into sin. Better to say, “Let’s pray for…” and Ieave the discussion at that. If the church member truly repented in the pastor’s study then the whole congregation will eventually see a changed life. I have found that it is better if the sinner testifies of the forgiveness rather than I testify for him.

What Should Be Told?

When someone approaches the young preacher for counsel, that person may say or imply, “You are not going to tell anyone, are you?” It may be wise to declare, “You can trust me; however, if you tell me something that indicates you are going to harm yourself or someone else, then I may be forced to share this information.”

Otherwise, the one seeking counsel should be able to trust the pastor with utmost confidence. But a word of warning—encourage the person to confess only the sin, not details. The pastor does not need to hear the when, why, where, and how of a sin.

Share the Scriptures. Ask the guilty to confess the sin to God. Lead the person to promise God that he will never do it again. Give the person verses of scripture to read. Encourage the forgiven sinner to be faithful in church. Never discuss that sin again unless the person brings it up. Even then, attempt to reassure that person that God has forgiven and forgotten.

If continued counseling is necessary, avoid discussing previously confessed sin. Instead, give Scriptures that assure the person of spiritual growth and victory.

Tell Your Wife?

I have made it a practice not to share with my wife what has been revealed to me in counseling sessions. Her relationship to the congregation will be purer and stronger if she does not know what is revealed to her husband in secrecy. Who does the pastor tell? No one.

Remember, the only person in the church who does not have a pastor is the pastor. He must confide in the Lord and leave it there.

Tell Your Children?

My wife and I had a policy never to discuss church matters at home. Even when certain individuals were determined to ruin our ministry, we refrained from telling the children. I believe that conversations should be optimistic, up beat and challenging at the pastor’s table.

Too many parsonage children turn against the church or the ministry because of pessimism and criticism expressed in the pastor’s home.

Tell the Officials?

Most states require mandatory reporting in cases of abuse. The young pastor may be wise to seek wisdom from a local professional counselor or lawyer about the proper procedures to follow in cases of abuse.

And don’t be afraid to refer some people to professional counselors or medical doctors when the scope of their problems reaches beyond your counseling experience, resources, or ability. Don’t let pride keep you from doing what is best for the person you are counseling.

Sacred Trust

A pastor may hear more confessions than anyone else. It is essential to remember that a successful, fruitful ministry depends upon trust. Once trust has been damaged, it is almost impossible to restore. Confidentiality is essential to the ministry.

About the Writer: Dennis Wiggs retired in 2004 after many years in ministry.

Adapted from Contact magazine, April 2000.