Pastoral Confidentiality: Does it Still Apply after Church Member Resigns?

 

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What is the responsibility of pastors for those they deem have “gone astray?” Do pastoral confidentiality rules apply even when someone resigns their church membership?

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Pastoral Confidentiality, church discipline, church membership

What message are we writing on the tablet of human hearts?

 

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The other day, I read an article, Stabbed in the Back by a Cult Leader and it left me feeling sad and angry. “Sheldon” is a young man who met with the pastor of his church of which he was a member for 12 years. The pastor barely knew Sheldon as he had only been there a couple of years. The purpose of Sheldon’s visit was to resign his church membership and to explain some very personal details that led to his decision:

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Since the abuse of my past played a role in the life experiences that led me there, I told him about how I was beaten until I was about 11 years old, forced off medication for my depression, barricaded in the house of my “parents” and threatened with violence when I tried to leave at 21 years old, and about the most recent of the abuse, “The Confrontation,” where just this past December, when I was forced to cut them out of my life, and they tried to break into my home and nearly assaulted me in front of a police officer.

I told him even if I could believe in Christianity again (which is a massive remove possibility), I couldn’t go back to a church as conservative as that church, and I definitely could not return to that church, for my own safety. When I told him this, I explicitly told him that I expected this to be confidential, my exact words were “this should not leave this office.” He never once objected to this, and I went on with the presumption that it would remain confidential.

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There is a lot that we can tear apart in Sheldon’s post: the way the Christians deal with mental health issues, corporal punishment, the idea of adult children as personal property, etc. Each one of those topics can get my ire up, especially as it crosses the lines into abuse. But what I’d like to discuss is this:

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The pastor did in fact reveal Sheldon’s personal details to the church body without Sheldon’s permission.

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Sheldon contacted the pastor to ask for confirmation that he had in fact revealed Sheldon’s personal information, and here is a the pastor’s response (pastor’s name removed).

 

Dear (legal name)
 
 
I would encourage you to meet with me about this issue for little can be said in an email with such a sensitive situation as this. It is true that I informed the congregation of your decision to leave (church name) and, as is my pastoral duty out of love for you, concern for Christ’s flock, and adherence [sic] to His word, I did inform them of the reason for your resignation as you have pursued a different faith than the one to which we adhere.

 

I was obligated biblically [sic] to do this, as our Lord prescribes that the church body have an opportunity to restore a church member who has gone astray. I never submit to rules of confidentiality that are superseded by a higher authority whether that of the state or of God’s Word. Further, I tried to call you, but I could not reach you by the phone number(s) that we possessed.

 

Therefore, I wrote you to communicate my intentions as you resigned the day of the business meeting. Once again, it is out of deep love and in obedience to God’s Word that I have performed these actions. You are more than welcome to touch base with me about this issue if you like. I have tried to go by your house to see you, but have been unsuccessful thus far. You are in our prayers.

Sincerely, 

Pastor ________

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I corresponded with Sheldon to get more information. Sheldon was not in church discipline. He voluntarily left his membership. The pastor sided with his parents.

 

What is the appropriate Biblical response to Sheldon’s situation?

Was the pastor within his right to disclose personal information to the church body?

Is it ever appropriate to share personal information to the church body?

If you were Sheldon’s pastor, how would you have handled this situation?

If you could say something to Sheldon (I have a hunch he’ll be reading), what words would you share with him?

 

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 Update: Sheldon sent me a photo of the letter that his former pastor dropped by yesterday.  This is ongoing harassment.  Sheldon has already resigned his membership.

 

Sheldon, pastor confidentiality, church membership, pastor harassment

 

___________,

I am deeply sorry for the misunderstanding associated with our encounter and my responsibility toward God and the church. The last thing I want is for there to be something else in the way of you coming to the truth. Please know that I care very much for you as many at Grace also do, and I would welcome an in person conversation with you.

 Sincerely,

Pastor ________

168 comments on “Pastoral Confidentiality: Does it Still Apply after Church Member Resigns?

  1. I have been contacting local attorneys, I want to know whether Illinois is one of the states that legally holds ministers to standards of confidentiality or not, and how much they would charge for a cease and desist style letter.

    Unfortunately, at the time of the December incident, my town’s police department hasn’t seemed too cooperative with me, and I figured a letter from a lawyer would scare them more, make them think a lawsuit could be imminent if they don’t stop.

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  2. Sheldon, I haven’t even addressed your story. I’m sorry and wish you the best on your journey. I hope you find the peace and love you deserve – in or out of a church.
    Bev

    Like

  3. “What a nightmare it must be to simply leave some churches.” Some teach that being in a Local Church (TM) is just like marriage– and divorce should be made difficult!

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  4. “The previous pastor, who was a good guy despite his beliefs”
    You say a lot just with this. Sometimes bad beliefs “inspire” good guys to do evil– supposedly for the greater good.

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  5. Sheldon, I’m saddened and appalled at how you were treated, and continue to be stalked by the pastor. In the church (cult) I was raised in we were taught that we could go to our preacher’s (it was a “sin” to call them pastors) in confidence, if we had a problem. I have major trust issues and never felt comfortable taking a problem to our preacher.

    In answer to the question that is the topic of this blog post, I would have to say yes, a pastor should keep confidential the things you discussed with him. Especially, since you asked him to keep your confidence. If he couldn’t/wouldn’t IMO he should have stopped you right there and said outright, “No, I cannot do that.”.

    Sheldon, I hope that a local attorney can help you. I wish you peace and healing from the horrible experiences you have suffered.

    Like

  6. Sheldon,

    Please read from this link. http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs4.asp?ActID=2017&ChapterID=56&SeqStart=56900000&SeqEnd=57900000

    Not only did your pastor break Illinois statutes, but so did your mother. Both can be prosecuted under Illinois law. Your pastor for betraying clergy confidence, and your mother fot the crime of violence. According to the statute, even the threat of physical harm constitutes the crime of violence, even if that threat was not carried out. Hire a good lawyer and go after them both.

    Like

  7. @ kathibonham

    Hi Kathi

    You wrote:

    66

    … I … have no problem with, someone going to a pastor for advice over a matter.

    I do have a problem when it comes to mental health issues, or when it deals with issues that a pastor has no training to deal with. I would hope that a pastor who finds himself (or herself) in an uncomfortable position of offering counselling to someone regarding an issue way over his/her head, that he/she would refer that person to outside sources.

    99

    Although I see your point, I really do, as the person whose personality compels him to contrariness as a useful tool for finding the truth (“test everything and hold onto the good”), might I please ask, do you see the following point?

    66
    … I … have no problem with, going to a doctor for advice over a matter.

    I do have a problem when it comes to spiritual issues, or when it deals with issues that a doctor has no training to deal with. I would hope that a doctor who finds himself (or herself) in an uncomfortable position of offering counselling to someone regarding an issue way over his/her head, that he/she would refer that person to outside sources.

    99

    (I also have a problem with the idea of going to a pastor for “counselling”, in the modern sense of the word.)

    Like

  8. Pingback: “Dear Sheldon….” A Story of Maternal Abuse | Taylor Joy Recovers

  9. taylorjoyyoung, I read your post on your Webb site and all I can say is Wow, It was/is a moving story. I think it is a must read for anyone that may not understand where Sheldon is coming from. Your story emphasizes the necessity of individuals that have both feet on the ground and their heads on strait to listen to those that are hurting from abuse. To understand that most of the time the victim is crying out in pain and really doesn’t need additional crap that many will heap on them.
    I thank God that He brought a person of wisdom into your life at just the right time to help you heal. Hopefully, Sheldon will find such a person as well. I am not sure where the idea of a person that has been abused has to allow him/her self to go back into that abusive relationship for any reason. It most assuredly is not a God concept. Honoring one’s parents sometimes has to be done at a distance for the safety and sanity of the abused.
    Jim

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  10. Jimmydeee, thank you so much–what Sheldon’s story reveals is that there is a fundamental theological screw that’s loose somewhere in the SBC. :(. The Wartburg Watch currently has a story up about celebrity SBC pastors minimizing & covering abuse on a multi-state, multi-church, multi-victim level. We all see it because the scandals hit the blogs. What Sheldon’s story (and now mine) tells us is that something is fundamentally wrong with the way that the SBC processes the concept of abuse/victims/sin/crime, etc. I want to encourage you all to go read the Wartburg Watch’s latest post. How many Sheldon’s have to get hurt before someone stands up and says, “This is wrong!!”

    Like

  11. I noticed there is another person with the same name as me posting here. I am John F. Allman and I currently live in the DFW area. I do visit some of the same blogs as others here and have posted as “John A” but not on this particular blog as far as I can recall. I want to make it clear that the comments of the other John Allman are not mine. I have not taken the time to fully read and understand his comments in context but I can see they have not been well received. I do not necessarily agree or disagree with this gentleman. I just want to make sure anyone who knows me does not attribute his comments to me. Thanks.

    Like

  12. Dave A A said: “What do you consider the bigger elephant?” Well, I consider the person who first used the phrase to be the bigger elephant. (I was thinking of another name altogether before I read that; said name has been his only positive contribution to this site thus far).

    John F. Allman: Duly noted. 🙂

    Sheldon, my dear friend: Please disregard the Bigger Elephant. I hope that you will accept my prayers that all may go well with you. I am delighted that you have found a refuge amongst the UUs. I believe that they have provided haven for many who have been sadly ill-used by those who call themselves “Christian”.

    Like

  13. In my experience in my church, pastoral confidentiality is expected for all personal conversations that happen between a priest and congregant. This confidentiality is sacred and lasts as long as either party is alive. It’s one of the few sins that can lead to excommunication if the priest discloses the information to anyone else.

    Before I married, I was in a serious, committed relationship with another parishioner. In a weird situation, another couple we knew from another parish was in a creepy, unhealthy relationship – he was in a serious relationship, but kept telling his girlfriend that he might leave her to be a priest. I thought the girlfriend was nuts to stay with such a creep and told my boyfriend that if he ever wanted to be a priest he needed to break off our relationship before starting the formation process. I felt it was a strange and sick power play to stay in a relationship while dangling the possibility of leaving at any point to ‘serve God.’ I was very outspoken on this issue to my boyfriend and other young adults in the congregation.

    A few months later, my boyfriend breaks up with me on Facebook message. He casually mentions that he’s decided to become a priest – in fact, is going on a formation retreat out of state for the next two weeks – and didn’t tell me before because he knew I’d break up with him…. I was shocked, stunned and hurt. My boyfriend was cheating on me….with the church. I couldn’t understand how he was able to start the formation process while still having a serious girlfriend, so I made an appointment to see a priest from the parish who I was close to later that day. I brought a paper copy of the break-up FB message.

    Fr. T was awesome and a great shoulder to cry on – and I cried a lot. I felt used and betrayed. For months, I had been in a relationship under fraud. I felt like an object – a toy for my boyfriend to play with when he wanted and then tossed away. I wanted to know how this happened – how could a guy be in a visible, public, serious relationship and still be able to start formation in the church. Fr. T – who was horrified by my boyfriend’s callous actions – wanted to talk with the local priest in charge of vocations, but didn’t want to violate my confidentiality. I looked at Fr. T and said “F#$% my confidentiality. Don’t keep this this a secret. I’ll yell my story from the rooftop if that’s what we need to do to keep this jerk from being a priest or hurting another woman.” I gave Fr. T one paper copy of the FB message which he brought to Fr. A.

    This is the way confidentiality should work – the congregant (who is in a state of lesser power) is the only person who can chose to have their story told. If I had said “Don’t tell anyone.” Fr. T wouldn’t have said anything to Fr. A.

    The answer was that my boyfriend played the system. He told one priest – Fr. A who was in charge of vocations and didn’t know about me at all – that he was single and looking into the priesthood. My boyfriend told Fr. T – our usual priest – that he’d given up on being a priest. By the time my ex returned from out of state, he realized that the whole web was collapsing…..and tried to reunite with me. I laughed in his face. That was the last time I ever saw him – and good riddance.

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  14. Pingback: Churches: Attempting to Force Mediation and Limit Members’ Right to Resign Under Discipline™ | The Wartburg Watch 2015

  15. Pingback: Kevin DeYoung Pushes Church Memberships and Making Vows | Spiritual Sounding Board

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