Pastor Jones has hit upon just the illustration he needs for a particular point in his sermon. "I wish you could have seen the distraught look on that poor mother's face as she sat in my office telling me about her daughter's attempted suicide," he says. "This young lady's trouble began when she was a teen-ager. Against her parents' urgings, she fell in with the wrong crowd in school. She became pregnant and had an abortion. Later she went into a state of deep depression. That poor mother came to me deeply disturbed, not only because of what was happening to her daughter but also because of what might happen to the family if word got out. Her husband is one of the pillars in their church and well known in their community."
As the pastor continues to relate his story during the divine worship hour, the heretofore drowsy congregation are all ears. Their attention leads him to feel that he is scoring points, and perhaps he is, but unfortunately at the expense of the poor mother's confidence. True, he might be two thousand miles from the family in question. But what he doesn't know is that in his congregation is a very alert busybody who is vaguely acquainted with the case, waiting for just the information he is supplying in order to piece together a juicy story for the after-church meeting of the Character Defamation League.
Senator Sam Ervin, of Watergate fame, smarting over embarrassing leaks from his Senate committee, complained, "Some people can't keep anything in their heads without having it come out of their mouth!" Senator Sam's words are all too true. The minister, of all professionals, has a most solemn duty to guard that which has been communicated to him in the strictest confidence. Yet our people (although titillated at our disclosures) are often shocked at the freedom with which some of us members of the clergy discuss obviously confidential matters.
Upon reflection, some of us may find that we have been remiss in this area and that a major reorientation is necessary. Changes such as the following may be required: (1) We will have to find matters other than the private affairs of our counselees to discuss with our spouse. We may have to tactfully make our wife or husband aware that certain areas of our work must remain in our minds alone. On the other hand, our spouse may find it necessary to remind us by saying (also as tactfully as possible), "Really, dear, should I be hearing this?" (2) We will have to be willing to forfeit some of our most "juicy" sermon illustrations in order to protect confidentiality. (3) In the unusual event that a counselee's experience has the potential of serving the spiritual needs of a wider constituency, we will have to train our selves to seek permission and to be certain that such permission is granted willingly before using such experiences for illustrative purposes. (4) We may have to bypass our secretaries or church clerks when correspondence on highly sensitive matters is involved, typing or writing such letters by hand ourselves in order to protect the counselee. Of course, the average minister does not have (and should not have) extensive correspondence of this type.
Although the wise pastor will encourage his people to confide in God, there will always be those who need a human arm, if only for a time. The person who has reached the point where he feels he must pour out his private affairs into human ears is already badly hurt. To betray his confidence is to subject him to further injury. But to keep his secrets between himself and you alone is to manufacture a bond of trust that will enable you to help him. The pastor who knows when not to talk has a priceless asset.