Clergy and confidentiality:

Best practices for ministry

Marlon C. Robinson, PhD, is a therapist and chaplain who serves as adjunct faculty at AdventHealth University and director of pastoral care at AdventHealth Manchester, Manchester, Kentucky, United States.

I have heard stories where individuals were devastated when pastors disclosed their confidential information without permission in sermons or in discussions with peers, supervisors, and administrators. Is it appropriate to disclose confidential information? Are there limits to confidentiality?

Clergy members serve in various settings, but regardless of their work context, they have an ethical, professional, and sacred obligation not to disclose confidential information about their care recipients who seek their services. Due to the unprecedented amount of physical, psychological, and spiritual pain related to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the services of clergy members are in greater demand.1 Consequently, to safeguard confidentiality, clergy members need to have a good working definition of confidentiality, know what information is classified as confidential, be aware of the benefits and limits of confidentiality, and follow best practices.

Private, restricted, classified

Confidentiality has to do with information a person has divulged in a relationship of trust, where the person expects such information will not be shared with others without authorization and handled in ways in opposition to the understanding at the time of disclosure.2 Confidentiality can also be defined as involving clergy members’ ethical duty not to divulge information about a care recipient without permission.3 Simply put, confidentiality is about identifiable information that is based on an agreement, implicitly or explicitly, between the confider and the confidant on how such information should be handled.4 In research terms, “confidentiality refers to a condition in which the researcher knows the identity of a research subject, but takes steps to protect that identity from being discovered by others.”5 Clergy members have a confidential situation at hand when they are dealing with information that is personal, restricted, intimate, secret, private, or classified and based on a set of preexistent or current rules or a promise that limits the discussion and public presentation of such information.6 This is the alarm system of confidentiality.

Interestingly, confidential information and confidentiality also extend to “certain intimate relationships, discussions, communication, events and personal behaviors that are not only to be withheld from public access but also desired to be kept secret between the confider and the confidant.”7 In other words, confidentiality is a combination of the clergy-care recipient relationship, the personal information shared within that relationship, and a commitment that limits the discussion and public presentation of such information. Therefore, confidentiality is essential because clergy members owe a sacred trust to care recipients. Unethical disclosures are pervasive among clergy and have resulted in several lawsuits.8 Congregational church pastor Elizabeth Audette states, “Given the complexity and pervasiveness of confidentiality issues in the church, clarity about clergy practice . . . is important.”9 Indeed, “there are many reports of pastors who breached the trust of individuals who have spilled their guts under the expectation of confidentiality.”10 Clergy leader Michael Kane attributes these breaches to a lack of understanding when he reports that “fewer respondents [clergy] understood that information received in spiritual counseling or spiritual direction must be maintained.”11 Consequently, ministers have a sacred duty to protect confidentiality because it is the ethical thing to do, and it is linked to several benefits.

Benefits and potential limits

Confidentiality is associated with personal, organizational, and societal benefits.12 When confidentiality is made a priority, care recipients and clergy are more likely to feel they have a place or someone to turn to during crises.13 This sense of safety is crucial to the clergy-care recipient relationship and will likely encourage care recipients and clergy to seek guidance, education, and referrals for additional support. In addition, upholding confidentiality respects human dignity and gives care recipients “the confidence that shameful disclosures will not become public.”14

Regarding organizational benefits, Professor Carey and colleagues found that confidentiality encourages honesty without fear of reprisal and opens the way to proactively assist individuals to obtain the help needed before their circumstances get worse. These findings are especially true when dealing with moral and doctrinal issues related to clergy.15

In addition, safeguarding the private information of others has societal benefits because it “encourages individuals to participate in socially desirable activities, including research and public health activities.”16 Protecting confidentiality also fosters trust between society and organized religion.

While confidentiality is a universal ethical duty,17 there are limits to safeguarding certain information. The potential limits to confidentiality surround the idea of privilege, generally claimed by attorneys and clergy,18 but these are not applied or recognized in the same manner in each jurisdiction19 or country. Privileged communication is “a doctrine of some faiths, [and] clergy must maintain the confidentiality of pastoral communications.”20 Privileged communication is also defined as “a statutory protection that enables a member of the clergy to receive certain communications in the context of his/her pastoral capacity, and being immune from testifying to the same in a court of law.”21 However, it is essential to note that privilege may not be absolute because mandatory reporting statutes sometimes “specify the circumstances under which a communication is ‘privileged’ or allowed to remain confidential.”22 Some countries and jurisdictions have mandatory reporting laws that require clergy to report “criminal activity, that may result in serious harm or danger to individuals and the public.”23 These activities may include but are not limited to child abuse and exploitation of persons with disabilities. Consequently, it is vital for clergy to know and adhere to the limits of confidentiality mandated by national or jurisdiction laws.

Best practices

Confidentiality is essential for building trust in the care recipient-clergy relationship, and it is invaluable to effective ministry. Due to the vital importance of confidentiality to ministry, here are seven best practices to help clergy maximize the benefits of confidentiality and limit potential liabilities.

1. Make a personal commitment to confidentiality. Violating confidentiality may expose clergy to liability because of defaming a person and intentionally inflicting serious emotional,24 relational, or material harm on a care recipient. Consequently, it is essential that clergy pledge to protect the confidential information of care recipients unless otherwise mandated by law. This commitment is not merely to avoid liability but, more importantly, is a sacred trust clergy members owe to care recipients and God.

2. Follow your organization’s protocols. Adhere to the confidential practices of one’s faith group, employer, and professional association. These protocols are generally implemented to ensure that clergy members operate based on the highest ethical standards and thus protect themselves from liability and their care recipients from harm due to inappropriate disclosures. The protocols may include absolute and professional confidentiality. Absolute confidentiality is privileged communication, whereas professional confidentiality is where clergy members are not allowed to discuss the care recipient “personally or his/her case with anyone except another professional who in the practice of his/her profession is given the protection of privileged communication.”25

3. Model the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the ultimate confidant, and clergy members need to follow His example. The psalmist declares, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man” (Ps. 118:8, NKJV). Therefore, following the example of Jesus is salient to developing credibility with care recipients. In His life and ministry, Jesus modeled how undershepherds should conduct themselves in relation to confidentiality.

4. Avoid using counseling cases in sermons. Clergy members who embrace their sacred duty and ethical responsibility will refrain from using counseling cases in their sermons or presentations. In fact, “any hint of verbal indiscretion”26 can render their ministry ineffective due to loss of credibility.27 Consequently, pastors need to find alternative illustrations for their sermons and presentations.

5. Seek permission. Seek permission from care recipients before divulging confidential information. Explicit consent is needed before referring to other pastoral counselors and mental health professionals and prior to using care recipients’ information in a presentation or case study. If permission is granted, judicious steps must be taken to deidentify the information so that care recipients’ identity and parish are concealed.

6. Know the limits in your jurisdiction or country. Research the limits of confidentiality in your country or jurisdiction. When clergy members know these limits, they can proactively share them with those seeking counsel before any confidential information is shared. Knowing these limits will help reduce the risk of harm to care recipients, the public, and harm to oneself due to loss of credibility and liability related to inappropriate disclosures.

7. Live by the five core principles of ethics. Clergy members need to subscribe to the five core principles of ethics: non-maleficence, do no harm; beneficence, do good; autonomy, the right to self-determination; justice, fair treatment; and fidelity, the quality or state of being faithful.28 These five principles are the bedrock of safeguarding confidentiality and, when implemented, are likely to protect clergy from harming others and themselves.

Confidentiality is invaluable to ministry and must “be respected and protected at all times.”29 The current information is provided to the reader for educational purposes and is not intended to be legal advice. It is intolerable to disclose confidential information except when permission is given or disclosure is mandated by law. Consequently, these seven best practices are likely to increase the credibility of clergy and thus contribute to personal, organizational, and societal benefits.

  1. Marlon C. Robinson, "The Pastor's Mental Health and the COVID-19 Pandemic," Ministry 93, no. 3 (March 2021), 6–9.
  2. “Privacy and Confidentiality,” University of California, Irvine, Office of Research, accessed May 4, 2023, https://research.uci.edu/human-research-protections/research-subjects/privacy-and-confidentiality/.
  3. Philip Merideth, “The Five C’s of Confidentiality and How to deal With Them,” Psychiatry 4, no. 2 (2007): 28, 29.
  4. Lindsay B. Carey, Mark A. Willis, Lillian Krikheli, and Annette O’Brien, “Religion, Health and Confidentiality: An Exploratory Review of the Role of Chaplains,” Journal of Religion & Health 54, no. 2 (2015): 676–692, https://doi-org.resource.ahu.edu/10.1007/s10943-014-9931-2; “Privacy and Confidentiality.”
  5. “Understanding Confidentiality and Anonymity,” The Evergreen State College, accessed November 28, 2021, https://www.evergreen.edu/humansubjectsreview/confidentiality.
  6. Carey, Willis, Krikheli, and O’Brien, “Religion, Health and Confidentiality.”
  7. Carey, Willis, Krikheli, and O’Brien, 677.
  8. Paul Dechant, “Confidentiality and the Pastoral Minister: Duty, Right, or Privilege?” Journal of Pastoral Care 45 (Spring 1991): 61–69; D. Elizabeth Audette, “Confidentiality in the Church: What the Pastor Knows and Tells,” Christian Century 115, no. 3 (January 28, 1998): 80–85.
  9. Audette, “Confidentiality in the Church.”
  10. Darlene Parsons, “Pastors Ignoring Confidentiality: Having Gospel Gossip Authority?” The Wartburg Watch, February 27, 2012, https://thewartburgwatch.com/2012/02/27/pastors-ignoring-confidentiality-having-gospel-gossip-authority/.
  11. Michael N. Kane, “Catholic Priests’ Knowledge of Pastoral Codes of Conduct in the United States,” Ethics & Behavior 23, no. 3 (2013): 199–213.
  12. Lawrence O. Gostin and Sharyl Nass, “Reforming the HIPAA Privacy Rule: Safeguarding Privacy and Promoting Research,” JAMA 301, no. 13 (April 1, 2009): 1373–1375; Carey, Willis, Krikheli, and O’Brien, “Religion, Health and Confidentiality.”
  13. Carey, Willis, Krikheli, and O’Brien, “Religion, Health and Confidentiality;” Kami Orton, “The Clergy-Penitent Privilege: The Role of Clergy in Perpetuating and Preventing Domestic Violence,” Nevada Law Journal Forum 4 (2020), article 3, https://scholars.law.unlv.edu/nljforum/vol4/iss1/3.
  14. Gostin and Nass, “HIPAA Privacy Rule;” Ralph B. Lassiter, “Clergy Confidentiality,” November 2009, http://www.heartlandchurchnetwork.com/uploads/5/8/1/6/58163279/clergy_confidentiality_summary.pdf.
  15. Carey, Willis, Krikheli, and O’Brien, “Religion, Health and Confidentiality.”
  16. Gostin and Nass, “HIPAA Privacy Rule,” 1373.
  17. Merideth, “The Five C’s of Confidentiality.”
  18. Carey, Willis, Krikheli, and O’Brien, “Religion, Health and Confidentiality”; Orton, “Clergy-Penitent Privilege.”
  19. Merideth, “Five C’s of Confidentiality,” 28, 29.
  20. Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect, Child Welfare Information Gateway, April 2019, 2, https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/clergymandated.pdf.
  21. Lassiter, “Clergy Confidentiality,” 2.
  22. Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Clergy as Mandatory Reporters,” 2.
  23. Carey, Willis, Krikheli, and O’Brien, “Religion, Health and Confidentiality,” 684.
  24. Lassiter, “Clergy Confidentiality,” 5.
  25. Carey, Willis, Krikheli, and O’Brien, “Religion, Health and Confidentiality.”
  26. Carey, Willis, Krikheli, and O’Brien, 681.
  27. Lassiter, “Clergy Confidentiality.”
  28. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “fidelity,” accessed May 18, 2023, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fidelity.
  29. Carey, Willis, Krikheli, and O’Brien, “Religion, Health and Confidentiality,” 684.

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Marlon C. Robinson, PhD, is a therapist and chaplain who serves as adjunct faculty at AdventHealth University and director of pastoral care at AdventHealth Manchester, Manchester, Kentucky, United States.

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