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When It’s OK for Your Pastor to Break Confidentiality

I have been interviewed as a pastoral candidate by more than a few churches and have opted to serve six over the last 35 years of pastoral ministry.
Almost always, concerns were expressed as to whether or not I “kept confidences.” Often, it was apparent that both individuals and churches felt betrayed by one or more pastors.

Thus, I learned early on that a quick way to lose congregational trust was to share their secrets.

As most rules are not absolute, the principle of keeping confidences is one that has exceptions. I began learning in that first church that there are times to share something told to me in private.

The time had come for a woman, whom I’ll call Louise, to move her mother into a nursing home, something that she had promised her mother that she would never do. Anger and depression were rampant.

Louise told me on the day of the transfer that she planned to end her life rather than to live with the guilt that she felt for breaking that nonsensical promise.

I am embarrassed now to admit I wasn’t sure how to respond. A quick call to a mentor led to my bringing Louise’s family into the loop.

There followed for her a few days of hospitalization, medication, counseling and a respite from that crisis that may have ended her life.

In such crises, often the person shared the confidence hoping I would intervene.

Several times since then, I have opted to share what was told to me in confidence with appropriate persons.

As often as not, I did not tell the person of my plan to do so, for doing so may have given them time to act on their decision before others could intervene.

If I know or even think a person is a danger to themselves or to others, I will break the confidence.

I do so with the understanding that, while the cost of doing so might be great, the cost of not doing so might be greater.

Some guilty feelings following a death are inevitable. Those feelings are magnified and legitimate if one has withheld information that needed to be shared.

I would rather look at a person through jail bars or in a hospital than in a coffin.

A church member informed me some time back of their intention to kill another member of the community.

Thinking I was hearing things, my further queries convinced me that they were serious. They thought they had sufficient motive, they had a plan, and they were seeking a means and finalizing details.

When they ignored my pleas to reconsider and seek help, I sought legal advice. I learned that laws vary from state to state and can be vague with regard to ministers.

Certified mental health professionals have a “duty to warn” the intended victim or “duty to report” to legal authorities in situations in which life or health may be at stake.

There is some legal protection for ministers, but that often leaves too many loose ends, both ethically and practically.

In this case, I immediately contacted a family member who admitted to having heard his loved one make this veiled threat.

After my encouragement, they reluctantly agreed for us to contact legal authorities.

All of this happened in a very short time to eliminate the likelihood of the plan coming to fruition. The family, the law and others were brought into the picture to help deal with the problem.

This may be stating the obvious, but what follows is what I think the laws, common sense and ethics combine to mandate for ministers.

If a serious crime has been committed, is being committed or is intended, confidentiality goes out the window. If abuse is occurring, we must do what is necessary to end it.

If a person has a serious disease that they are harboring at the risk of others, confidentiality is secondary. If a person is a serious threat to themselves or to others, the risk of keeping their confession is too great to honor.

In these and other serious circumstances, first ask people to go to their family, to the proper authorities or to seek help agents themselves. If they refuse, ask them if you can do so on their behalf.

If they refuse, use your best judgment in moving forward and with little delay. If possible, stay with them or ask a trusted third party to do so until help arrives.

I encourage ministers and other helpers to know the laws regarding our “duty to warn” or “duty to inform” and to seek needed advice in serious situations, but to remember that sound ethics and common sense may trump minimal legal requirements or well-meaning, but conditional, assurances of confidentiality.

Reggie Warren is pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church in Brookneal, Virginia, and a former member of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.