Maintaining Confidentiality As a Pastor

My Church Law Firm

Just about every state has laws in place to protect the confidentiality of what is communicated to clergy when it is communicated for the purposes of spiritual advice and counsel.

Maintaining confidentiality is crucial to a pastor’s role in supporting and serving church members. “Clergy” is often defined in the law as a pastor, minister, rabbi, religious practitioner, or similar functionary of a church or recognized religious denomination or organization.

In contrast, “clergy” generally excludes unpaid volunteers whose principal occupation or vocation does not involve active or ordained ministry. Based on this understanding of clergy, here are some common ways in which clergy typically uphold confidentiality:

  1. Pastoral Privilege: Many jurisdictions recognize a legal concept called “pastoral privilege” or “clergy-penitent privilege.” This privilege protects the confidentiality of communications made to clergy members in their professional capacity. It often allows clergy to refuse to disclose confidential information in certain legal proceedings.  Generally, the privilege applies only to communications that are confidentially made to a minister acting in their professional capacity. It is important to note that state mandatory reporting obligations—regarding child abuse—supersede confidentiality.
  2.  Ethical Obligations: Clergy members often adhere to a code of ethics or professional guidelines (sometimes established by the applicable denomination) that emphasize the importance of confidentiality. These ethical standards serve as a guide for maintaining the privacy of church members’ personal information and discussions.
  3. Counseling Agreements: We highly recommend that churches have two agreements in place regarding the church’s biblical counseling ministry. These agreements—described here—help clarify confidentiality:
    •    Agreement between the church and the biblical counselor. This agreement is available from our firm and provides the guidelines for the biblical counselor and the counselor’s agreement to these rules.
    •    Agreement between the church and the counselee. This agreement provides the parameters for the biblical counseling sessions. It should set forth limited confidentiality waivers so the counselor can help by being able to involve other leaders to help carry out the goals of the counseling process.
  4. Private Settings: Pastors typically provide a safe and private environment for adult individuals to share their concerns, struggles, and personal experiences. By conducting counseling or pastoral meetings in a confidential setting, such as a designated office or counseling room, they create an atmosphere that encourages openness and trust.  Clergy counseling minors must provide a safe environment that promotes openness and trust.It is important to note that the counselor should never counsel a member of the opposite sex alone and in a completely private setting. These counseling sessions should be conducted in a room with visibility to others or with another staff member for accountability and protection. It is commonly known that many, if not most, pastoral moral failures stem from counseling situations.
  5. Professional Training: Many clergy members receive specific training in pastoral counseling, which includes education on maintaining confidentiality. These training programs emphasize the ethical and legal responsibilities associated with confidentiality, as well as techniques for handling sensitive information appropriately.  Pastors are encouraged to receive regularly scheduled training on confidentiality to ensure best practices.
  6. Personal Commitment: Maintaining confidentiality is often a deeply ingrained value for pastors. They recognize the sensitive nature of the information shared with them and have a personal commitment to respect and protect the privacy of their congregants.

Undoubtedly, there may be exceptions to confidentiality in cases where there is a legal obligation to report certain information, such as suspected child abuse or threats of violence. Additionally, each faith tradition or denomination may have specific guidelines and practices regarding confidentiality. Churches are encouraged to consult with qualified legal counsel to assess the church’s confidentiality standards for clergy to ensure such standards satisfy all applicable laws and mitigate risk to the church and clergy.

Please contact My Church Law Firm immediately to schedule training for biblical counseling, your state’s pastoral confidentiality statutes, and counseling agreements.