Clergy do not all live by the same ethical standards—or even embrace them—but here is one we all aspire to keep, with some variance: unless I know that you know that I know that thing about you, and you’re okay with my knowing, I do not know it. I’m not going to bring it up with you. You do not have to talk about it with me, but you can if you want to.
Or, if I know something that few people know, you’re not going to hear about it from me.
And (this is the other side of the coin): at any given time, I might know more than you think I know.
I can offer an example, one of many curated from a group of clergy friends so as not to come from my context:
While serving lunch at the church’s soup-kitchen ministry, a congregant mentions to me that his great-niece, who is also a member of the community, has been diagnosed with endometriosis, or diabetes, or skin cancer. He indicates that this is not public knowledge (or he doesn’t—the next steps of the minister are really the same either way).
Now, I know something. I have been entrusted with a confidence of two different kinds. For one, the congregant has shared something that is important to him. The act of sharing with another person, particularly a pastor, offers that person a safe place to talk about it and a way to sort through something that indirectly affects him. The act of telling someone what you know is cathartic.
The second and most important layer of confidence, or confiding, is that I know something about the great-niece that she did not tell me herself, something very personal with long-term effects and possible heart-aches, that she may at some time want to sort through or may want to forever keep private. Now, when I offer a pastoral or priestly presence to that great-niece, I can be sensitive, but it is absolutely not cool for me to bring it up or let on that I know about her struggle with diabetes or skin cancer or endometriosis. I know more than I will or can let on.
This keeping of confidence is both a high-stakes issue for some congregants and a highly difficult task for the pastor. It is high-stakes because breaking either of those confidences can be tantamount to betrayal of trust by a minister, and by proxy, the church. Or they could not care at all. And one can seldom predict the difference with confidence. This is especially true in situations where reproductive issues, gender, or sexuality issues come into play. Mark my words, if the confidence has to do with the reproductive system, it is a high-stakes issue, a sacred confidence to keep, and not my story to tell. There is a high level of difficulty in this kind of pastoral confidence-keeping because often the information comes to me in a laundry basket of other information: “Sarah is out of the hospital, Josi is starting kindergarten in the fall, and my great-niece has endometriosis.” Read more