Until You Know That I Know-And You Are Okay with That: Pastoral Confidence-Keeping

Post Author: Amber Inscore Essick

prayers written in a spiral on paper

All the confidences we keep, written with walnut ink.

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.” 

Or, I might happen to be visiting the hospital when a congregant gets a very detailed update from the specialist and instructs me not to step out of the room for it. Now I know everything. But what should I do with knowing everything? This is a genuine question: I live in a close-knit community where lots of people know a lot about one another, especially the medical somethings. Some people genuinely find it more efficient for me to be updated as they are. But, of course, there will be some things (maybe a lot of things) I hear that are nobody else’s business. The difficulty lies in knowing which information is confidential, and in which information that, if shared, the person might wish later had been kept confidential.

There is a steep learning curve with this issue. In order to improve my own practices, I have begun to ask people what, if anything, they want shared with the congregation or prayer chain.

Some people with cancer do not want to be the church member with cancer. Others want those prayers—all the prayers they can get. After a miscarriage, some people do not want to expose themselves to comments (often intended as comforting) that may be unhelpful. Others welcome the informed, interested prayer of their church. Those who feel each way might surprise you.

There are other times, very different from the first issues I mentioned, where I have to act like I know without disclosing very sensitive information. Over time, histories of abuse or neglect, stories about conflict between two people, or some other private knowledge comes my way. This knowledge often warrants a change in our childcare policy or necessitates that two particular people not serve on a committee together. It may require careful attention to how I tell certain Bible stories. In these instances, I may assert my opinions or suggest changes that do not make sense to everyone involved. I may even tell you that it is for a different reason.  This is why I am always working on building relationships of trust, so that these moments might go a little more smoothly.

I mentioned that ministers all aspire to keepthis rule of knowing without letting on, and that is because 1) It is a skill developed over time, and 2) We sometimes fail. I have both failed and been failed by the breaking of pastoral confidence. At some point, a pastor or priest will fail you. Some ministers only develop the ability to hold confidence through early failures. All good pastoral care is derived from knowing enough, knowing people well enough, and making proper use of what and who we know.

Most of the time, I know more than you think I know. There is one notable exception, to which every pastor and priest reading will give the amen: I really did not know you were in the hospital, because no one told me.*

So, whether I know or don’t know, until I know that you know that I know, your secret is safe with me.

*Disclaimer: I have a small but dedicated team of people helping me know when someone is in the hospital, but even they do not always find out if they aren’t told.

Amber Inscore Essick and her husband John co-pastor Port Royal Baptist Church, a rural congregation along the Kentucky River. Her three children, Olin, Leif, and Wren, ensure that there is no shortage of questions, laughter, singing, or shenanigans in and around the church.

Image by: Amber Inscore Essick
Used with permission
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