Several high-profile churches and denominations have begun to face a reckoning. We’ve seen decades of sexual abuse by pastors and church staff members along with persistent cover-up of these heinous sins by leaders at the highest level of denominational authority. This phenomenon isn’t limited to churches and other religious organizations. Educational institutions, sports programs, and more have similarly been called to account.
In the wake of exposés, many have called for the elimination of confidentiality agreements, boards that convene in executive sessions, nondisclosure agreements, and other privileged types of conversation that may be used deviously to cover over what should be exposed to the light.
While I agree with the call for transparency and accountability in such cases, I fear that abuses of confidentiality, instances that are clearly negative and wrong, may lead us to overlook its proper use. Confidentiality, rightly understood, is biblical. Keeping confidences can be a loving way to serve your church or organization.
Confidentiality is the commitment not to disclose information that has been given to you with either (1) the explicit instruction that the information not be divulged or (2) the implicit expectation that the information will remain private. Confidentiality applies in informal settings when a friend tells about a rough patch in his marriage or parenting. In formal settings, it applies to limited amounts and particular kinds of information such as legal discussions, counseling sessions, and employee evaluations. It doesn’t negate biblical instructions to be transparent with others: “Confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). Moreover, confidentiality doesn’t apply to cases that demand heinous actions be reported or exposed (e.g., child abuse and neglect, spousal abuse).
I fear that abuses of confidentiality, instances that are clearly negative and wrong, may lead us to overlook its proper use.
At times, an appeal for confidentiality comes as a surprise. If someone approaches you and requests you keep confidence before they disclose information, you should assure them you value confidentiality but can’t promise to keep a secret until you know what they plan to share is not illegal or destructive to others. You can promise you’ll hear them out and then tell them whether someone else needs to be involved.
Breaking confidentiality can turn out badly. A colleague once shared some concerns with me about a mutual friend, requesting that I keep the matter between the two of us. I panicked and shared the secret with the mutual friend. The result was a broken relationship that has never fully mended. Others have broken confidentiality in matters involving me. As chairman, I convened a meeting to discuss a church situation. Prior to dismissing the meeting, I reminded the board members that our conversation must remain between us. This call to confidentiality wasn’t to hide something nefarious that should’ve been revealed. Rather, it was for the purpose of protecting individuals involved in the situation. I soon became aware that one board member had told the information to his spouse, who had in turn spread the news to others. The proverbial pillow feathers, scattered widely, couldn’t be collected.
Keeping confidentiality can turn out well. I was chairman of the elders at a church in Oregon. When I became aware of some newly disclosed information about a staff member, I had the suspicion something was amiss. I called an emergency meeting of our board and told them the news and my misgiving. They instructed me on the next steps, and we committed to observing strict confidentiality. I took the proper steps, and what was potentially an explosive situation was dealt with in a way that honored the individuals involved. Still today, there are only 14 people who know about that incident, because we properly bound ourselves to a confidentiality protocol.
Scripture presents confidentiality as a matter of keeping or revealing secrets. What is told in private should not be disclosed to others. The one who “keeps a thing covered” is said to be “trustworthy in spirit,” while the one who “goes about slandering reveals secrets” (Prov. 11:13; 25:9). The contrast couldn’t be stronger: a trusted confidant maintains a secret while a slanderer blabs to others who have no business knowing the information.
Breaking confidence destroys trust. Specifically, “he who repeats a matter”—also called “a whisperer”—“separates close friends” (Prov. 17:9; 16:28), but “whoever guards his mouth preserves his life” (Prov. 13:3). Wisdom dictates that upright people “not associate with a simple babbler” (Prov. 20:19). Revealing secrets has much in common with the sin of gossip: it’s destructive of others, and it tends to spread, though it can be halted when the chain of wrongful disclosures is snapped by keeping one’s mouth closed and tongue in check (Prov. 21:23).
Reflections on Breaking and Maintaining Confidentiality
Do you find yourself breaking confidentiality? Ask yourself why. What has led to your tendency to leak privileged information? When you hear private information and pass it on to others, does this puff you up? Does it make you feel like you’re “in the know”? Does the transfer of secrets make you feel important? As Brené Brown probes, do you gossip to create the illusion of immediate intimacy with others? Does disclosing what should be kept hidden make you appear important in others’ eyes? Repent of breaking confidences and confess your sin to those whom you’ve harmed.
Revealing secrets has much in common with the sin of gossip: it’s destructive of others, and it tends to spread.
Assess your reputation for confidentiality. Are you known as a trustworthy person who is committed to keeping secrets? Or are you identified by others as a key person who, when the church wants everyone to know what’s going on, is the leak guaranteed to alert others of hidden church business? What do you need to do to move from the second category to the first?
Consider the level of harm that may occur if confidentiality is broken, along with the likelihood that it will be broken. If the risk is high, keep silent on the matter.
If you’re married and have vowed to disclose certain kinds of information to your spouse, you have two options: (1) You can inform the person who is about to disclose something confidential that you always share certain topics with your spouse. You can then caution that person that, if they share a secret in those categories, you will disclose it to your spouse. If they agree, carry on. If they don’t agree, then you should politely stop the conversation before it begins. (2) If you’re part of a board or team in which that position doesn’t permit you to share certain confidential matters with your spouse, you must recuse yourself from segments of meetings when the discussion demands confidentiality.
Encouragement to Maintain Confidentiality
The many abuses of confidentiality in our day may discourage us from keeping confidences. We may fearfully expect our secrets won’t be kept, and this can impede our relationships. We also need to be aware that our experiences with abuse cover-ups can have a negative effect or sour us toward leaders who use confidences rightly. When our church board, for example, reports that a matter cannot be shared our doubts about the rightness of keeping a confidence can stimulate vain imaginations and foment suspicions.
But negative experiences shouldn’t lead us to overlook the proper use of confidentiality. Confidences serve various godly purposes. When a vulnerable person can share her struggles with trustworthy friends, she’ll be encouraged to make progress in sanctification. A small circle of confidants may offer you prayer and counsel when you’re considering a major job change. Confidences also permit leaders to do wise envisioning and careful planning work on projects before publicly announcing a half-baked idea.
I encourage you to rightly maintain proper confidentiality. The Holy Spirit, who always speaks the truth to the right person at the right time, can change whisperers and blabbers into trustworthy people who please the Lord by holding confidences.