Notes on Pastoral Confidentiality

Notes on Pastoral Confidentiality:

James Newton Poling, April 30, 2012

Over my years of teaching, I have struggled with the issue of confidentiality. What are the theological roots of pastoral confidentiality and what are its limits? Here are some notes I have written about this issue, beginning with a covenantal statement I have used with my classes.

Confidentiality in the Classroom.

In a class in religion and healing, we must respect the highest ethical standards of ministry. Confidential materials discussed in the class must be protected from public disclosure or other inappropriate use. For that reason participation requires a covenant of confidentiality that no personal information will be divulged outside the boundaries of this group or used unethically or inappropriately. James Poling, 2011, syllabus for Evil and Aggression

Revision of Pastoral Confidentiality for Prevention of Domestic Violence

Confidentiality. The purpose of the traditional emphasis on confidentiality within the churches is to provide safety for confession of sin to be addressed by the rituals of the church. Within the mental health field, confidentiality allows shame-based transference issues to emerge for therapeutic intervention. Without such confidentiality, little in-depth pastoral care or psychotherapy can be accomplished. This principle is true in work with male abusers except that issues of safety for his victims must be paramount. In working with a man who is violent or abusive, it is crucial not to collude with the destructive and self-destructive impulses of the personality at the expense of those who are vulnerable. For violent men, manipulating such collusion is often their greatest interpersonal skill.

The limits of confidentiality must be clearly negotiated at the beginning of a pastoral counseling relationship. Whenever the pastoral counseling contract identifies violence against others as a focus, the pastoral counselor must cooperate with others to provide accountability for acts of violence. As a pastoral counselor, I agree to keep confidential any matters that do not involve the safety of others, to keep the man informed of any contact I have outside of therapy, and to openly discuss any concerns the man has about my commitment to his health and safety. Two situations periodically occur. Sometimes I hear from another professional that the man has been abusive or threatening to his partner or children and I use the information to confront him. Sometimes the man himself gives me information during therapy that he is being abusive or threatening and I warn the persons involved. In both of these cases, information is being exchanged with persons outside the therapeutic relationship, which contradicts some expectations of confidentiality, that is, that confidentiality equals secret-keeping.

I believe these are legitimate limits on confidentiality when working with violent men. As a pastoral counselor, I have a moral commitment to protect the safety of those who are vulnerable. I also have a moral commitment to enjoin the healthy psychological development of the person, and refuse to collude with his violent impulses and behaviors. This means helping him face the consequences of his behaviors and maintaining, if possible, a therapeutic alliance at the same time. The ability to sustain a positive therapeutic relationship during episodes of violence in the man’s life may itself be the healing moment.

There are some sacramental definitions of confidentiality which interfere with a pastor’s ability to accept these suggested limits of confidentiality. There are two responses to this problem. One is to clearly distinguish general pastoral counseling from the sacrament of confession and absolution of sins. It may be possible to maintain the Roman and Lutheran sacrament of confession in limited use but not extend it to all pastoral conversations. In this case, pastoral care and counseling would not be covered by the secrecy of sacramental confession. Another response is to rethink the theology of the sacrament of confession itself. Does the safety of other people set any limits on the confidentiality of the confessional? I believe it does.

From James Poling, Understanding Male Violence: Pastoral Care Issues. St Louis: Chalice Press, 2003, 22-23

Pastoral Confidentiality in African American Families Experiencing Abuse

Another revision of traditional pastoral care in work with perpetrators is pastoral confidentiality. Does maintaining confidentiality mean that the hands of a pastoral leader are tied if the person disclosing does not want the information shared outside of the counseling setting? What options does a pastoral leader have when he or she has promised confidentiality and later discovers there is a genuine emergency involving violence in the black family?

Black family violence requires some rethinking of the traditional understandings of pastoral confidentiality. Most pastoral leaders have been trained to protect the information we receive as credible religious leaders. We all know of damage that has been done when a pastoral leader shares information about sexual behavior with the deacon board, or when inappropriate information has been shared from the pulpit. If a congregation knows that the members of the pastoral team cannot keep a secret, information about the personal and spiritual struggles of the congregants begins to dry up. There are good reasons why a pastoral leader must be able to keep appropriate confidentiality with the personal information from pastoral care conversations. In some situations, keeping such confidences is inconvenient, especially when the gossip mills based on incorrect information get started. It is tempting to want to correct what the congregation knows, even when the person involved does not want the truth to be shared. These are examples of the normal dilemmas connected with pastoral confidentiality.

However, it is our position in this book that black family violence requires a paradoxical revision of traditional understandings of confidentiality. We believe that pastoral leaders should/ must announce these changes in a clear and direct way at the start of every counseling relationship so that the guidelines are stated from the beginning.

In our pastoral practice, we often say something like this:

I am willing to keep anything you tell me in confidence, which means I will share it with no one else, with two exceptions. First, if I feel that I need professional consultation in order to be helpful to you. In that case, I will tell you I am consulting. Second, if I feel that the health or safety of any person, including yourself, is at risk. In that case, I reserve the right to report that a child is in danger, or to seek outside help for a person whose their life and health may be in danger. With those two exceptions, I promise that anything you say to me will remain confidential.

For most people who come for pastoral care, such a statement is sufficient to enable them to continue without undue fear about their life becoming available for the voyeuristic eyes of others. For some people, the caveat about seeking consultation is actually comforting because it reminds them that this pastoral leader takes his or her work seriously and will seek help from another professional if necessary. Although expectations are high in the black faith community about the biblical competence of the pastor, most parishioners know that the pastoral leader is not a trained, professional counselor, and they feel comfortable knowing that the pastor is willing to live within certain limits. For victims of violence, the caveat about notifying the proper authorities if there is family violence is also comforting, and can often make it easier for the person to openly share their fears. It means that the pastoral leader is not naive about black family violence; that he or she knows that it can happen even in the most respectable-looking families; and that he or she knows what to do when the topic of violence is disclosed.

For perpetrators of violence, the limitation on keeping secrets serves as a warning. They can choose not to tell about the violence they are forcing on others and thus protect themselves. But if they decide to tell part of the truth, the pastoral leader of the black faith community is not going to collude with them by minimizing and denying the reality. Limiting confidentiality on issues of black family violence means that violence will be taken seriously and that the pastoral leader will do whatever is necessary to protect victims and hold perpetrators accountable. For a few perpetrators who genuinely want help, this could be the best news they have heard for a long time. However, for pastoral care with perpetrators, the above statement on confidentiality protects the pastoral leader by setting honest limits and providing a rationale for involving the authorities later when necessary.

While we recommend the above revision in the usual understanding of confidentiality, we understand that some pastors will get caught in the complications and ambiguities of this issue. For example, a pastor may promise confidentiality only to discover later that a child or an adult is in danger from family violence. Some pastors will feel confused about which obligation to follow — whether to protect the promise of confidentiality, or to protect a victim from further violence. In such cases, we suggest that the principle of protection of the vulnerable from further harm, which is often the difference of life and death, takes priority for the black family victim. While a pastor may be uncomfortable for a time, we believe it is better to live with the uncertainty of the meaning of confidentiality than to live with the guilt of contributing to ongoing black family violence. Knowing that a child or an adult is a victim of domestic and/or sexual violence and feeling helpless to do anything about it is a very uncomfortable place for a pastoral leader to be in. We encourage adult education sessions and discussion of the meaning of pastoral confidentiality. Until a new consensus emerges, we suggest that family violence must be treated as an important exception to the general rule of keeping the secrets of parishioners who come for help.

From James Poling and Toinette Eugene, Balm for Gilead: Pastoral Care for African American Families Experiencing Abuse. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998, 147-150

Poling Retirement Lecture

In October, 2011, I gave my final retirement lecture at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  It is a reflection about the nature of human evil and redemption according to the witness of survivors in dialogue with Process Theology.  You can view it at the link below. It works well if you have auxiliary speakers, but you could have trouble hearing with only the internal computer speakers. A transcript of this lecture can be found in The Journal of Pastoral Theology, Summer, 2012.

Link to Poling Retirement Lecture:

Religion and Politics

Politics and Religion

James Newton Poling

(first preached on Oct 14, 2008)

Text: Matthew 22:15-22

Another national election in the United States. And we are in the midst of an economic crisis that seems to have no end. I continue to go about my daily life like usual, but I have this feeling of dread that my life is precarious. Living in the midst of a national and global crisis changes our lives, and we don’t know what changes will come.

How do we talk about politics and religion? When I was a seminary student, debating politics was a daily activity. But in recent years, I have noticed the eerie silence in seminaries about politics. Maybe things are about to change. When do we interrupt what we are doing and have special prayer meetings and seminars with experts so we can figure out the best responses?

Jesus lived every day in the midst of crisis. His friends and neighbors were poor, hungry, sick, disabled, and disempowered by the alliance of the Temple Elite and the Roman rulers. The corrupt leaders had stolen the historic lands of the families in Galilee and turned the people into sharecroppers and day laborers. Jesus’ parables are full of stories of oppressed people who were lucky to get enough food for one day. They yearned for a just king who paid them their wages without cheating them. They remembered the day when their families owned their own land, but they despaired ever getting it back. These stories are one reason why poor Christians all over the world love the Bible.

See the full sermon under Writing>Sermons.

Servanthood, Suffering, and Sacrifice

Text: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45

It is a little bit drastic – hiring someone to kill your husband. But after 22 years being battered and sexually abused, Delia was afraid that her children and probably she herself will be killed. She had gone to her mother who said – you made your commitment to this marriage, now you have to make it work. She had gone to the police— who had written a restraining order and kept her husband in jail overnight when he violated it. But he tore it up and threatened to kill her if she did it again. She had gone to the shelter, but her husband found her and threatened to kill her parents. So she did the only other thing she could think of that would get rid of him forever.

In the film, Broken Vows, where Delia tells her story, Marie Fortune said: “Delia’s behavior is not something I condone, nor something I recommend, but her actions are something that I can understand. The community failed her completely and finally she acted in self-defense to save her own life and that of her children.” (( for more information about Faith Trust Institute and their educational resources. “Broken Vows” is one of their training tapes.)

So I wonder what this scripture about servanthood, suffering and sacrifice might say to Delia. Actually, Delia talked to her priest and he said that divorce was against God’s laws, that women should serve their husbands, and that her suffering and sacrifice could be the channel of salvation for her husband.

When we preach this text, we have to think carefully about who is in the congregation. If a victim of family violence is in my congregation on Sunday and I preach the usual sermon about servanthood, suffering, and sacrifice, I will likely contribute to years of captivity for her and her children. We know that domestic violence often leads to murder, but usually it is the murder of women and children.

See the Full Text of this sermon under Writing>Sermons.