In principle I see no place for secrecy in a church – as distinct from keeping confidences. Openness should be the mark of any true Christian community, recognising that there are times when certain matters should be kept private. However, the times for privacy are more limited than some might suppose.
For instance, in terms of the general running of the life of a church, there is no reason in principle why regular members of the congregation (what Baptists call ‘church members’) should not have access to the minutes of any church committee. Particularly in a church where members have entered into a ‘covenant’ with one another, what have we to hide? Such communities should be marked by transparency; and truth-telling and information-giving should be the norm. In principle there is nothing virtuous about keeping secrets – secrecy all too often can become a cloak for abuse of trust and for misuse of power.
Clearly, within the context of openness, there has to be a place for the keeping of confidences, particularly in the area of pastoral care. Just like doctors and counsellors, so too pastors are expected to maintain confidentiality with those who come to see them. People need to know that when they talk to a pastor in confidence, they can trust the pastor not to share indiscriminately what is said. If pastors are not seen to be trustworthy in this respect, then their ministry will quickly come to an end. As a result members of the College of Baptist Ministers in their Code of Ethics pledge:
I will hold all confidences shared with me as sacred, unless otherwise compelled by a court of law or by imminent risk of serious harm to another person.
Yet keeping a confidence does not necessarily mean that pastors may never share what has been said in confidence. In my experience there were very few times when people who had entrusted a confidence to me refused to give me permission to share that confidence with my fellow leaders. Indeed, as part of our staff team covenant we promised that “We will be open with one another. There may be times when the ministers will not be free to be open with the rest of the team, however, there is no place for ministers to keep secrets from one another. A confidence does not necessarily mean that we cannot share information with one another”. Confidentiality is important, but it is not necessarily absolute.
The question then arises: to what extent may one share pastoral information with the church as a whole? Again, there have to be limits. A church meeting is not a place for members’ full medical details to be disclosed! Furthermore, pastors need to recognise that there are some who value their privacy and may not wish anything of their circumstances to be told to the church at large. However, providing the people concerned have given their permission, there is no reason why pastoral information may not be shared with church members in general. Indeed, there is good reason to do so. The Scriptures encourage us to “pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5.16), and how can we pray for one another if we have not a clue as to what is wrong with the people concerned? Listing in a church bulletin names of people in need of prayer without any information is unhelpful. In fact, not to share information can be to go against the very concept of Christian belonging. As an American Unitarian Church Handbook put it:
Our congregations are covenantal communities of people responsible to and for each other. An appropriate sharing of information is necessary if we are to minister to one another through the trials and sorrows of life and if we all are to grow spiritually. By joining a covenantal community one has made a choice to be in relationship, to have others involved in our lives.
Sharing and praying are two sides of the same coin. As a Baptist pastor before welcoming new people into membership, I used always to say: “In a Baptist church, membership involves entering into a dynamic covenant relationship with one another – a relationship in which we commit ourselves not only to work together to extend Christ’s Kingdom, but also to love one another and stand by one another whatever the cost”. As part of the covenant of membership I asked the church: “Do you promise to love, encourage, pray for and care for” those whom we are about to welcome into membership?”
There is in fact a place in church for ‘holy gossip’. Did you know that that our English word ‘gossip’ originally was about being spiritually related? The word ‘gossip’ is derived from the Old English word godsibb which is made up of two words god (God) and sibb (a relative – from which we get our modern word ‘sibling’). Initially a ‘gossip’ was a ‘godparent’; then in Middle English it came to be used of a ‘friend or neighbour’. Later, according to Wikipedia, the on-line dictionary, the term became associated with the bedroom at the time of child-birth, when the mother-to-be‘s female relatives and neighbours would come together and talk together about others: i.e. they would gossip. Today the term ‘gossip’ is a negative term and means ‘idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others’. But I would like to suggest that within Christian circles there is a place for ‘holy gossip’, the kind of talking about others which reflects genuine concern for the other person.
So pastors, don’t feel that you have to keep everything to yourselves. There is a place for appropriate sharing.