What would Jesus say about churches and data protection?

As a member of one of the five Rotary clubs in Chelmsford, my name appears every year along with many others in a printed booklet, two copies of which are distributed to every Rotarian in Chelmsford. Along with my name and my profession, is the name of my wife, my address, my phone numbers (mobile and landline) and my e-mail address. I find this directory a most useful tool.

By contrast many churches seem to have given up on producing directories of their members – or rather, they seem to have given up on allowing their members to have a copy of the church’s membership directory. For of course the ministers and other church leaders have a copy – but for reasons of data protection the ordinary members are not allowed access to a membership list. This is true, for instance, of the church I currently attend. As a result I have resorted to producing my own private directory. Alas, my directory only consists of those whom I have got to know in the last 18 months – even so, it includes over 100 names, addresses, and emails. I find it a most useful tool.

So why do some (many?) English churches no longer produce a directory for their members. It has all to do with the Data Protection Act 1988 which seeks to protect an individual against the unfair use of person information. Amongst other things this act establishes:

  • The right of an individual to know what data is being held about them and to check its accuracy
  • That personal data should be used only for the specific purposes for which it is held and not disclosed to those not authorised to have it.

What I find of interest is that, according to the Legal and Operations Team of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, in their Leaflet 13: Data Protection, this does not rule out circulating contact details. To quote:

Churches should ensure that all those whose names and contact details are on any sort of published list, even if this is only circulated to church members, give explicit permission for their contact details to be included on the list… For example, the church could operate a system where everyone joining the church signs a form or leaflet that says they are happy for the details they provide on the form to be used in the way you tell them they will be used. If someone asks to have any or all of their contact details removed from such a list, then you will need to comply with their request as soon as possible.

In other words, provided these guidelines are followed, churches may still produce and circulate to “individuals who are either members of the church or who have regular contact with it”. Whether or not such a semi-public list could include the names of children, I am not sure. However, one thing for certain, in principle church directories are still allowed.

To some this might seem a peripheral issue. However, I would argue that this is a Gospel issue. For it is so much more difficult to care for one another, if we do not know have the contact details of our brothers and sisters in Christ. True, when Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another as he loved them, he did not have in mind the use of a church directory. However, in today’s context, it seems to me a directory is required. Indeed, to restrict directories to the ministers and other church leaders, is to in effect to restrict pastoral care to the ‘hierarchy’. By contrast the Scriptures teach that in the first instance pastoral care is the task of all God’s people. So, for instance, the Apostle Paul spoke of the members of the church in Corinth having “the same care for one another” (1 Cor 12.25). He urged the Galatians to “bear one another’s burdens” which in turn involved caring for those straying from the faith, and restoring the backsliders (Gal 6.1,2). Within the context of death and bereavement the Thessalonians were told to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess 5.11). In fact Paul expected the Thessalonians to share in every aspect of pastoral care: “admonish the idlers, encourage the faith-hearted, help the weak” (1 Thess 5.14). Similarly the Colossians were to “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom” (Col 3.16). For the Apostle Paul pastoral care was not exclusive to a particular cadre in the church: all were involved in “the work of ministry” (see Eph 4.12, 15,16).

So what would Jesus say about churches and data protection? I think he would create helpful guidelines which ensured that the church as a whole was able to living up to its calling of loving one another!

3 comments

  1. An interesting article Paul, however I would suggest that not all churches have done away with the membership directory on the grounds of data protection. In a broken world where churches are seeking to connect with the broken and the needy it is often the case that we are working with some of the most vulnerable people in society. Quite rightly the church has a responsibility to protect them and it may be appropriate not to have them in a directory. What is of more concern is that there may be members or friends of the church who have access to the directory and because of their past, their mental health or their general character may use the directory in an inappropriate way and cause real issues and harm for those in the directory on the receiving end of such misuse. I believe that it is possible to have some form of contact sheet giving the minimal amount of details – perhaps a name and email address or phone number, but nothing more. We certainly should not be including children’s names, dates of birth or addresses for reasons of safeguarding.

    I would suggest that having your own contact list is a good way forward as long as you then don’t share those details. There is something about the personal introduction and the getting to know others before gaining access to their information which feels right to me and probably a lot more pastoral than a cold list of information about faceless individuals. You know that everyone on your list is someone that you have made contact with and they with you, you know their name and they yours. There may be times when you need to contact someone outside of your list and this could be done via the church office / minister where your details can be passed on for that person to contact you if they wish.

    You once taught me that ‘names are important’ but you rightly pointed out that it is more than knowing a name it is about knowing the person, maybe the days of a general directory are now behind us and it is more about creating personal networks and seeking to get to know all within the fellowship for ourselves.

  2. Very interesting comments by both Paul and Martin. We do still have a general directory and in fact the issue has been in deleting the names of people who, for various reasons, have ceased to attend the church and no longer wish to be part of it – on the grounds of “they might be upset if they discover that we’ve taken their names off the list”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.