My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Pastoral Confidentiality:
Q: Are pastors required to keep everything they are told confidential? Are there any cases in which a pastor is allowed to expose the things that are revealed to him?
Pastoral Confidentiality is a subject which certainly has its share of myths. I have heard numerous stories from pastors about the assumptions about this that they have encountered in the course of ministry. The common assumption that I hear expressed regarding this ethical question is that all communication with a pastor is considered confidential, but this is only partially true.
The myth that every statement made to a pastor is confidential arises from the idea of the “Confessional Seal.” This is a vow taken by priests and pastors of several denominations when they are ordained as pastors. In the case of my Lutheran ordination vows, the pastor promises “never to reveal the sins confessed” to him.
Because of the long history of this practice in the Christian Church, it is even recognized as privileged communication in most courts, meaning that the pastor cannot be compelled to testify concerning what was confessed to him. But, this does not cover every statement made to a pastor, but only requires the pastor to maintain confidentiality when the information is revealed to him in the course of the ceremonial act of confessing sin to the pastor for the purpose of receiving forgiveness.
In addition to the “Confessional Seal,” there is also a professional expectation that pastors will maintain confidentiality regarding what is said to them in a counseling setting. However, as is also the case even with a psychologist or licensed counselor, this is not an absolute confidentiality. For example, pastors may break confidentiality in a counseling setting to preserve the safety of the person they are counseling. This could occur, for instance, if the counselee states that they intend to harm themselves or others.
To give a similar example, many states now require pastors to be “mandatory reporters” in cases of child abuse, much like teachers and medical professionals. Most (but not all) of these states, though, do make exceptions to this law for the “Confessional Seal” mentioned above.
Beyond these two expectations of confidentiality, pastors are also held to the same spiritual standard as all Christians. Particularly, the Eighth Commandment says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” When Martin Luther explained this commandment in his catechisms, he taught that this does not only forbid lying about our neighbors, but even telling true things about them when those things are uncomplimentary or harmful to their reputation.
Even further, pastors ought to consider the impact that their statements make on their own reputation and their ability to effectively minister to those they are called to serve. Even if something a pastor was told did not come in the course of confession or counseling or does not harm the reputation of another person, he would be wise to consider how his speech will reflect upon his character and ministry. Many pastors choose to guard very closely what they reveal about anything said to them simply for the reason that a pastor who says too much, even when he is not violating an expectation of confidentiality, may be perceived by others as unreliable or untrustworthy.
Essentially, the only absolute spiritual requirement upon a pastor to maintain confidentiality is when a statement is made in the course of confession. At the same time, there may be other earthly standards of confidentiality which many pastors choose to maintain, even when not religiously mandated. If you have concerns about the confidential nature of something you intend to speak with a pastor about, it is certainly acceptable to clarify with him at the beginning of your conversation to what degree he will consider it confidential.