Often in pastoral care, the question of confidentiality will come up. This is important because when you are counselling someone, they are placing themselves in a vulnerable situation and may be telling you things that they’ve never told anyone before. They may be nervous about how making that known will affect them and their relationships. Once a disclosure is out will it cause them shame? Will it lead to others judging them and treating them differently? Could it put them in danger?
At the same time, you may find yourself in an awkward situation. Is there a requirement to report things to the elders if there is collective responsibility for pastoral care. Could not telling others put the counselee or other people in danger? Do you need help and advice that you can’t get without sharing some details?
I find it helpful to distinguish two things, secrecy and confidentiality. I cannot promise secrecy to people. I can’t keep things hidden and I can’t promise that no one else will ever know. Instead I do promise confidentiality.
Confidentiality is different to secrecy and it may help us to think in terms of “confidence” here. There has to be a level of confidence in terms of the people in the conversation, the information and who else might hear.
So, first of all, I need to prove that I’m trustworthy with knowledge. The person I’m counselling needs to know that I wont misuse or misrepresent the knowledge they share and use it against hem or against others. They need to know that whatever I hear from them, I do so because I believe that I need to know it in order to help them.
Secondly we need to think about confidence in the knowledge shared. Is that knowledge truthful and helpful? We certainly don’t want to pass on lies. This might mean that we share something but give qualifiers. It may not be true to say that “Ethel’s husband always breaks the speed limit.” It might be true though to say that “according to Ethel, she feels that her husband is often driving very fast.”
Thirdly, we then need to think about communication in terms of who might need to know and what they might need to know. They may need to know some aspects of the story but not all of it. So, there are two elements to this. First of all is the “need to know.” What is my purpose in sharing information with another person? Whilst I’ve distinguished secrecy from confidentially, I think a useful principle is that we limit who needs to know to the smallest number possible. This is seen in Matthew 18 where Jesus encourages people to resolve disputes one to one, then with a couple of witnesses and only if necessary in front of the whole church.
I think as well, we also need to consider confidence in relation to the person we share with. Are they able to handle the information well? Some people won’t be able to carry the burden because it will overwhelm them whilst others will not be able to keep it to themselves. And yes there will be those who mishandled it to judge, to condemn and let it change their relationship to the original counselee.
So, I think it is helpful not to put legalistic limits on secrecy but rather to use the principle of confidentiality to help us thing through how knowledge is handled.