Confidentiality vs. Secrecy in the Congregation

Nancy Kauffmann is a denominational minister for Mennonite Church USA

By Nancy Kauffmann

It comes as no surprise that all doctors, counselors and pastors are expected to maintain confidentiality. When this doesn’t happen it’s a major breech of ethics. The booklet The Mennonite Polity on Ministerial Leadership lists “violations of confidentiality” as one of the ethical issues that justifies a review process of a pastor’s credentials.

But what role does confidentiality play in the life of a congregation beyond the pastor?  How do the lay leaders determine what is appropriate communication with the congregation?  When does “confidentiality” become an excuse to keep secrets in a congregation?

Susan Nienaber in an article “What Not to Do in Turbulent Times” implies that there is a role for confidentiality.  She says,

“Don’t get confused about the difference between confidentiality and secrecy if you are a leader in a congregation. Communication issues are common in congregations that are experiencing challenges. Too often leaders will over-communicate and share something inappropriate, such as too many details regarding a personnel issue or under-communicate by trying to keep an issue under wraps for too long instead of striving for appropriate transparency and being proactive.”

But waiting until there is a crisis to understand the difference between confidentiality and secrecy is usually too late. Entering a crisis without guidelines for healthy communication increases the stress and anxiety level. It also often causes leadership to react to the crisis in inappropriate ways which then increases the fear and anxiety of the congregation. It also creates an environment for inappropriate behavior by the congregation such as gossip, choosing sides, or making unreasonable demands on how the situation should be handled or how people directly involved should be treated.

Anne Stuckey in her book Training Ministry Teams, on page forty-three, describes confidentiality as “one of the nebulous battlegrounds in team ministry” full of landmines and so she encourages a ministry team to set guidelines for confidentiality before a complicated situation arises.  This allows for careful reflective planning that empowers leadership to act appropriately and lead the congregation in healthy responses to difficult situations.  She raises several questions to be considered in developing a set of guidelines, including the reality that information is power. She encourages reflection on how that power will be shared.

The book, Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock is an excellent resource for helping pastors and congregational leaders to sort through the issue of information as power.

Another question Anne raises is whether leadership is free to share information with spouses.  Some believe that holding confidentiality is the same as keeping ‘secrets’ from their spouse.  While it is important to be open and honest with a spouse, dealing with issues of confidentiality while serving in a leadership role in the congregation is very different.  Sometimes confidential information is shared accidently through the sharing of the same e-mail address. Sharing confidential information with a spouse places a heavy burden on the spouse and also compromises the integrity of leadership.

One additional question to be added to Anne’s list is whether there would be any reason to not keep confidentiality such as if the information is already public, or disclosure is required or authorized by law or disclosure is in the best interest of all to avoid risk of serious inquiry or harm to any person.

Appropriate confidentiality breeds health in a congregation.  It fosters confidence in the leaders, trust within the congregation, and encourages healthy behavior and accountability that builds up people and strengthens relationships.  Secrecy fosters fear, anxiety, mistrust, gossip, and dysfunction in the congregation. It destroys accountability and gives space for untruths to develop which produces many victims.  Secrecy affects church growth. Finally secrecy hampers the congregation’s ability to come before God and allow the Spirit to move in the midst of the faith community.

Let us allow the light of Christ to shine in our communication and dealings with each other.


Healthy Disclosure: Solving communication Quandaries in Congregations. Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock.  Alban Institute, 2007           

Training Ministry Teams: A Manual for Deacons and Elders. Anne Stuckey. Faith & Life Resources. 2004. (Available through MennoMedia)

Article, “What Not to Do During Turbulent Times,” by Susan Nienaber of the Alban Institute.

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One thought on “Confidentiality vs. Secrecy in the Congregation

  1. Wish my father had lived to see this one ~ M. Morrow-Farrell, Philadelphia, PA.

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