Understanding the need for confidentiality

In a family there is a specific need for certain information to travel no farther than the immediate family members' ears. In the church this need is even greater, for without the privilege of speaking freely, it is difficult to publicly ask forgiveness of another person, to discuss and work through personal feelings or to have open communication with God.

Without confidentiality consider how challenging it would be to "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16)."

Accepting the Duty to Warn and Protect

Generally the duty to warn is seen as a need to protect the life of either the person threatening to take their own life or the life of another person. The church should have a policy for specific disclosure, stating who will be told and what record will be kept about the matter. The staff should review it with all who counsel and make it standard operating procedure.

Here are two examples of problematic situations: A church member states to a deacon or staff member that he is thinking of harming himself or his wife. If the counselor says nothing and it happens, he is at least morally responsible for what happens and can even be held legally responsible in some instances.

If the counselor prematurely warns the wrong person and this causes the person to lose his/her job, this too can be a case for legal action against the person making the disclosure. It's important that any person who counsels others understands and follows an agreed upon standard to protects the rights of the person being counseled, as well as others who may be directly affected by the person's actions. This is best agreed upon in writing by both parties at the beginning of the counseling arrangement.

In a sense, anyone who assumes the role of a counselor faces a higher standard of confidentiality.

Understanding Slander and Libel

Spoken words that harm others are described as slander, while written words that attack or defame others are defined as libel. Either can begin a lawsuit that demands a legal defense of your actions.

A church recently was held responsible for proclaiming its political beliefs about a certain candidate and had its tax-free status removed as a result. Words are very powerful, and how they are used can either build up or destroy individuals and the church. Speaking in general terms is one thing, but when it is obvious that a specific person or situation is being discussed from the pulpit or in written form by the church, it is more likely to be held up to more critical standard.

While church staff members are generally held more responsible if they hold themselves up as counselors, accountability could still fall to deacons who also hold an appointed office in the church. If deacons' duties include counseling others, the church should clarify exactly what their task includes and when they will report information to the pastor or pastoral counselor, who can help them decide if they should take further action.

The Need for Liability Insurance

Many church insurance carriers offer liability coverage for pastors, staff members and those who serve as trustees in the church. This is a particularly wise investment since a person can easily state the church has harmed them in a specific way and bring legal action to bear against the church.

In many instances it is wise for staff members to carry personal liability insurance, should the church's insurance carrier say his or her actions are outside of the normal scope of their duties or beyond the coverage afforded by the church's policy.

Consider Bobby Smith who loaned his church van to the youth group. Bobby told Sammy, the youth minister hat he gladly offered his van for the youth trip, but that only he could drive it. When the van was driven, you can guess what happened: It was wrecked. And to further complicate the matter, Sammy, the youth minister, was not the driver. Who is responsible to fix it now? See how complicated a simple matter can become when it isn't specifically clear who is responsible for the situation?

Even more than liability insurance, this church needed a clear procedure on who could borrow items and who was responsible for initiating the process. A legal release, approved by the church's lawyer, would have clarified who was responsible in the event of an accident. What sounded like a good idea – getting a van for the church retreat – could have ended in legal battle.

Taking a Stand Against Child Abuse

It is a crime not to report all instances of alleged child abuse that are reported to you. Even when the truth cannot be determined, anyone who is told of child abuse is obligated to report it to the designated state agencies for an official record and investigation.

The result may be that the state agency may send someone to question the children or to visit them at school or in their home. Seldom, if ever, are children taken from their homes unless there are extensive, repeated documented instances of abuse.

Like proclaiming the gospel, the responsibility of whether the report is accepted or rejected is not in our hands. Our command, and the law in this instance, says to go and tell and to leave the results in God's hands.

The Supreme Need for Honesty

The need to discuss issues openly and honestly demands a certain level of confidentiality. It often means that deacons and staff members cannot tell their family members (or even discuss among themselves) the details of what they are told.

Even more importantly, it is vital that we respect a person's privacy so that they can confess their faults to us and that we can pray for them. Without this level of trust, we cannot fulfill the command we have been given in the Bible.

Honesty is vital to having a healthy, growing church family, but it also involves a number of legal issues that should be clarified before the church suffers legal action. Even when the policy is developed and followed, the church may still be sued, but then we can know that our hands are clean and we have followed the Scriptures on the matter.

This article is taken from Church Administration, a Magazine for Effectiveness in Ministry. All issues discussed in this article are given only as examples and are not intended as legal advice. Any intended actions, by deacons or church staff members, should be reviewed by competent legal counsel.

Brian Kent is a freelance writer from Houston, Texas.

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