Visit our new site at

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ask the Matriach - The Privacy Edition

We who confess Christ believe in the power of prayer and care, especially for those who are in distress. But how do we maintain the privacy all deserve and some deeply desire...this is our question for the week:

How much information do you give out to the rest of the congregation about people who are hospitalized? At this church, there is an expectation from both the hospitalized parishioners, and their friends, to provide quite detailed information about their condition, especially if they cannot receive a lot of visitors. On the one hand, I want to let people know enough that they can pray concretely, and also be appraised of their friend's true condition. On the other hand, I am very mindful of confidentiality.

Earthchick at was the first to respond:

You are right to be concerned about confidentiality - my understanding is that we are legally bound by HIPAA not to share medical details. I understand the congregation's desire to know details, and some parishioners may be perfectly happy for those details to be shared. But I always check with the patient to see how much he or she wants divulged, and I err on the side of caution if I haven't gotten explicit permission to share details. We even ask before we add someone to our prayer list or our public prayers - because they may not even want anyone to know they are sick or in the hospital. It can be difficult not to share what we know, especially if someone is in quite serious condition and we know the congregation would want to reach out to them. I once had a parishioner who was actively dying while the congregation thought she was improving;. it was a sad shock for people when she did die. It is not what I would have chosen - but it was her choice not mine, and I felt bound to honor it.

...followed by Mompriest at

This is a good question, and since I deal with it almost daily....first question I ask is: what does the parishioner want? I always ask parishioner, assuming they can speak, what they want. If not the parishioner, I ask family members. "Would you like to be on the private parish prayer list?" " Would you like us to pray for you on Sunday morning?" " Or would you be more comfortable with just the clergy praying for you?" AND, "if you want to be on a parish prayer list, what would you like us to say?"
Then, with the permission of the parishioner, let the parish know who, what, and why. OR, as the case may be, nothing. Some teaching may need to take place regarding HIPPA law and confidentiality.
I realize this can be a challenge for parishes that are used to a tell-all scenerio, like a family...and I tend to error on the side of offering some, but not all info, and then saying that the person does or does not want visitors/calls, depending on their desires.
So, essentially your instincts are right on target.

And we heard from Jennifer who blogs at www/

Gentle blogger, what a great question!

First things first: I think it’s hard to create a “one size fits all” approach to the circumstances of folks who are ill or hospitalized, but it’s easy to respect the wishes of the one who is hospitalized (or a family member’s wishes, if the person is unable to communicate his or her own wishes). Our staff and our deacons and other caregivers are trained to ask what information can be shared with the congregation. We ask “Is this information I am permitted to share?” and we ask if a person would like to have his/her name included on the congregation’s prayer list and the church news bulletin board. (We also invite that person to tell us when they’re ready to come off the prayer list, too!) We further communicate to the congregation and to our deacons that there are always individuals who ask to have their privacy respected, which is why they may be aware of a need (as we are) but it is not appearing on any public list or announcement. When folks do give me permission to share information, I keep it pretty general for public announcements and invite people to speak to me following worship if they wish to have more information. I find that’s a lot nicer than talking about prostates and such in the context of worship….

We'd love to hear from you too. Please use the comment function of this feature to add your insights.

Photo courtesy of


  1. This is super-timely as I just had a call last night that a member is in the hospital and doesn't want anyone, including their deacon, to know. No prayer chain, no deacon, no pastors, no nothing. And I find myself so increasingly frustrated by requests like that because it shows me that we are not in fact a church community, we are a club where we all have to be perfect all the time, and showing our weakness, our illness, our need is somehow bad. isn't this exactly what the church is for, to support each other in times of need, to pray for each other?

    I know this is slightly different than HOW MUCH info to share--in that case, I think it's totally right to err on the side of caution and just say "please keep so and so in your prayers as they face a difficult situation/health concern/hospital stay/etc." But to keep a secret when you are in need? To pretend you're getting better when you're dying? I'm not sure that actually is a service to anyone, the individual or the congregation as a whole.

    I think this comes down to education before these things happen. A culture of truly caring for each other (not voyeuristically wanting to know every detail, but caring) will require sharing our difficulties. but if that's not the church culture (and it's not in most places, I suspect), then we as pastors have our work cut out for us, I think. (just when I thought we'd made progress on this front...sigh...back to square one!)

  2. Just a quick note of correction -- HIPAA privacy rules apply only to health care providers, health plans, and health care clearinghouses. Clergy in congregations and congregation members are not governed by HIPAA, but should probably consider having a clear policy/practice around questions of privacy and health, perhaps through the vestry, board, etc.

    Of course, chaplains employed by hospitals are subject to HIPAA rules. And you can read more about it here.

  3. At our place during the morning announcements we invite people in the congregation to share news about the hospitalized, etc., and let them -- usually family members -- be in charge of how much information they wish to disclose. As you might expect, some people are quite brief; others approach TMI territory; but it's their choice.

    We also have a "card ministry" where we provide names and addresses of persons in our congregation/wider community who might appreciate an encouraging word. We don't provide details. We've gotten a lot of positive feedback from recipients, who report getting cards/messages of support from people who write things like, "I'm not sure why you're on our prayer list, but for whatever reason you are, know you're in my prayers and thoughts."

  4. I share Teri's frustration at those who do not want ANYONE to know that there is a situation going on. Fewer things make the pastor feel more helpless than to hear about a grueling hip replacement 3 weeks after the fact.

    On the other hand, in a small church where gossip has been the preferred mode of communication for many years, and information is an important form of currency, its not that hard to understand some of the reticence.

    I recently had our Card Deacon ask for nitty-gritty details about a family so she could buy the correct card. I did not betray confidence, but I will have to remember LutheranChik's "Don't know why..." line next time.

    Folks at St Stoic must have figured out that I won't divulge things that are private (and I don't gossip) because now they are taken to asking my spouse. Hilarious, because he never knows what is going on--that well is completely dry!

  5. Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that this same subject was visited - except the question was how much should a pastor divulge about her own situation? Teri has it right - it is so frustrating that it so often seems that we are not a community, but a club. If we are all going to care for each other - pastors and parishioners - a little information sharing is required.

    But how much and to whom? We have a prayer group that usually gets the whole story, but everything shared with them is confidential. (And, yes, that has worked.) As others have indicated, we specifically ask permission to include a name in announcements or newletters and we keep those announcments pretty brief. No one has ever pressured me to provide additional information. The response is generally in person follow-up from some and cards from others. I'm still amazed at how important those cards can be!

  6. Our church does the opposite - unless you are on staff or the designated prayer team (all volunteers) you do not get prayer requests from the congregation. It means that those who have the requests are the only ones who know to pray. Names are never announced as being ill or whatever... I'd like to see a balance between the two. Sometimes people wonder why "no one knows" that they are in the hospital... and just finding a way to offer prayer without gossiping would be a blessing...

  7. Just want to clarify, in my research, the HIPAA laws do not extend to clergy unless we are employed by the hospital. I always ask the patient or family member what they would like released. Also, if a church member says to me How's Bob? I ask "What was the last you heard?" Then I confirm or clarify that information. This helps to squash rumors, but I am not giving more information than they already know.

  8. We have a book in which celebrations and concerns can be listed each week (more often just a list of names) and then read out before the prayers of the people. SInce I usually have little knowledge of why the names are there I simply llist them and ask that those people be held in prayer.

    I only add things to the book that are matters of public info (weddings, funerals, baptisms, wider world events) or that are related to my family (eg when my grandfather was dying I put his name in). Any other names are offered by congregants. I make it a habit to not add names just in case.

    A story (We are story people after all). The local cable guy disappeared for a week ab out 3 years ago. Literally. No one knew where he was. Saturday night he called us to say that his leg was being removed the next day (complications from undiagnosed diabetes). THe next mornign there were all sorts of rumours about where he was (including one that he had triple pneumonia--which is quite a feat!) and many people had to be told "I have no information". SInce then I think people "get it".

  9. Our church has a prayer list in the bulletin and newsletter, with peoples' names only. And it explicitly says that the office must be called to get on the list and then names are on the list for a month unless the office is specifically told otherwise. The list gets really long sometimes. The only time a specific reason is mentioned is if the pastor says something at the beginning of the service during announcements, and then, I'm firmly assuming, permission has been given.

    I like the idea of some specific, overt guidelines because pastors are always encountering the assumption of "magical thinking" where people have overt expectations that they will receive a visit or prayer because gossip has gone around. While I'm sure that the pastor hears enough gossip about others' illnesses, a pastor is wise to never acknowledge that.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.