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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Confidentiality in a Multi-Staff Church

Here's an interesting question from a colleague who serves as the head of a small staff, trying to discern how to handle confidentiality within the staff.

Dear Matriarchs,

I am a 50-something rector of a four-point mostly rural parish. This is my first parish - second career. I've been the only clergy (and the first woman) for five years. This year we happily received an assistant priest, an earnest and compassionate young man half my age. He and I are 6 months into a team ministry and doing fine together. It's great to have help, I love teaching, and he seems genuinely pleased with the arrangement . But I need advice about how to handle confidentiality. "What is said to one is said to both" might head off end-runs and triangulation. On the other hand, there are things I have not shared with him about some folks, to let him do his own discerning without my biases. Might there be situations where it would be faithful for him to receive confidences which he would not share with me?

Added twist: the people who could not receive a woman priest left years ago. The parish is growing a tiny bit, and I've had no further gender-based problems. But there are indications that some folks are pretty happy to have a man with a collar around again, and assume that he will naturally become "the primary priest."

Jennifer responds:
I believe there might be occasions that either one of you would be asked to keep a confidence from the other or feel it would be right. Being candid about the reasons that confidences are kept is, in my opinion, the best way to be as transparent and open as possible with each other while still maintaining high professional standards.

Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming, writes:
My gut feeling is that you need to give people the chance to say things to one of you & know it stops there. If there are things that you feel it would be useful for you both to know, perhaps you need to check with the person ‘is it OK if I tell my colleague?’ or even ‘would you like him to know too?’ - then your folk are clear that you are a team but that confidences can still be kept.

There may be gender issues – both ways: I’m sure you’ve had times when people have said things to you which you feel they would not have said to a man, and I’m sure you’re right in feeling that for some people your colleague will feel like ‘the priest’. As you have already said that you work well together I’m sure you can both have the grace to take the lead when it’s appropriate & step back when the other is the lead person.

But I know that sometimes it’s hard to challenge the ‘natural order’ in which one person has to be boss! I pray you will both live the gospel – God bless.

And mompriest offers:
First, since you are the Rector, and he is the assistant, it is never appropriate for him to receive information and not share it with you. He runs the risk of triangulation if he with holds information or carries information that should be shared with you. At the very least he needs to encourage people to take any concerns that fall under your purview to you, and/or he needs to say, "let me discuss this with the Rector and get back to you." You need to be a team, but also everyone needs to know that ultimately you are the boss. This is, after all, a hierarchical church structure. You can function like a collegial team and share in many of the same duties and responsibilities, but when push comes to shove you are the "boss" and people need to know that. And for you to do your job well you need to know what is going on on all levels. Besides it is just common respect that he would share information with you so that you are never surprised by what comes your way. However, because you are the Rector you will naturally know things that he will not, should not, need not.
Secondly, whenever a female and male clergy team work together people do tend to navigate to the male as if he is more in charge. We live in a world where male voices just carry more authority than female. sigh...You and this assistant need to acknowledge this social norm and actively work together to let folks know that you are the Rector and he is the assistant. It will really require his cooperation and understanding for he is the one who will need to remind people that the Rector's input is needed for decisions and actions. It also helps if you have titles that keep it clear who is the Rector. Using Fr. and Mother is not my favorite choice in this matter. Sr. Pastor and Pastor is better (I've known Lutheran Churches who use that title). Of course, since he's been there 6 months, you probably are set in your titles. If the boundaries are clear and respected then you will work together with much greater mutuality and collegiality, a real team.

I hope this continues to be a fruitful and wonderful experience for all concerned, even if it will need to be done more intentionally.

I love it that our Matriarchs offered somewhat different answers from each other this week. This is obviously not a cut-and-dried issue, and perhaps there are many approaches that could be ethical and healthy. What do the rest of you think?

My husband and I serve together as co-pastors and we have had to wrestle with this one over the years. After nine years, we are still working out our approach to confidentiality! Neither one of us is the "boss." There are some things both of us do need to know, and other things - not so much. So we tend to take things on a case-by-case basis. Individual parishioners seeking pastoral counseling can generally assume confidentiality. Our exceptions have been if a parishioner says inappropriate things to one of us (along the lines of confessing a crush, or saying things that indicate such feelings, for instance), or if one of us is feeling unsafe for some reason (for instance if one of us has been meeting with a couple having marital problems and we feel the situation is volatile). Otherwise, if we feel it would be good for the other pastor to know something confidential, we will generally ask permission from individuals to share what they've shared - they almost always have agreed. It's still tricky, though, and something we continue to hammer out.

Let's hear from the rest of you. What is your experience? What are your opinions? Please share!

And, as always, please send questions for the Matriarchs to discuss to

- earthchick


  1. My last call was a shared ministry situation where I was the newest clergy but had a long relationship with the congregation who had called me to ministry. We always asked, "It's fine if I share this with my colleague...?" just to inform that our preference was to share. Once in a while we each got the request not to share it with the other. So we did not in those cases. Those were difficult but we both respected people's requests and understood that we should not break those confidences. It worked very well.
    Only once did I have something happen that I knew background on and my colleague did not. Because it was a crisis at that point, I called him and shared what I knew in order that he have the full information he needed.
    I think we have the responsibility to inform people that our plan/preference is to share what we are told so there are no mis-assumptions.

  2. As a tentmaking clergyperson who functions primarily as a congregant in the parish setting I assume confidentiality as both priest and congregant and am distressed to hear that any clergy person wouldn't. I think it is far better that people can trust this and you ask permission before sharing anything (except for unusual safety related things) and if you are going to share things as a default to make that extremely clear up front and also give people a chance to opt out. It may be taken for granted by clergy but I believe most congregants like me would find this quite a shock and betrayal. (Of course this may be to some extent a Catholic-Protestant difference, as the extremely strong confidentiality involved in the seal of confession tends to carry over to other serious pastoral contacts. And there tend to be--or used to--large parishes with several priests where people were free to seek the person they connected well with, and the pastor was not expected to know everyone and be closely involved with their pastoral care as is often the case in mainline congregations).

    If the issue is criticism of another pastor obviously the healthy thing to do would be to encourage the congregant to share things directly with the person involved in an appropriate way--far better modeling and teaching of appropriate communication IMHO than telling them yourself.

  3. Regarding confession: In the ten years I've been ordained and the three churches I've worked in I have had less than a handful of one-on-one private confessions. It seems most folks are satisfied with the corporate Sunday confession. Of the few I have done, when I was an assistant in a parish I did not have to share the details of the confession with the Rector, although I may had told him that I saw so and so for confession.

    As an assistant I found that sharing information with the Rector was most useful. He/She was in the parish longer than I and would be there after I left. He/She had often already worked with the person I was seeing and knew of the situation and could offer counsel for me on how to work with the person. If a person shared something with me about the Rector I encouraged them to go to the Rector directly and address the concern.

    The end result was to have a unified clergy team and by sharing information we created that. This is not unlike the unified approach of parents with children - although I don't like the metaphor of clergy as parents and congregation as children...

    I have modeled that same approach in two other congregations with good success.

    In contrast my clergy colleagues who served as associates in congregations where the boundaries and expectations were unclear struggled mightly with what to do, when, and how. My point is the Rector and the assisting clergy need to have clear understanding of appropriate communication means for them.

  4. I agree with Sophia. As a member of the congregation who talks most often with our associate pastor, not our senior pastor, I would be very surprised (and VERY unhappy) if she communicated anything that I had said in a one-to-one (non-confessional) conversation to the senior pastor without asking me first. Which she has done on occasion. When I am sharing personal information or personal thoughts, I expect that the person I am talking with will respect my privacy - as I do hers. From now on, I will always ask first about intra-staff communication before I say anything that I prefer remain private. Sigh....

  5. As an associate pastor, the only pastoral issues I share with the Head of Staff are BIG BIG BIG things that I don't know how to deal with (and then it's not in an information sharing way, it's in a colleague-help-me-out! way), or that I think could affect the church as a whole, or when someone is hurting themselves or others, or when I am going to be gone for an extended period and issues are likely to arise that would make it in important for someone else to know so they could be the pastor in that situation. Otherwise EVERYTHING pastoral is confidential.
    But in terms of people having issues WITH another person--I refuse to be triangulated. I'll listen and offer pastoral care, but will also tell people they need to talk directly to the person they have an issue with. If they are unwilling or uncomfortable, I'll offer to meet with the two of them, but only in extreme (and rare) circumstances would I go to my colleague and tell them what someone else has said. It seems like a recipe for lost trust and for being manipulated.

  6. This is a helpful discussion and allows me to see some of the dysfunctions on church teams I've been on in the past. When "knowlege is power" and people withhold info to stay IN power, it's sad.

    Thanks for a great matriarch's discussion!

  7. I agree with Teri - pastoral conversations should be confidential unless there are extreme circumstances, or basics are being shared when the care is being shared (like, why so & so is in the hosptial, that kind of thing). This is a very different conversation than "I don't like when the rector does blah blah blah." That's not pastoral, thats triangulation, and the response should be "have you talked to ___?" Personally, I prefer not to pass that kind of thing along because it seems to enable the triangulation.

    I have a book called "Becoming Colleagues" that is about mixed-gender leadership teams... its got some stuff in there!

  8. I believe that there are occasions when an assistant might be told something in a pastoral context and NOT share it with the rector. It is possible that a parishioner might be more comfortable having that sort of pastoral relationship and conversation with one or the other--and one of the benefits of a multi-clergy situation is that parishioners can make that choice. Might not having ALWAYS to report pastoral confidences to the rector undermine the ability of the assistant to pastor?

    That said, other sorts of information certainly ought to be shared with both clergy persons. It is VERY difficult to work in a multi-clergy situation when the channels of communication are not open.

  9. I'm working in a staff situation for the first time, and we definitely share pastoral care information. We don't share everything people tell us! If we did, we'd be doing nothing else!!! But we definitely work as a team. In this church, people seem to appreciate being able to go to either of us. If I'm hearing something I think needs to be known in full by the Senior Pastor, I let the person know and ask permission to share it with him. I wish I could share a very good example of this, but I'm too recognizable here and elsewhere and wouldn't be able to mask it enough. And I guess that's my point. If it's something that serious, we both need to know what's happening, for the sake of the people involved and the church as a whole. And to be clear, he does the same in sharing information with me.

  10. Hello RevGals and Pals,

    I'm the rector who asked the question - I am very thankful to you all for the range of comments.

    Like Mompriest, I take seriously the responsibility of being rector. I used to have a boss whose approach was, "tell me what I need to know." Vague, but it worked, and when it didn't, she taught me. A big thing we have going for us in this situation is that, in spite of (or because of) the many ways he and I differ, we like and respect one another.

    And I will be thinking more about parishioners' expectations of confidentiality. That part of the conversation here has been very helpful, Sophia and others.

    Under the Mercy, with prayers for all concerned in Haiti.


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