Tag Archive: confidentiality

Interrupt! Avoiding the "confidentiality" Trap

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“This is just between you and me.”

Whoever might say this to you shouldn’t be able to dictate what is confidential without your buy-in.

You need to get comfortable with interrupting people – at least in those moments when they come into your office and say “This is just between you and me.”, without you knowing what the topic is. Before you even have time to agree or disagree to the terms just transposed on you, they’re revealing information you’re bound to keep in confidence.

The problem is, maybe you shouldn’t keep it confidential.

For ministers, there are pretty clear guidelines regarding confidentiality in your role as clergy. (I’ve recently posted about the laws of clergy-penitent confidence.) But I’m talking about the other instances: the conversations people want to have with you when you’re not acting as spiritual counselor.

Whether it’s your brother-in-law or a fellow staff member, you need to set boundaries for these conversations.

Like you, I want to be a good listener. I want to empathize. But if I hear that line, “This is just between you and me”, I typically interrupt. My interruption sounds like this:

“While there’s a high likelihood I can keep this confidential, I can’t commit to that yet. Depending on what you say, who’s involved, and how it impacts my official role in this church, I may need to talk with others.”

I go on to say I’ll protect them as much as possible, and I won’t break confidence without first letting them know. If I’ve interrupted fifty conversations, all but one or two people have decided to go ahead and share with me what’s on their mind. And in about half of those situations, we’ve later agreed to include other people in the conversation.

Interrupting can be triangulation-avoidance, which is important for you as a leader. You can’t afford to be placed in the middle of a staff triangle for very long.

By being up-front about how you may choose to handle the information, it takes a lot of stress off of you if or when you feel the situation needs to involve others.

So by all means, interrupt.

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3 Laws Every Minister Should Know

Any licensed and/or ordained minister needs to have working knowledge of three laws. And by working knowledge I mean:

  • You’ve read the primary source of the laws
  • You understand them
  • You know how they apply to your church and your personal situation

Some ministers choose not to investigate these laws because they can be confusing, and because once they’ve read them they’re responsible for obeying them. But those aren’t good reasons to avoid them.

Below are three areas of law you should be familiar with, and resources that can help you understand them.

1: Confidentiality Requirements for Clergy

Are you allowed to testify to the court what you’ve heard when you’re acting in your role as a minister or spiritual counselor?

In my state of Tennessee, this is the law regarding obligation to the Court (bold emphasis mine):

(a)(1) No minister of the gospel, no priest of the Catholic Church, no rector of the Episcopal Church, no ordained rabbi, and no regular minister of religion of any religious organization or denomination usually referred to as a church, over eighteen (18) years of age, shall be allowed or required in giving testimony as a witness in any litigation, to disclose any information communicated to that person in a confidential manner, properly entrusted to that person in that person’s professional capacity, and necessary to enable that person to discharge the functions of such office according to the usual course of that person’s practice or discipline, wherein such person so communicating such information about such person or another is seeking spiritual counsel and advice relative to and growing out of the information so imparted. (T.C.A. § 24-1-206. CLERGY-PENITENT PRIVILEGE)

Richard Hammar wrote a helpful article about whether a third party’s presence negates clergy confidentiality privilege. You can view an article preview here.

2: Housing Allowance

Many churches handle housing allowances differently, so know your church’s system. But legally, it has to be validated in an official way by your church, and the allowance is prospective, never retroactive.

The first step is to know if you’re a “minister” for tax purposes. Guidestone Financial Resources publishes a free, succinct, and helpful resource annually, Ministers’ Tax Guide, and they write, “A Minister for tax purposes must be ordained, licensed, or commissioned and answer yes to a majority of four questions.” Guidestone lists those questions as:

  1. Does this person administer ordinances?
  2. Does this person conduct religious worship?
  3. Does this person have management responsibilities in the church?
  4. Is the person considered to be a religious leader by the church?

The primary source for knowing if you’re clergy for tax purposes: IRS Topic 17 – Earnings for Clergy

If you’re going to take this allowance, be responsible with it. Many times the clergy allowance is challenged in court, and unlawful or sloppy use of it will lead to it going away. Know the law and keep records. While I’ve provided some resources, it can be overwhelming. I’ve determined personally that the fee to have an accountant who is familiar with clergy tax laws oversee my filing, is a worthy annual investment.

Understanding the Housing allowance

Primary source for housing allowance: IRS Ministers’ Compensation and Housing Allowance section.

3: Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Laws for Clergy

Some states still protect “clergy-penitent” privilege in all cases. In some cases, little clergy protection is afforded, and in many cases, clergy privilege does not extend to conversations and knowledge of child abuse. The point, you, your church, and your workers need to know and follow the statutes for your state.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services produces a PDF to outline the responsibility of clergy in reporting, which summarizes each state’s code from their statutes.

You should know more laws than this, but understanding these laws is critical for you, your church, and those you minister to.


I’m just a fellow minister reminding you to know some laws and I’ve curated some information. But you need more than this and expert, Richard Hammar, of Church Law and Tax produces multiple resources that would be worthy of your attention—use his resources to guide you.

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