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Confidentiality in Youth Minsitry

by Adam McLane

If you are in youth ministry, paid or volunteer, you are in the trust business.

If students trust you and your ministry… you are in ministry. 

If students don’t trust you or your ministry… you aren’t. 

It’s really that simple.

Trust of church leadership is one thing. Trust of parents whose teenagers you minister to is another.

But trust of the teenagers in your ministry is beyond crucial. If you don’t have it you’re just kind of pretending you’re in ministry, going through the motions, with merely a shadow of the impact you should.

With that said there are forces at play which erode the trust of teenagers, I’d call these “normal distrust factors”:

  • Natural doubts that come with adolescence.
  • Scandal. (national, local, in their church)
  • Bad teaching. (they have the Google, they do fact check you…)
  • Over-promising. (really, your ministry isn’t that awesome…)

But I want to talk about something I’m seeing lots of right now: Breaches of confidentiality

Confidentiality between a pastor and his congregant is among the most sacred of trusts. And, for Americans, it’s a trust that’s protected by the law similarly to the protections that exist between a client and his attorney. (With the important exception of things you are required to report as a mandatory reporter, even still you can largely keep those things confidential.)

And yet, I am seeing three common excuses for breaching that I want to address in this post:

  1. Breaching confidentiality with a spouse: Going into ministry I thought I needed to tell Kristen everything. We’re “one flesh” after all, right? For me it felt good to have someone to talk to about stuff that was going on. But, at some point very early on, we had some things happen that helped me awaken to the problem of telling her everything. She’s wasn’t the pastor. She wasn’t on staff. And sharing too much with her tainted her ability to have normal relationships in the church. It was an unfair burden on her. Kristen and I don’t hold secrets from one another… but our relationship is mature enough where we can allow one another to have our own lives. Fast-forward a few years and one of my greatest assets as a pastor was my wife’s ignorance of things told to me in confidence. You see, an individual would assume Kristen knew what I knew, but not in a good way. A parent would make mention of their divorce and Kristen would appropriately respond that she had no idea. “Oh, I assume you already knew because Adam has known for a long time.” Each time Kristen told a parent or a teenager “Adam doesn’t tell me anything I don’t need to know” trust in our ministry increased. I was able to go much, much deeper and have a greater impact for the Gospel because I maintained both the sanctity of my marriage and the sanctity of the sacred trust between a pastor and his flock.
  2. Breaching confidentiality with staff. This one is a bit more nuanced. Again, it feels good to have someone to talk to about stuff particularly when something going on in a teenagers life may bleed outside of the youth ministry. Again, just because one staff member knows something doesn’t mean the entire staff needs to be aware of it because that knowledge can have unintended consequences. If teenagers start to assume that everything they tell you is talked about on your team, they simply aren’t going to trust you.
  3. Breaching confidentiality online. I’ve engaged with fellow youth workers online for more than 10 years and only in the last couple of years have I started to see regular breaches of confidentiality. Sometimes this is oversharing on their Facebook status or posting text messages as a tweet or posting confidential information to an online group. None of that is appropriate. All of that is a serious breach of confidentiality. Nor do you have the right to share someone else’s business publicly… that’s called gossip.

The Pastor’s Burden

I’m not saying maintaining confidentiality is easy. It isn’t. It comes at a high cost. But this is our burden.

People under your care need to know that if they tell you something you aren’t going to blab about it to a co-worker or your spouse or post it online. Quite frankly, if they think you might they simply won’t talk to you about real stuff.

So yes, be clear with the teenagers in your care that if they tell you something that’s about harming themselves, others, or you… that you will need to break confidentiality to tell the appropriate people.

But don’t let students think you are just a spy for their parents, or that their deepest secrets are fair game for your vaguebooking, or that your spouse is going to know they’ve been looking at porn.

Instead, if you need someone to talk to, get a spiritual director or a counselor or find a fellow minister you can consult with confidentially.

What say you? I know I’ve posted some pretty strong thoughts… some will agree and others won’t. What value do you place on confidentiality in your youth ministry? 

Posted on 2 Comments

2 thoughts on “Confidentiality in Youth Minsitry

  1. Adam,

    I am guessing you and I read the same post recently. This is a HUGE thing for me. It kills me when I hear that trust of a teen or other individual has been broken whether mentioned specifically or vaguely. Thanks for writing this as a reminder that unless what has been shared involves some sort of harm we must keep things confidential. The ramifications of not go deeper than we will ever know.

  2. I agree with you on the last two. In fact, it’s been a point of struggle with me (though I’m no longer a youth pastor, I’m still on staff and have a pastoral role with families) because often the elders talk w/each other and with me, and vice versa, and I struggle to know what’s appropriate to share, and what’s not. After all, they’re elders/pastors of the church, and we’re caring for families together. So, good word here, and I’ll continue to wrestle with this one. Sharing on social media – just plain wrong. I don’t like sharing my own stuff, and wouldn’t dream of even commenting about other people’s, even in a general way.

    I generally disagree with your thoughts on sharing with my spouse, though. Maybe because we see our ministries differently, but my wife and I consider ourselves in ministry together. Therefore, people do know that what I know, she’s going to know. When I did work with teens, I made this clear to the teens. What this did is it encouraged trust because they knew who I would and wouldn’t share with, and they could talk with either of us about a problem. In addition, we could get different guy/girl perspectives on issues our teens were struggling with, and help them from a different perspective. So, yes, my wife and I do talk, and the folks we care for our better for it. That doesn’t mean their aren’t exceptions – struggles with porn, and students specifically asking me not to share with her being two of them – but generally speaking we minister together, and, when we worked with students, they knew that up front.

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