Confidentiality in a Counseling Setting

Confidentiality in a Counseling Setting
Doug McCulley
As a licensed professional counselor, I know that the promise of confidentiality is important to
those I am counseling—but it’s also important for legal reasons. Every new client signs a form
acknowledging confidentiality will be kept except in instances where permission is received to
share details, or when a client poses a danger to himself or others, or when there is a court order
Counselors are required to keep records private and are vigilant to maintain confidentiality. This
enables clients to be open and honest and deal with the real issues that are hindering them. At our
center we seek to provide a safe environment with skilled therapists to supplement the church
ministry of discipleship and healing.
With clients under the age of 18, I inform them I will keep our conversations confidential unless
there is something I think I need to share with a parent or other adult that is in their best
interest—and only after discussing it with them first.
Confidentiality is especially critical for those dealing with private pain. But in a church setting, it
is often easy for gossip to be disguised as “prayer concerns.” One of the best definitions of
gossip is this: “Sharing private or embarrassing information about someone (even if it is true)
with someone who is neither part of the problem nor part of the solution.” This is why many
people don’t share their pain or confess their sins or doubts within the church community, and
why there is a need for well-trained Christian counselors.
Working with Accountability
Our counseling center often receives referrals from churches. Depending on the issue, we may
require that a client sign a release so that we can keep a minister, discipling mentor, family
member, addiction sponsor, etc. informed about progress, or even provide them with detailed
This is especially important for someone who has a habitual problem—financial irresponsibility,
abuse, sexual sins, substance abuse, etc.—and needs to be held accountable. In fact, there are
situations when we would refuse to see a client if they are not willing to comply with allowing us
to speak to other people involved.
Key Distinction
When a case involves personal pain or emotional struggle, there is a great need for
confidentiality. When the issue is a pattern of harmful, improper, sinful, or addictive behavior,
then accountability is needed and more people will be involved. For example, when I report to a
minister (with the client’s permission), I will share what is relevant to accountability and give an
overview to the client’s issues, but not share details unless requested by the client to do so.
What Leaders Should Know
Our counseling center serves as a resource for training ministers and church leaders by teaching
seminars on understanding and helping people. We often use the terms community or family to
describe the relationships in the local church body.
One of the things we warn leaders about is that there are some people who behave like perpetual
immature teenagers. Some adults expect others to meet their needs, blame others for their own
mistakes or failures, and attempt to get their way by pitting parents against each other (we call
this splitting).
Others are like the people of Lystra (Acts 14:8-20). At first they were overly zealous in praising
Paul and Barnabas and then later they were willing to stone them. And, of course, there are those
who like to grumble, complain, and gossip as well.
Like parents working together, church leaders can work together for the sake of the body when
they share an understanding of the limits of confidentiality. This prevents misunderstandings,
factions, and overburdening ministers.
Policies We Recommend
Because we serve in a metropolitan area that is highly transient and people are quick to take
issues to court, we recommend some policies to protect ministers/leaders—especially when
someone is relatively new to the church.
Of course people may want to talk informally at church, but as soon as it is clear that an issue is
• Make an appointment for a meeting. Don’t just have an informal conversation.
• Require the person to give permission (signing a statement of understanding) that the
minister/leader may discuss issues with at least one other person. If the issue is very sensitive or
personal, there may be a need to mutually agree on exactly with whom the minister may confer.
For example, several ministers use our counseling center staff as consultants for their pastoral
care issues.
• Take sufficient notes, but make sure they are secure. Most states require that notes be locked in
a drawer.
• Be quick to refer a client/church member to a professional if you have any sense that it is more
than you can handle.
Tim Woodroof, Leland Vickers, and Doug Spears address an important issue. When the church
reaches the unchurched, many new members will have baggage. Some of them will be needy and
display immature behaviors that can cause splits within the body. Others will be overcoming
addictions and may need accountability.
For leaders, it will become more important to clearly understand and balance two factors: (1) the
limits of confidentiality when addressing behaviors and attitudes, and (2) at the same time, the
need for sensitivity to the importance of confidentiality to those who seek healing of personal
pain. Hopefully this discussion will lead churches to implement healthy practices that encourage
and build the body.
Doug McCulley ministers with the Scotch Plains (New Jersey) Christian Church and is a
graduate of both Ozark Christian College and Missouri State University. A licensed professional
counselor, he has been on staff with Beacon Light Christian Counseling Center for 18 years and
coauthored the book Maturity Is a Choice. His e-mail address is [email protected]

Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved.
CHRISTIAN STANDARD is a publication of Standard Publishing.

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