Confidentiality and Transparency

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, June 2, 2022

Confidentiality and Transparency

 Each year, as we orient new members of presbytery committees, we discuss two core values to which our presbytery is committed: confidentiality and transparency. The two often seem at odds, but rightly understood, both are necessary for us to live together faithfully as a community of Jesus’ followers.

Confidentiality is the interpersonal manifestation of trust. We are able to share honestly because we trust those with whom we are sharing to keep confidences. We can confess our faults to each other because we trust the love in one another that “covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

We highlight the need for confidentiality in our presbytery committees because we often deal with matters that, if broadcast, could hurt the congregations or pastors for which we have responsibility to care. Sometimes this requires that we withhold divulging things about someone that someone else insists they have a right to know.

Last week’s news included a disturbing story revealing that the Southern Baptist Convention’s key leaders and core committees systematically covered up for church leaders whom they knew to be abusers and predators. Denominational officials were shown to care more for preserving the reputations of abusive leaders and their church than about making wrongs right.

Abuse of church leaders’ power is NOT a place for confidentiality, as such actions put the safety of the flock at risk. We must beware the temptation to use “confidentiality” as a smokescreen to protect ourselves, or our institutions, rather than as a way of living that demonstrates the Gospel. “Confidentiality” in the Gospel sense is not a tool for risk management, but a manifestation of trustworthiness.

Transparency means that we are fully open about how we do our work. Our process is an open book, and we commit to abide by it, even to our own hurt. We are in this territory when we promise at our ordination to be governed by our church’s polity. (Book of Order W-4.0404e)

We are able to maintain confidence in our leadership only to the extent that we maintain an unswerving commitment to transparency in how we make our decisions, how we raise and spend money, how leaders are chosen and hired, and how we hold ourselves accountable.

In a healthy church, we expect and trust each other to act according to our promises. We assume the best of each other in following the commitment to transparency we all make to each other.

Transparency in how we do things does not entail breaking confidentiality about what we are doing. For instance, if a pastor notifies the presbytery that he or she may be open to receiving a new call, our staff will map out the process clearly but keep confidential the fact that the pastor is considering new possibilities. We are acting both transparently and confidentially.

There is no room in the church for decisions being made by power-brokers in back-rooms. Who gets to decide? How do they decide? Answers to these questions are embedded in our constitution, which we promise to uphold. Our decision-making process must be an open book.

When the process is open, we can and must trust those who are duly designated as decision-makers to exercise the confidentiality necessary to do their work well.

Jesus outlines a process for resolving conflict that balances well these two values. The process is transparently clear – when there is an offense, one should go directly to the other with their complaint. One to one. Keeping confidence. If that doesn’t resolve the matter, bring one other person in to hear the matter. Only after those measures have been taken, and the matter is still unresolved, does it become a matter for the whole church to hear and adjudicate.

It comes back to the issue of trust. We show our trust in God by risking to trust each other. We show ourselves trustworthy by being both confidential and transparent.

Only God is absolutely trustworthy; the rest of us will sometimes prove ourselves otherwise. Still, we can choose to lead with trust rather than with suspicion, with forgiveness rather than with condemnation.

Not only must trust be earned; it must be chosen.

Yours in shared trust,

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