A pastor in Naperville, Illinois has come under heavy criticism for revealing a personal conversation he had with one of his parishioners. Neil Schori, pastor of the Naperville Christian Church said on national television that Stacy Peterson told him a few weeks before she went missing that her husband, Drew Peterson, had killed his third wife, Kathleen Savio in 2004.
If you are not familiar with the story, read the news release that appeared in The Naperville Sun. By reading the story you will understand this complicated situation, one that involves pastoral ethics. The issue in this story that concerns ministers is whether a minister should divulge private information when that information was told in confidence.
A few denominations have adopted a code of ethics for their ministers, but in general there is no established code of ethics that binds all ministers. However, because at times ministers must deal with people’s personal issues, their position of trust and confidence requires of ministers a high level of conduct in all areas of life, but primarily when dealing with highly personal and sensitive situations.
When ministers act as counselors, parishioners will have their most intimate confidences entrusted to them. For this reason, it is unethical for ministers to divulge those confidential confessions made to them without the consent of the people who made them.
In addition, as counselors, ministers must keep themselves free from any act that may bring suspicion on what they do. They also must avoid situations which may be misinterpreted by others. Ministers must avoid any appearance of evil that may bring discredit to Christ, his church, and to the ministry.
It is here where Schori failed. First, he spoke on national television, telling the whole world what was told him as a private and personal situation. I agree with the president of Lincoln Christian College and Seminary who said that Schori’s action was a breach of confidentiality. Stacy Peterson is now presumed to be dead. Thus, if Schori had some inkling of Drew Peterson’s involvement in her disappearance, he should have gone to the police instead of CNN.
Second, Schori met Stacy Peterson at a coffee shop, instead of the church where a private conversation could take place. Counseling parishioners in a public venue is very inappropriate for pastors. People may misunderstand what is happening and confidential matters can be heard by others. Pastoral counseling takes time, patience, effort, and skill. When sensitivity is lacking, ministers can find themselves in a compromising position and face the same embarrassing situation that Schori is confronting right now.
Ministers can learn several lessons from Schori’s sad situation. One lesson that they must learn is that when there is a threat to life, in cases of child abuse or neglect, ministers must take action. Serious and dangerous cases may require ministers to report the situation to the proper authorities. In such cases, ministers must decide whether the breach of confidentiality is morally and ethically valid.
A second lesson that ministers must learn is that any counseling done in the privacy of the church has more justification to be considered a private conservation that is protected by clergy confidentiality than a conversation held in a coffee shop. Such a conversation may be considered public and open to scrutiny since it was held in a public place.
Finally, this situation reveals that the work of ministers is very difficult. At times ministers will be placed in situations where they will be invited to hear very private, personal, and confidential information. Ministers must decide before hand what information is to be kept confidential and what information could be disclosed. Once ministers establish their personal policy about confidentiality, it is imperative that ministers communicate their policy to parishioners before they begin talking about personal issues.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Tags: Counseling, Ministerial Ethics, Neil Schori, Pastoral Confidentiality