Every congregation faces decisions about how to manage sensitive information, and some congregations have to make difficult decisions in the midst of crises. Highly stressful situations rarely bring out the best in anyone. Faith leaders can practice making difficult decisions wisely now—instead of waiting until a congregational predicament forces them to become instant specialists at information management. Carefully made decisions enhance the congregation’s long-term health, without unnecessarily harming individuals. Knee-jerk reactions, especially during a crisis, have lasting negative repercussions. Taking time to seriously pay attention to the process of making decisions results in information management that creates a stronger faith community.
A four-step process works for making all sorts of decisions. Leaders need to (1) assess the situation, (2) consider the options and determine the plan, (3) act, and then (4) evaluate. However, the management of sensitive material is fraught with complexity and nuances. The more attention leaders pay to each step in the decision-making process, the more prudent their decisions. If leaders leap into action too quickly, their ineffective information management results in unexpected problems down the road.
Lincoln Presbyterian Church, the focal point of the small town of Lincoln, stands within a block of the elementary school and city hall. As in many small communities, everyone in Lincoln seems to know each other—and much private material about others. The community grapevine is as rich a source for information as the local newspaper. Whether members of Lincoln Presbyterian or not, townspeople tend to keep up with the church news. The church’s pastor, Rev. Mackay, has joked with a touch of bitterness that if he sneezes, the whole town worries that he has a cold.
In his office one afternoon, Rev. Mackay heard the confession of John Jones, a longtime and beloved member of the church. John told his pastor that he had recently pled guilty to charges of molesting his 12-year-old niece. Concerned for children in the church who might be at risk, Rev. Mackay asked John to worship only at the later service, when fewer children attend, and to come on time and leave immediately after services. John agreed and also promised to let the pastor know any other times he came on the church grounds. Rev. Mackay closed the meeting with prayer and promised John his spiritual support as the court proceedings progressed.
What should Rev. Mackay do with this information about John? When John first left the office, Rev. Mackay was stunned and really had no idea what to do—so doing nothing seemed the best choice. Initially he decided to “seal” the fact that John had come to see him and the content of the discussion, but after a sleepless night, Rev. Mackay decided he didn’t want to be the only leader of the church to know. Even though he thought the information should be kept confidential, he confided in the highest ranking lay person. Telling Allison eased his own stress about keeping this information and gave him another person with whom to talk. Presuming no other children were at risk, he and Allison rationalized that no one else should be told. They did not realize that their silence might collude with the secret keeping that often protects offenders and damages congregational trust.
Within the week, the situation had shifted. Rev. Mackay discovered that John had told several of his friends in the congregation about the pending court date to garner their support and agreement to appear as character witnesses. Rev. Mackay started receiving angry calls from parents in the congregation about his not warning them. Local citizens called, furious that he never told the nearby elementary school principal. The elders threatened to fire him for irresponsibility and keeping secrets from them. Church staff members were horrified that they were not given the information, especially because they had seen John on the church grounds often and knew nothing of the restrictions on his being there.
As much as Rev. Mackay wanted to believe that his knowledge about John was his alone to deal with, a pastor makes decisions in the context of a congregation with its own dynamics. Prudent decision making requires a leader to know the congregation well enough to anticipate the effects of various choices. The prestigious Lincoln Presbyterian Church had a troubled history of secrets about the shortcomings of both ordained and elected leaders, including their affairs and addictions. Information was hidden to maintain the church’s reputation as an upstanding, solid rock in the community.
The most crucial question for Rev. Mackay and the congregation should have been about how to ensure the safety of children, but this church had a history of looking the other way when things wenthaywire. Like many congregations, Rev. Mackay’s church had never considered what to do if a registered sex offender wanted to worship there—much less if one of its beloved members abused a child.
Step 1: Assess the Specific Situation
Calm decision making, rather than reactivity, tends to promote healing and reduce further harm—especially when information is loaded with potential for creating anxiety or damage. When discerning a solution to information management dilemmas, key assessment steps help keep the situation contained and controlled rather than allowing it to escalate and turn destructive.
As difficult as certain information may be, the receiver needs to pursue questions of safety. When hearing information that is unpleasant, we often deny or minimize the potential impact—or overreact. If John had embezzled from his employer, what would be the risk to the church? What would need to be disclosed so that they didn’t elect him treasurer? If John had a drinking problem, how would that affect the church or its members? Could this information be disclosed if a committee wanted him to drive or chaperone on youth group trips? Regardless of the content of sensitive information, faith leaders need to weigh the potential harm to the individual(s) involved and to the congregation itself. Two questions can help leaders assess risk: (1) Does the information involve child abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse, potential suicide, or other harm? and (2) Whose well-being has been or might be affected?
Step 2: Consider the Options, Determine the Plan
When journalists compose their articles, they include the basics: who, what, when, where, how, and why. When making information management decisions, congregational leaders should consider these same basic questions, though the order of the questions does not matter.
1. Why conceal or reveal the information?
2. Who is the most appropriate person to disclose the information?
3. To whom should the information be disclosed?
4. What details or information will be shared or withheld?
5. When should the information be released?
6. How and where is the information disclosed?
Disclosure can be healing and empowering, but only if leaders carefully think through their plan of action. No perfect option exists; each possibility has drawbacks. Careful consideration is required at every step as leaders determine why they should release or conceal certain information, what details should be told by whom and to whom, when, how, and where the information will be shared. Leaders who have painstakingly and accurately assessed the situation before them and have planned well are ready to move to the next step: action.
Step 3: Act
“Just do it” doesn’t work so well when handling sensitive information. Implementing a quick decision may relieve initial anxiety but create more dilemmas in the future. What if, instead of remaining silent, Allison had called a special meeting of the church’s elected leaders along with Rev. Mackay? At the meeting, the pastor could have told the lay leaders what had transpired with John. They m
ight have raised their voices, pointed their fingers, and huffed with frustration. At first Allison and Rev. Mackay might wonder if they had made a mistake in including the other leaders. However, after emotions calmed down enough for more reasoned conversation, the lay leaders could begin their own process of assessing the situation, considering options, and deciding a course of action about how to disclose the information sequentially to the church staff, parents, and whole congregation.
Step 4: Evaluate
Had Rev. Mackay followed this process, he would surely have acknowledged that his decision to remain silent initially and then to tell only the presiding lay leader had had serious repercussions. Instead of enhancing the congregation’s health, his action contributed to poor communication, a lack of trust, and an increase in rumors and gossiping.
Almost any decision faith leaders make about managing sensitive information will upset someone. If it involves something that congregants would rather not acknowledge, there is no way to release it without causing discomfort and resistance. By carefully evaluating each stage of the process of disclosure, leaders will maximize trust and build congregational confidence in them to lead and to heal the congregation even in times of great stress.
Anxiety, fear, or confusion on the leaders’ part can be contagious. Most congregants are calmed by clear, nondefensive explanations about the various options that were considered and the reasoning behind the decisions their leaders made with due diligence and prayer. The wisest evaluation criterion is not whether others liked the decision made, but whether it was indeed made carefully, in consideration of all people involved and the whole congregation, and resulted in minimizing harm and maximizing good.
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Adapted from Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations
by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock
Knowledge is power, and the way knowledge is shared in a congregation can build up or break down community. When congregational leaders are sensitive to the ways that information should be shared, the congregation can become safe and strong. Healthy Disclosure is filled with step-by-step ideas for handling different types of sensitive material.
Preventing Sexual Abuse in Congregations: A Resource for Leaders
by Karen A. McClintock
In this comprehensive resource, Methodist pastor and pastoral psychologist Karen McClintock demonstrates that sexual abuse in congregations is preventable and gives clergy and lay leaders the tools they need to prevent sexual abuse in congregations. This book shows congregations how to protect children and vulnerable adults, prevent sexual harassment either by clergy or of clergy, and strengthen clergy families by raising awareness of the occupational and emotional risks inherent in pastoral ministry.
Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What
by Peter L. Steinke
Anxious times call for steady leadership. When tensions emerge in a congregation, its leaders cannot be as anxious as the people they serve. This takes self-awareness and confidence to manage relationships and influence behaviors. Knowing how to deal with anxiety and how to work through complex challenges can lead a congregation to new insights, growth, and vitality.
The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Understanding Church Dynamics
by Israel Galindo
Christian educator and consultant Israel Galindo takes leaders below the surface of congregational life to provide a comprehensive, holistic look at the corporate nature of church relationships and the invisible dynamics at play. Informed by family systems theory and grounded in a wide-ranging ecclesiological understanding, Galindo unpacks the factors of congregational lifespan, size, spirituality, and identity and shows how these work together to form the congregation’s hidden life.
Stilling the Storm: Worship and Congregational Leadership in Difficult Times
by Kathleen S. Smith
When congregations go through difficult times, worship will both reflect and influence those difficulties. The practice of worship itself can be a key part of the congregation’s healing process. Teacher and consultant Kathleen Smith successfully demonstrates this truth in Stilling the Storm, a book for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the ways that worship intertwines with the life and health of a congregation.
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