Privacy, Secrecy, Transparency and the Church

Let’s talk about the difference between privacy and secrecy. But before we do, let me say that this post is not inspired by any one recent event. It is, however, inspired by a number of recent events in the larger mainline and progressive spheres of the church over the past six months or so, all of which have caused me to clarify my thinking on the difference between the two. Here’s how I understand them: privacy is about keeping things that are personal, but not harmful to others, confidential. For instance:

A person’s personal finances are private.

A person’s sex life is private.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless they wish to share them with others.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private.

Secrecy, however, is different. Because secrecy has to do not with confidentiality, but with concealment. And when the church tries to conceal something, it’s usually people with little-to-no power who pay. Let’s take those examples from above and see how they can become secrets:

A person’s personal finances are private, and we aren’t going to ask why the church books aren’t adding up.

A person’s sex life is private, so I’m not going to say anything about the fact the pastor is sleeping with someone they are counseling.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless you wish to share them with others, so you are going to need to stay closeted to work in this ministry.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private, so someone’s addiction should be too, and none of us are going to tell Bob that he needs help because he is drinking too much.

IMG_4707Here’s the issue for the church: we often can’t tell the difference. I am all for privacy. I’m a big fan of it. But I’m not a fan of secrecy because it tends to breed more dysfunction. Secrecy is about covering up what is harmful. And so, it’s little wonder that we have a saying in the recovery community: you’re as sick as your secrets. That applies to being the church together too. When we mix up privacy and secrecy we end up creating the perfect atmosphere for people to get hurt. Our job, then, is to challenge secrecy. That might look something like this:

A person’s personal finances are private BUT the church’s financials are not.

A person’s sex life is private BUT if you are having sex with someone who is underaged, unable to consent, or with whom you have a pastoral relationship, that is not.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless you wish to share them with others BUT if you are telling others to remain in the closet for the “greater good” that is not.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private BUT your unchecked addiction and the destruction it caused is not.

Jesus told us “the truth will set you free”. I believe that. And we, the church, are supposed to be the ones who do this whole Jesus thing better than anyone else. So why, when there’s a public crisis in the church, do we revert back to secrecy and call it privacy? Why do we hint to others “if you knew what I knew, you would feel differently”? Why do we cover up, refuse to challenge, or look the other way in the belief that “it’s not my business”? Why do we enable addiction? Why do we push obviously wounded leaders back into the public arena before they have a chance to get well? In short, why do we fail to accept the freedom the truth can bring? And, what if we church leaders changed the discussion? What if our greatest concern had to do not with protecting secrets but with transparency? Let’s take the same examples from above:

A person’s personal finances are private BUT the church’s financials are not AND SO this church is going to have an open-book policy when it comes to our joint accounts.

A person’s sex life is private BUT if you are having sex with someone who is underaged, unable to consent, or with whom you have a pastoral relationship, that is not AND SO this church will neither tolerate nor shelter clergy who break these covenants.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless you wish to share them with others BUT if you are telling others to remain in the closet for the “greater good” that is not AND SO this church will allow clergy to live openly as the beloved children of God that they are.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private BUT your unchecked addiction and the destruction it caused is not AND SO this church will encourage discussion about addiction and provide support to those wishing to be in recovery.

Transparency takes the conversation one step further. It’s not just exposing secrets. It’s changing the way we respond so that the whole church benefits. It does not violate the privacy of individuals, but it also does not allow for the destructive actions of individuals to continue unchecked.

So what happens when it becomes clear that something that has been kept/is being kept secret is hurting the larger body? That’s the tricky part. Each church or denomination has different accountability structures, and so each process will look a little different. But here are some things that should not happen:

– Don’t absolve the system too quickly. What was known? What did others in positions of power avert their eyes from rather than address? How did the system allow harmful behavior to continue.

– Don’t undermine the credibility of someone seeking answers, or try to silence them. Don’t orchestrate smear campaigns against them, either overt or by whispers.

– Don’t accuse those who are trying to tell the truth or ask hard questions of gossiping. Those aren’t the same things. Do not misuse Scripture to silence conversations that need to happen.

– Don’t violate someone else’s privacy in retribution. Even if you think they are the worst people in the world (which they’re not) don’t share private/covenanted information out of spite.

– Don’t create an atmosphere that will make it hard for someone with a similar problem to come forward either for fear that they will not be taken seriously or fear that they will be scapegoated for the actions of another (for instance, all clergy recovering from addiction being punished for the actions of a clergy member who was never in recovery from their addiction).

But here are some things that can help:

– Do welcome outside perspectives and the fresh eyes of those who are impartial and wise. They will be able to see things that others cannot. Their observations may be painful at times, but they may also be vital.

– Do admit that you might not have all of the story (even if you are really, really sure you do) and therefore may have misjudged things.

– Do encourage dialogue on the larger issues that come up, and provide spaces to talk about them.

– Do ask, “What can the larger church learn from this, and what can we do better in the future?”

– Do pray for all involved.

I don’t profess to have comprehensive answers on any of this, but I do believe these are critical distinctions. What would you add?

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