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?

Falling: Recovery, Silence, and the Church

Untitled copyTwice in my life I have competed in contact sports. After a childhood spent envying the boys on my block who could play on the football team, I joined my college’s rugby team. It was a club sport at my school, more adventure than varsity, but it was one of the few places I had found where women could play a rough-and-tumble game without others trying to protect us. After college I found my way to the local judo dojo where that same truth held. There on the mat we sparred together, a mix of genders and abilities, starting standing face-to-face and ending with throws and pins to the floor.

What struck me about both sports was what I learned at my very first practice. My first night on the rugby pitch I learned how to throw a tackle. But, more importantly, I learned how to be tackled. A friend of mine knelt down on the field and, as I ran at them, threw a perfect tackle just above my knees. I soared over their shoulder and hit the ground safely. We did this again and again that night until being tackled was second nature.

My first night in the dojo was similar. Before I was allowed anywhere near the other students, I spent an evening sitting on the mat and practicing falling backwards. Each time I fell backwards I would strike the mat with one arm to absorb the blow. Once I mastered the art of falling down from a sitting position, I fell backwards from a standing position. That first night I thought judo must be the most boring athletic endeavor ever, but after I was thrown to the mat the few times I realized the point.

With both sports the idea was this: you’re going to fall. You’d might as well learn how to fall safely, with minimal injury, so that you can stand back up.

So what does this have to do with the church? At first glance maybe not that much. But last week I found myself lying face up in our village market’s parking lot thinking otherwise. I’d slipped on a patch of Vermont black ice while carrying a bag of groceries, but as soon as I had felt myself lose balance I immediately, instinctively, did what I had learned in the dojo: I fell back, didn’t panic, and tried to distribute the impact as broadly as possible. In the end the only thing injured was my pride. I stood back up, picked up the groceries, and drove home unscathed.

And that’s when I started to think about the church. Recently a clergy friend told me that he had been advised by older clergy mentors to hide the fact that he is in recovery from addiction. I immediate felt sad about that. This is a person with sustained sobriety, and an incredible story of recovery. His testimony could be a powerful witness to God’s healing, as well as one of hope to those “still sick and suffering”. But his congregation might never hear it.

My friend had been told that clergy shouldn’t show weakness. They shouldn’t admit to perceived failures. They should allow those around them to live under the impression that, no matter what is going on, everything is fine. And, while I do believe clergy need to be careful not to overshare our personal lives or to preach our own stories more than the Gospel, I believe this is the attitude that not only contributes to clergy burn-out but hurts our whole church.

The reality for all of us is this: we fall short, we mess up, we lose our traction, and end up on the ground. In short, we live life. Clergy and lay together. But often we don’t talk about that in church. Instead we bring ourselves to worship in our Sunday best and hide the truth that sometimes things just aren’t that great.

It’s no surprise. For too long we’ve been taught to do just that. We clergy have taught, often by our own example, that appearances are more important than honesty. We’ve taught that appropriate vulnerability is career suicide. We’ve taught that falling down defines us no matter whether or not we get back up. And, inadvertently, we’ve taught a sanitized, powerless Gospel.

Somehow we have taught that Christians are people of perfection, and not people of redemption.

This past year, as the Boston mayoral race heated up, eventual winner Marty Walsh ran television ads that briefly mentioned his recovery from alcoholism. I watched the ads and thought, “that’s brilliant”. He, as Robert Kennedy used to say, hung a lantern on his biggest problem, the thing that might have come out in sneaky attack ads and bombed his candidacy. Instead, his recovery became a part of his story. It showed that he knew how to get back up and rebuild.

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt sad for the church. If an admission of being in recovery can actually help someone in the hardball world of politics, why is it so feared in the very place where redemption should be celebrated? Why aren’t we, people who talk about grace and forgiveness and new life, in the business of teaching people what to do when they fall? Why don’t we acknowledge these things so that we can help people know where to turn when they need help to get back up?

In my ministry I’ve never hidden the fact that I am in recovery. I’m blessed to be able to say that because of that I’ve been able to be a first call for parishioners and non-parishioners alike when they finally hit rock bottom. But I’ve also never talked about it in my writing all that much.

This Sunday marks another year of sobriety, one day at a time, for me. It doesn’t matter how many years, but I can say that it’s far more than a much younger me ever thought I could string together the first time I admitted I needed help. I give thanks every day that I got it.

I also give thanks for the ones who I’ve met in recovery who have taught me that falling down in life is as inevitable as falling on the rugby pitch or in the judo dojo. Most have had much more dramatic and devastating falls than my own. Most have made far more dramatic and inspiring recoveries. And, though they may not have realized it, and though most have never stepped into a pulpit, they have preached the Gospel to me in the most powerful ways I have ever heard it.

I only wish that those of us who did occupy the pulpits could preach the Gospel of redemption with such power and transparency and strength.

But then again, maybe we can.