Originally published in Pulpit Helps, June 2006.
It has been said that when a burden is shared it becomes half a burden. I am not sure of the validity of that statement, but I do know that when emotionally distressed persons can genuinely share their thoughts and feelings in a safe environment, they usually feel better.
Confidentiality is a vital trust in the counseling process that must be protected. When counselees feel they can share what is on their heart with a counselor who can be trusted, the outcome is almost always much more positive and successful. Confidence should not be broken. A counselee should not become the subject of stories among peers or illustrations in sermons.
The agreement to keep private what is promised to be kept private is an essential act of trust. However, confidentiality does have its limits. When clients are involved in something illegal or harmful to themselves or others, intervention takes priority over confidentiality. One of the most obvious examples of this would be in the case of child abuse. A counselor should report abuse of this nature because it is both a legal requirement and a moral responsibility. There are many other examples that could be used, but the key to remember is that an agreement to confidentiality is not an absolutely binding commitment.
A person who comes to a pastor or counselor for help is in a position of vulnerability. That position should not be compromised by unethical or immoral practices. Still, a counselee could sometimes be helped more effectively if confidentiality is sacrificed in order to more appropriately help a client or someone at risk because of the counselee's actions.
Beyond the basic issue of confidentiality is the whole question of honesty. The Bible teaches us that we should be the truth in love. It is important how we say something, but it is critical that we speak the truth! Counseling, to a large degree, is about helping people move toward health and wholeness through the dynamic of hope. Counselors do have influence on their clients. We should never resort to deceit or dishonesty in order to offer a struggling counselee a false sense of hope. Quick fixes rarely work. Truth-based counseling is decidedly better than the best alternative.
Truth and confidentiality do not contradict each other in the counseling endeavor. Rather, they complement each other. Good Christian counseling will keep confidential what is shared as long as the greatest help and the least amount of hurt is achieved.
A powerful and important part of the foundation of counseling is truth. Confidentiality is the means of assuring our counselees that we as counselors can be trusted. In order to be truthful, we should inform our counselees that our commitment to confidentiality has limitations. In order to be helpful, our clients must be encouraged to share the truth with us. Even if this causes difficulty and pain, it is a path that potentially leads to the best kind of mental health and emotional healing.
Jesus taught us that He is the truth. His Word is truth. God's people should be people who build their lives on truth, learn the truth, and speak the truth. The truth, Jesus said, would set us free. Real freedom of the soul is not the right to justify wrong behavior but the power to do what is right. We can know what is right because we can know truth. Our God of truth does not give us error. He does not put us in bondage but delivers us into freedom. Freedom cannot be divorced from God's truth.
Truth is absolute but confidentiality in counseling is contextual. Our goal as counselors is help our clients change from distress to freedom. We should honor confidentiality and only break it when the greater health of our counselee is at stake.
James Rudy Gray is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. He serves as the editor of The Baptist Courier, the official newspaper of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
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