Sacred Conversations

by Donna Merow, Methacton congregation      

Our Fall Equipping on September 19 began with a reading of Psalm 139 and a discussion about the nature of God, the foundation of the psalmist’s trust in God’s presence and providence.  The responses offered ranged from God’s inescapable scrutiny to a comparison with the pursuing mother in The Runaway Bunny.  Our speaker reminded the gathered clergy that while we are not the only reflection of God in the world, we are powerful representatives, called to reflect the divine character as fully as possible.

Our experienced presenter for this Fall Equipping was the Rev. Dr. Virginia Samuel Cetuk.  Her topic was Sacred Conversations, focused on the vital importance of confidentiality in our pastoral interactions.  A Pennsylvania native, Ginny was ordained in the United Methodist Church 45 years ago and currently serves as the Administrative Pastor at Princeton UMC.  Ginny has also served as an associate dean at Drew University and as a hospital and hospice chaplain (and with the FBI through her husband’s work and connections).  It was her years co-chairing Drew’s Sexual Harassment Committee that shaped her strong convictions about the need for confidentiality and the harm that is done when it is not kept. 

Ginny engaged us in a lively conversation about the meaning, values, expectations and limits of confidentiality, one of the pastoral issues addressed in both the United Methodist Book of Discipline and our own Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership.  Etymologically, trust (“fid” in Latin) is at the center of “confidential.”  Ginny used the language of betrayal to capture the internal experience of being exposed when confidantes break one’s trust and share confidences with others. 

The common understanding of confidentiality equates it with role of the parish priest—who tells no one what is shared in the confessional, often at great personal cost.  We struggled with this idea of “absolute confidentiality” and its implications for sharing with our spouses.  

Ginny offered case studies from her ministry context for discussion and invited us to do the same.  Participation was both wide and deep as we shared our stories and posed questions without easy answers.  One pastor spoke of the discomfort of keeping a confidence that was not extended to the sharer’s own family members, a decision he honored despite his disagreement.

Another pastor asked about generational shifts.  Our older members maintain a trust in their pastors that may not be true of the Boomers and beyond.  In an age of widespread therapy, struggles are often acknowledged and addressed elsewhere.  The very public life that social media affords also raised questions about our youngest members’ reality.

What are the assumptions and expectations of those who share intimacies with us?  If they don’t say, “Keep this confidential,” are we at liberty to add them to the prayer list or to announce them at church?  We were encouraged to engage with the mutual understanding that “If you are telling me, then you are telling me.”  Several pastors reported learning the hard way of the need to assume a private conversation and to ask for permission before sharing its contents wider. 

Does the disclosure come with expectations that we will do something?  One pastor cautioned that we need to be aware which of our many hats we are wearing to respond appropriately. 

Ginny affirmed that she wanted to leave us with many questions.  In this regard, her presentation was a resounding success!

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