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January 17, 2011

Question Time: Small Groups, Confidentiality, and the Law

I'd like your opinion regarding the legality of small-group confidentiality.


One of the benefits of working on the team at Christianity Today International is that I sometimes get "insider information" from some of the other resources in our corporate family.

For example, the following question was recently sent to the editors over at Your Church Resources:

An issue has come up in our church about peoples' legal obligations regarding confidential matters discussed in small group meetings. We strive to maintain strict confidentiality on things discussed in our small group settings. We want them to be a "safe place" where people can share their troubles and not have to worry about group members spreading gossip or the information somehow ending up in a courtroom.

One woman we heard from was in a small group in another church and group members were called in to testify against her in court. Before joining one of our small groups she wanted to be assured that sort of thing would not happen.

So my question is, how private are small groups really? We typically get information second-hand and are not usually witnesses to things that happen in people's homes or in their personal relationships. So can we, should we, be required to appear in court about things we might know about from small group sessions? Are we able to assure people that our groups are in-fact safe for them? Is there any case history that addresses these issues?

The Your Church folk have already solicited an answer to these questions from attorney Frank Sommerville, which I will reveal on Wednesday. Between now and then, however, I would love to hear your opinions.

How would you respond to this pastor in need?

posted by Sam O'Neal on January 17, 2011 3:20 PM

Related Tags: Legal issues, Question


I would expect that since there is no professional aspect to most church small groups, that there should be no legal expectation of privacy or confidentiality.

However, outside of the legality, I would want to think I hold my Christian brothers and sisters to a far higher standard.

In our small group we say whatever is said in the small group stays in the small group. If we hear something as leaders we don't know how to handle we may take it to the Pastor, but other than we keep it in our SG.

Small groups include carnal Christians, immature Christians, all kinds of Christians and maybe even some non Christians. Every Christian can yield to the temptation to gossip, etc. Therefore I would recommend not talking about anything in any small group that you wouldn't want widely known, even if confidentiality is the goal.

I did not see the church attorney's response to this question--did you all get a definitive answer?

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