Gossip: The Things Preachers Say Behind Closed Doors

 

Editor’s Note: This is a very juicy, upsetting look into how some pastors talk among themselves and the repercussions it can have on members of their congregations. It is reposted with permission from his blog.

==========================

By Bruce Gerencser

Southern Baptist pastor Rick Patrick faced public outrage over comments he made in a private forum about women, sexual assault, and the #metoo movement. His words made it out into the wild, and Patrick was forced to apologize several times for his offensive statements. I am sure that Patrick thought his words would be protected, but as President Trump has learned, offensive words said in private often make their way to the Internet. Such is the nature of the digital age.

Evangelical pastors are noted for preaching sermons against gossip and crude speech. Growing up in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, I heard numerous sermons about gossip, off-color humor, swearing, and even the use of bywords. (See Christian Swear Words.) My pastors told me that Jesus heard everything I said, and that come judgment day, he would hold me accountable for my words.

What these men of God didn’t tell me is that when they were behind closed doors with their colleagues in the ministry, they routinely failed to practice what they preached.

Years ago, I was a participant on a Reformed Baptist discussion group. The group was private and had pastors and elders in its membership. It was common for group members to talk — Greek for gossip — about problems in their churches or the difficulties they were having particular members. We talked about and said things that would have proved to be embarrassing had they been made public. This group, at that time, was the Reformed Baptist version of the Catholic confessional. What was said was considered sacrosanct.

One day, as I was searching the Internet, I came across the “private” discussions from the group. Evidently, a programming mistake had made the group’s posts public instead of private. Horrified, I immediately notified the group administrators, and they fixed the technical problem. I thought, at the time, if church members and non-group clerics ever saw what we said, why, there would be all sorts of outrage and calls for discipline. Fortunately, my find saved the group’s collective bacon.

I was a pastor for twenty-five years. During my teenage years and my years in the ministry, I attended numerous pastor’s fellowship and conferences. These events allowed men of God to hang out with their own kind, giving them opportunities to talk shop and air their grievances. Most of these events featured a meal, either at lunch or before the evening session. It was during these meals that pastors would gather in smaller groups and “talk.” I have heard and shared countless stories about church problems. The gathered pastors where expected to commiserate with gossipers, and, if warranted, offer advice.

Thanks to being in the ministry for so long, I had a lot of preacher friends, including a few men I considered BFF’s. I would often visit my friends at their church offices or we would arrange to meet somewhere for a meal. Without fail, our conversations would turn to this or that problem, this or that contrary member, or one of the never-ending problems facing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) and Evangelical churches. These discussions were often chock-full of information disclosed in private counseling sessions by church members or things overheard on the grapevine. The thinking was that sharing private information with colleagues in the ministry was okay. Who’s going to know, right?

Of course, I would know, and when I would later be asked to preach at the churches of my friends, I would have thoughts of what they shared with me over lunch or at one of our fellowship/prayer times. One pastor friend kept a dossier on every church member he talked to. He had become the pastor of a church filled with conflict and strife. The previous pastor had been accused of sexual assault (he later left the church and pastored elsewhere) and his wife had been accused of dressing seductively. The deacons ran the pastor off, and in came my friend. As is often the case when young, inexperienced pastors — it was his first and only pastorate — take on troubled churches, they become sacrificial lambs. There was so much lying and deception going on that my friend decided to write reports of every conversation he had with church members. Much like James Comy did with his discussions with President Trump, my pastor friend kept intricate records of every conversation. He would share some of these conversations with me. This, of course, colored my view of these people. I knew many of them by name, so when I was in the presence of such-and-such person, I thought of what my friend had told me about them.

Another pastor told me about a conversation he had with an engaged couple. They wanted to know if having anal sex was a sin. They wanted to “save” themselves for marriage, so they thought having backdoor sex would be okay. No hymen was broken, so the woman would still be a “virgin” when she walked down the aisle. My pastor friend told them that they had to stop what they were doing; that anal sex was indeed a sin against God. My problem, of course, was every time I saw this couple (they never married) I thought of them having anal sex.

I could spend hours giving anecdotal stories about private things I heard and said when I was in the safe circle of my ministerial colleagues. Some of these men would come and preach for me, so I am sure they had the same thoughts I did. Oh, there’s the couple Bruce said hasn’t had sex in five years. Oh, there’s the man who confessed to having secret homosexual desires. Oh, there’s the teenager who got caught getting drunk and having sex in a motel room.

Christian church members should be aware of this fact: most pastors are gossips; most pastors are going to talk out of school; most pastors think sharing secrets with colleagues is all part of effectively “ministering” to others. Unlike professional counselors, pastors are not prohibited from repeating what was said behind closed doors. Many readers of this blog have likely heard sermons that made use of what was said to their pastors in private. Their pastor might not name names, but there’s no doubt about who’s the subject of his sermon/illustration. IFB preachers, in particular, are noted for preaching passive-aggressive sermons using information spoken to them in private. Smart, attentive congregants know when the pastor in his sermon is talking to or about them. Going through a tough time in your marriage and pondering divorce, and you talked to your pastor about your feelings? If, on the next Sunday, he preaches a thundering sermon on the sin of D-I-V-O-R-C-E, who do you think he is talking to? Pastors often use their pulpits as whipping posts, attacking rumors, allegations and private conversations. In the pastor’s mind, God is “leading” him to share the truth. In fact, he is a gossip or rumormonger sharing things said in private.

I hope you will keep what I have written here in mind the next time you think about unburdening yourself to your pastor. Your troubles may be gossiped about, talked about among his ministerial colleagues, or turned into sermon illustrations come Sunday. While not all pastors have loose lips, many of them do, and since there is nothing that prohibits them from “sharing,” people should weigh carefully what they say to a pastor, understanding that he may not protect their privacy or he may consider shooting the breeze with his pastor friends as a safe way to share secrets and get advice about how best to handle problems. It is on this issue that the Roman Catholics are right. What’s said in the confessional is privileged. When I first started seeing a counselor, I asked him about how he treated our discussions. He told me they were privileged, and he would never divulge what I said to him (and when several of my children saw him, he never divulged to me what they said).

Did you ever have a pastor use what you said in private as fodder for a sermon, or did you find out later that he gossiped about you to his pastor friends or other church leaders? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

**Editor’s Question**To current or former clergy reading here: Please discuss how you’ve handled information learned in private counseling sessions or when meeting with other clergy.

====================

Bio: Bruce Gerencser lives in rural NW Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have 6 grown children and 10 grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for 25 years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. He left the ministry in 2005 and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. He is also one of the original members of The Clergy Project, which began in 2011. He blogs at The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser, where the above post originally appears.

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  • Brian Curtis

    The one thing every pastor is sure of is that “God is leading” him to do exactly what he’s already decided he wants to do.

    • Bruce Gerencser

      Yes, God always agreed with me on everything.

      • DoctorDJ

        Yes, it’s funny how God’s views align perfectly with the believer’s.
        Oh, and God looks just like the believer, too.

        • Bruce Gerencser

          Yep. That’s why I say there are countless Jesuses and Christianities — each fashioned, shaped, and formed in the individual believer’s image. I started the ministry with a right-wing Republican Jesus, and I left the ministry with a liberal, socialist Jesus.

    • Sara

      True, esp when they share that juicy bit of detail with all its identifying characteristics by pastor after pastor within same church looking at the same potential candidate right before all and sundry .. with all its holiness. Wonder what satisfaction it gives.
      Wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  • alwayspuzzled

    A confession that is not a confession. One thinks of Dimmesdale at the end of The Scarlet Letter.

  • DoctorDJ

    Confused.
    While I like your post, Bruce, is this not a duplicate of the previous one on Rational Doubt?
    (Did someone get click-happy?)

    • Bruce Gerencser

      I wrote this recently, so it is not a duplicate. Maybe my posts, much like sermons, start sounding the same after awhile.

      • DoctorDJ
        • Linda_LaScola

          This is not a repeat on The Rational Doubt Blog. It was just posted for the first time today. The “sceen grab” you see is of today’s post.

          Bruce did post this earlier on his own blog, as mentioned in the intro.

          • DoctorDJ

            (But it’s posted twice on Rational Doubt!)

            Regardless, I appreciate your efforts, Linda, and Bruce’s never-boring stories!

          • Bruce Gerencser

            A strange thing did happen today. Three sites scraped this article off of Rational Doubt. This has never happened before. I immediately filed takedown notices. I think the same person owns all three sites.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Sorry about that — will try to figure out what happened.

          • ElizabetB.

            I wonder how our browsers decided which post to show us! I saw only the “-closed-doors-2/” copy and wasn’t aware of the duplication until Bruce posted a link to here. (Thank you Bruce!!) — Scrolling past featured comments one day, though, I did notice Allen’s question about there being 2 versions in the newsletter. I was puzzled why I hadn’t seen his question, thought maybe he was referring to the post on Bruce’s blog, and was surprised there was only one response to Bruce for a day or two!! I will keep an eye on Home Page and on the links themselves to see whether there’s a 2/ at the end! Cyberworld is fun but quirky : )

            This was my note –
            In Clinical Pastoral Education and in Hospice, confidentiality is hammered in. Probably a big advantage CPE has over more informal ministry is that you have a supervisor that it’s ok to talk with and receive feedback from, and the supervisor is likely to have a supervisor : ) and be trustworthy. It was tough on my mom when I was hospice chaplain & volunteer in her little town and she never knew where I was! She was a worrier and at least once called my supervisor to request my whereabouts! (parents lead a hard life, even when the kids are in their 60’s) Thanks very much for this topic — it reminds me to get on the ball & get the notes shredded that helped my awful memory!!

          • Keulan

            I’m seeing the same thing DoctorDJ is seeing. Somehow this particular blog post got posted twice here on Rational Doubt.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Loose lips sink ships

    • Linda_LaScola

      Mark, in your experience , do clergy use names or other identifying characteristics when discussing counseling sessions with people in their congregations?

      • Bruce Gerencser

        When it came to sermons, I used generalities. That said, when a member confides to his pastor on Friday that he is having an affair and the pastor then preaches a rousing sermon on Sunday about the sin of adultery, the “sinning” member can easily figure out who the pastor is talking about.

        Mainline churches tend to use the lectionary. This often keeps pastors from chasing rabbits or personalizing his sermons. Most Evangelicals, on the other hand, preach topical or textual sermons (and a small, but increasing, number preach expositional sermons). Preaching textual or topical sermons allows for a good bit of personalization. I know, for me, that once I started preaching expositional sermons, congregants were less likely to think my sermon was just for them. 🙂 They knew from week to week what I would be preaching on.

      • Mark Rutledge

        I haven’t had a lot of conversations with clergy about details of their pastoral counseling, so I’ve heard nothing like this. I have discussed various approaches to pastoral counseling with clergy colleagues, but on occasions where cases come up they’ve all been confidential and generalized. Most clergy that I know in mainline denominations have been very ethical. That doesn’t mean they don’t feel free to express their frustrations over petty stuff that goes on though. There’s plenty of that.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I’m surprised to hear that Pastors gossiped like this –something we would never do in the mental health professions. We would talk about cases, but only without names or identifying characteristics. Anything else is unethical. I like to think (but don’t know) that confidentiality is respected in some of the mainline denominations.

    • Bruce Gerencser

      I have talked shop with a mainline Lutheran and United Methodist minister, so mainline pastors can and do gossip. 🙂 Since federal and state government takes such a hands-off approach to religion. many of the laws/rules that apply to secular professionals do not apply to pastors. Mandatory reporting is one such law. Some states still do not require pastors to report allegations of sexual abuse, and in states that do require it, clergy are rarely prosecuted for not reporting.

      I see a secular psychologist. He is also a personal friend. That said, he never violates confidentiality. He will make generalizations based on his experiences with clergymen, but no names, identifying details. Several of my grown children have seen him in recent years, and even with them he shares nothing about what they talk about.

    • John Lombard

      Linda — My understanding (and I am not an expert on this, may be wrong, would welcome input from others) is that there significant differences in the law regarding these two groups.

      For health care professionals, and lawyers (and perhaps some other categories), there are clear laws that prevent them from disclosing private information. They can be punished for revealing such info, even if that revelation causes no actual damage. Even if asked by police or others, it is illegal for them to reveal such information without a legal document requiring them to do so. Not only are they protected by laws that say they do not have to reveal information to police, they are required not to reveal such information.

      This is not the case with clergy. While the law protects clergy from being forced to reveal private information (in limited circumstances, such as information given during confession), there are no laws that make it illegal for them to choose to share that information. Even in the case of the ‘sanctity’ of confession, it is the church that enforces rules about privacy, not the law.

      Thus, it is a very different situation. For health care professionals, it is both a moral and legal issues. For pastors, it is a purely moral issue.

      And while there are certainly many clergy who take that moral burden seriously, there are definitely plenty who do not. Quite the opposite, they not only engage in it, but justify it as some sort of necessary spiritual intervention. For example, gossip about someone, laugh at them, mock them…and then conclude with “Let us pray for so-and-so.” Of course, all that previous discussion was NECESSARY, in order to be able to properly pray for them.

  • mason

    Probably the three pillars that are still holding up the Evangelical World today are the new prosperity gospel scam, music/entertainment bands, and the rich juicy fellowship of gossip. The Evangelical World can always be counted on to provide a consistent flow of drama, scandal, and corruption. I wonder if Catholic priests are any better at controlling gossiping tongues among themselves than Evangelical pastor & evangelists are? Isn’t the confessional box supposed to be the safe place to tell it all and the priest is sworn to protect the darkest secrets and the most salacious gossip?

    • Bruce Gerencser

      I am interested in the answer to your question too. Maybe an ex-priest can share with us what when on when they were alone with fellow clergymen. All I can speak to is what I experienced with IFB/Evangelical/Calvinist colleagues.

      • mason

        A cousin of my former now deceased wife was a priest, served in the Vatican several years. He was gay and did say that there was a secret gay caucus of priests in Rome. He knew we were atheists and it wasn’t a big deal to him as he was more into the institution, ritual, and organization than doctrine. Most his work was travel participate in AIDS conventions/summits etc. around the world. Other than the one time mentioning the gay caucus, after a couple drinks at dinner, he never had anything to say about the church except he was not happy with a lot of the politics. He’d talk just about anything except religion. When he was a kid he’d play “priest” and make the neighborhood kids, including my wife, take communion with crackers & grape juice, and also had a mock confessional.

  • John Gills

    I’m sure many of you remember former evangelist Marjoe Gortner’s exposé documentary “Marjoe” wherein he filmed and revealed much of what you’ve discussed here.

  • David Mercer

    Ministers should have the same confidentiality code as people in other healthcare fields.

    But it was always a balancing act for me. On the one hand, small town pastors are information sources for the community–who’s sick, who needs help, who is celebrating a significant event? Then there are the secrets that people reveal when they need help from the pastor and those need to be kept confidential. And then there are the gray areas where issues (conflicts) occur in the kitchen or foyer–how private are those?

    No, ministers shouldn’t have gossip sessions but don’t health care professionals ask each other for input about specific cases? I always had a therapist friend or two that I called for advice–usually, I asked the parishioner’s permission beforehand, and I always withheld the name.

    I used to tell funny stories from the pulpit about people but someone asked me, “What will you be saying about me, Pastor?” I never betrayed a confidence but I worked harder to modify how I told stories and I protected people, even those from several decades before, and especially those I was angry at. Shouldn’t ministers be professional enough in their preaching to separate their message from yesterday’s conversation? I tried to, but occasionally, I got accused of “targeting” someone even when I was careful not to.

    This gossip problem–is it indicative that preachers don’t normally have anyone to talk to? I’m not excusing bad conduct but considering the idea that it’s part of a larger pathology.

    • David Mercer

      One more thing. When I came out recently… I closed my previous blog which was like an anonymous journal, but when I became public I decided that persons I referred to could perhaps be identified. I’ll bring out some of the stories in a modified form one day.

      • Bruce Gerencser

        I don’t mention former congregants by name unless it’s in a positive light. I’m a storyteller, so it’s natural for me to tell stories from my past. Someday, I hope those experiences will make it to book form. When it comes to preachers, however, especially those who have attacked me in their sermons, blog posts, emails, and personal conversations, I have no problem with mentioning them by name. If they didn’t want me to say negative things about them, they should have treated me better.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Therapists talk to each other specifically to discuss cases. In a clinic setting, there are weekly “case management” meetings where therapists discuss specific clients they want help with, but it’s all done confidentially and others in the group are not permitted to discuss the cases with people outside of the group.

    • mason

      “Ministers should have the same confidentiality code as people in other healthcare fields.” Got to tell ya David, that made me let out a robust chuckle. In my wildest homologous mental gymnastics I would never conjecture ministers as in an other healthcare field. 🙂 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fd08c7a88a5e22059778c21a375cc40f302b919be54d8f242ca23b07e6399023.jpg

      • David Mercer

        Perhaps I could have left out the word “other” but it would have left you bereft of chuckling. Also, I think I did pretty well in rendering aid. I took it much more seriously than mumbling a few words of prayer. Always did.

    • Bruce Gerencser

      I agree with you about not having someone to talk to. I was taught in college that as a pastor I couldn’t be friends with congregants; that being friends with them would compromise my ability to objectively minister to them. Thus, there was always an invisible wall between me and the church. While I often knew all their dark secrets, they knew very little about me other than what I shared in my sermons.

      Getting together with my colleagues allowed me to let my hair down a bit. So, we would talk, and talk, and talk, and talk. Did some of our discussions cross ethical lines? Yep, but as far I know no one was harmed. Secrets stayed secrets. That said, as I mentioned in my post, my problem was with seeing people after their pastor had told me something about them. I’m human, so when I’m told that Deacon Bob admitted beating his wife, it is hard for me not to see him in a different light.

      Preachers are human. Unfortunately, many of them never let congregants see the human side of them. Later in my career, I became much more open about my own struggles. Some people loved my honesty; others preferred the facade, the victorious, righteous man of God.

  • Allen T Coffey

    When I was in seminary in the mid-80’s I was on the victim end of this practice from the pastor of the church I attended. After the second time, I never divulged anything that I could hurt me to any preacher baptist or otherwise ever again–even during my pastoral ministry of almost 25 year. I learned a valuable lesson from that early experience. It also made me NOT ever share privileged information that members told me in confidence to other pastors or in sermons. But I did talk about members who caused trouble and issues the church had. What I got from all this is that one should never trust another preacher with anything that he could possible hurt with down the road. This is not to say that I didn’t have preacher friends, I just didn’t have preacher best friends.

    • Bruce Gerencser

      While I had preachers I considered best friends, there were things I never told them. I doubted they could handle the truth.

      • Sara

        I know right ?
        Dont trust pastors with personal stuff or anyone working for evangelical churches with any private issues. They have a set agenda..rest is all bla bla for them. If you are a believer, read the Bible or a Bible related book.It will have enough to comfort.

  • Allen T Coffey

    Linda, do you know that you have two separate copies of this article linked in the newsletter?

  • mason

    The darkest and dankest chambers within the dangerous Evangelical underworld are on the compound of Bob Jones University with a national & international network of gossip, harassment, and spying that rivals the KGB. There a dedicated adherent can obtain the finest “tongues on training” in malicious gossip that exists anywhere. Tip and caveat: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cee7664d793a7ab3441a63de5d1e36c8d692acae8884831461f9fc2278d2400c.jpg If you plan to enroll, be prepared to be yanked out of a deep sleep at 2 am and be interrogated. http://www.studentsreview.com/viewprofile.php3?k=1116046944&u=1238

    • Raging Bee

      Wow, that’s the first I ever heard of such treatment by BJU. Our “news” media seem pretty squeamish about exposing such atrocities by rich cults.

  • swbarnes2

    Christian church members should be aware of this fact: most pastors are gossips; most pastors are going to talk out of school; most pastors think sharing secrets with colleagues is all part of effectively “ministering” to others.

    Why, it’s almost like being a professional Christian teaches you absolutely nothing about ethics!

  • Sara

    Yes, I have had this exact experience at a well known evangelical church . I did inform the lady I had my “personal conversation” with, that I was hearing very twisted and condemning version from pulpit, of course, all in the name of God.
    It was a very hurtful time, as it clearly reveals what you said has been gossiped about to chargesheet and baptise. What saddens is, they havent bothered to understand completely..only grab enough meat for sermon material and potential convert. They went one step ahead to stylize and add drumbeats, all the jazz, more like making a mockery of the situation.
    In my situation, there were many aspects that were out of my control but they chose to handle it that way.
    I realised I dont need middlemen/women if and when I need to pray. If there was a 11th commandment, that would be “Do not gossip in the name of the Lord”!.

  • Liz

    I had this experience recently. I had shared an extremely personal and painful experience in our church’s ladies’ meeting. Since I run this meeting, I have stipulated that anything shared there stays there, so that people feel able to speak with confidence about difficult issues, knowing that their words won’t be spread far and wide. So I confess I was somewhat surprised when I discovered this private experience I had shared confidentially was known by the pastor. And not just known, as in he spoke to me about it wondering if he could help at all. No, it was thrown in my face during a meeting with my ex-husband (we are separated due to domestic violence), as a way for the pastor to tell me that because of this experience I was overreacting to my husband’s behaviour. It was a complete betrayal of his pastoral role, and also by his wife, who has clearly passed on my private information to him.