May 5, 2016

Leadership Confidence And Confidentiality

Shortly after arriving at St. George’s, nearly nine years ago, I had lunch with the extended supply priest who preceded me. “One thing I really worked hard on while I was serving there,” she said that afternoon, “was to confront and, I think, end ‘parking lot’ conversations.” Even though her official title wasn’t interim or even priest-in-charge, she obviously drew on her extensive training in interim ministry. In so many ways I’m glad she did.

I hadn’t heard about ‘parking lot’ conversations before arriving here. I must’ve said as much to my predecessor at lunch that day. Perhaps, I thought, that was because I had previously come from a much larger, urban congregation. Folks in larger congregations, especially city churches, I thought, don’t have time to chitchat about mundane things. They certainly don’t have time to hang around the parking lot after meetings. Looking back, however, I think my naïveté had mostly to do with the fact that my previous call was curate – you know, the quaint and easily beloved young priest who shows up to the congregation and accepts all the old-timer’s accolades and praise. Maybe that’s not in the general job description of curate but, as it turns out, it was very much in mine. Looking back now, I know exactly the ones who were hosting those ‘parking lot’ conversations – they just weren’t in the parking lot; they were those beloved long-timer’s, the Thursday morning group who, ostensibly were there to fold bulletins but who really loved to sit with me – and curates before me, as it turns out – and pick my brain and get some good gossip.

To be perfectly honest, I look back on those Thursday morning gab sessions with fondness and joy. I learned a great deal – that proper gentlemen always carry a handkerchief in their pocket being one of them – and I treasured those moments and love those women and men, many of whom are moving on to greater life. And to be even more honest, my predecessor didn’t end the parking lot conversations here. I’m glad she raised the issue and I’m glad she pointed it out to me, but they’ve never really stopped.

Nor do I expect them to, although I wouldn’t mind a larger conversation and some general guidance around confidentiality practices and norms in The Episcopal Church. So let me offer this blog post as one more open-ended question, or series of questions: Who has found some good norms for confidentiality? Who has figured out some helpful and healthy practices around confidentiality? What are they, and how do they work? How are they introduced and how is a culture of respect and shared confidence built in that community? How are boundary violations dealt with, and is it possible to weave a thread of grace and forgiveness through the whole?

Some years ago at St. George’s, we started having our paid personnel sign a ‘Confidentiality & Release of Information Policy.’ A senior warden then raised the question as to whether we should also have the vestry read and talk about and, indeed, sign the same document. It has been a helpful document, if only for good and healthy discussion of practices of respect, consensus, and how to uphold one another’s dignity. It is not, however, a particularly helpful document in terms of norming some of those harder, more real-life aspects of how information gets shared and how people are supposed to talk with one another. 

At its most basic level, St. George’s Policy is supposed to preserve strict confidentiality around sensitive information, mostly financial information – such information that, as the policy states, “shall be safeguarded against disclosure, loss, defacement, and tampering.” But the policy tries to move, all the same, to cover “conversations of an official nature that happen in small groups, committees, staff meetings, or Vestry meetings.” It further states that “once consensus emerges around an issue and a decision is clearly made using Roberts’ Rules of Order that the members present will respect the process … and not seek to undue or discuss the matter, except to educate the wider public and congregation about said decision.” It’s at this latter point – in the shift from ensuring confidentiality around pledge information, say, to setting up a wall around how people talk about what just happened at that vestry meeting – that the document and the Policy, in general, breaks down. Is it asking too much, I wonder? Is it shutting too much down? Should it be opened up in such a way as to allow, even encourage conversation? Is it shutting down even healthy and potentially helpful modes of communication?

I know, ultimately, that the way this will become borne out and live well in this community is through the care we take in our relationships with one another. That is, I know that a sheet of paper with words printed on it is not the answer. But, at the same time, the Policy itself needs to codify what values we share and precisely how we understand ourselves called into relationships of mutual respect. And that codification will, in turn, look very much like a ‘Confidentiality & Release of Information Policy’ – a piece of paper with words on it that, year after year, we will open and discuss and, hopefully, sign in good faith to ensure the upholding of everyone’s dignity. 

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