When Talking about Congregants...
A young church planter in a small town was getting his hair cut by a woman he knew. "You're not like the other pastor whose hair I cut," she said. He asked what she meant. She quickly replied, "You don't talk about your congregants negatively." Apparently, there was a minister who would come in and vent all of his frustrations about different people in his congregation to this woman. Although most pastors are wise enough not to do this, all pastors have known the temptation to speak negatively--even in sophisticatedly subtle ways--about congregants. Instead, pastors must learn to model the sort of loving, discrete, confidential, and wise way of speaking about others--especially the congregants the Lord has committed into their care.
There are many settings in which it may or may not be right to speak about a congregant under your pastoral care. A minister must learn what these are early on in ministry, in order to save himself from the hardships that accompany serious mistakes this area. There is the pastor–congregant setting, the pastor–congregation setting, the pastor–to–pastor setting, the pastor-elder/deacon setting, the pastor–other–congregation setting, and the pastor–internet setting. As we learn to wisely navigate the dynamics of these settings, we will be better equipped to speak wisely and lovingly about congregants.
In the first place, a minister ought never speak negatively of a congregant to another congregant. To do this is to complain down the chain–of–command, so to speak. When I first started church planting, I made this mistake. When the pressure mounts, and you feel alone; when you are being attacked, and need someone in whom you can confide (and you do not have elders or deacons yet), it is all too easy to turn to someone in the congregation with whom you are close and speak negatively about another congregant. A close friend of mine in ministry warned me very early on to be careful not to do so. I found that to be a great help over the course of many years of pastoral ministry thereafter. Speaking negatively of one congregant to another creates a potential riff between congregants. No matter how pure your intentions may be, that is a burden that a congregant is not called by God to bear. We must protect our congregants from hearing us speak negatively about other congregants.
In the second place, a minister should never speak negatively about members of the congregation in front of the congregation. This seems self-evident. However, I have known of cases in which this has occurred. It is pastoral abuse of the highest order, for a minister to speak demeaningly (even if in a joking manner) about a members of the flock to the congregation. When I was a new Christian, I had a friend who attended a church in which the minister would call out particular members of the congregation in a joking manner. My friend left that church promptly, fearing that this man would soon call him out in front of the congregation. It is unfathomable that we would even have to note the impropriety of speaking ill of congregants in front of congregants. To be sure, the Apostle Paul called Euodia and Syntyche by name (Phil. 4:1). However, there was a well-known riff between these women that was destroying the peace of the congregation on the whole. Paul felt the need to personally addressed them, while speaking of the issue in the most discrete manner possible.
It is not uncommon for a pastor to call another pastor--with whom he has a close friendship--in order to speak about a particular matter involving a congregant. This can be altogether appropriate. After all, Scripture tells us, "where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety" (Prov. 11:4). There have been many times when I have called a fellows pastor, and many times when a fellows pastor has come to me in order to seek out counsel about a particular situation. Certainly, pastors need to guard against speaking sinfully of congregants in these circumstances. It is all too easily to sin when you are venting frustrations about someone (or some group of people) who has caused harm to your or the congregation. However, it is not sinful to recount a situation in which you mention particular congregants to another pastor, when your intention is to lovingly resolve a conflict or navigate a wise course for the health of the congregation on the whole. It is not always possible to set a situation for another pastor, without giving him some sort of insight into the types of people involved. However, whenever possible, discretion in what you reveal about people is always the wisest course of action.
Thankfully, God has not left most ministers to shepherd a flock on their own. He raises up elders and deacons to help carry the spiritual and physical burdens of ministry. It is right for pastors to speak to their elders about the spiritual condition of the flock, in order to pray for each of the congregants personally, and to know how best to care for them. It is even appropriate for a pastor to express concern about a member of the flock to another elder, if it is in the best interest of the congregation. However, pastors still must be cautious, wise and discerning. There are plenty of examples of a pastor who has been betrayed by another person in leadership he trusted with something confidential. Anything you say can be twisted and sinfully used against you--especially if it involves a member of the congregation. While self-preservation ought never be a driving motive for pastoral ministry, you do not want to set yourself up for betrayal by someone you have trusted in leadership doing you harm out of sinister or selfish motives.
One of the more difficult situations to navigate is that of the pastor as visiting preacher or the pastor in a new call. When ministers visit other churches or take a new call, they often have years of experience to draw off of in order to illustrate a particular point in a sermon. Pastors need to be extremely cautious in this situation. It doesn't matter how discrete a minister is, in whatever church he is speaking there will almost certainly be members who believe it is inappropriate for him to do so. Additionally, in a day when everything is made available online, there will be the off–chance that a person about whom you have subtly alluded (even in a roundabout way) will know that you are using them in an illustration. This is not to say that it is sinful to refer to a particular situation---speaking very generally about "a particular woman..." or "a particular man..." in order to set the illustration in context. However, it is always wise to process what you might say and how you might say it, given the potential pitfalls.
This leads to the final situational dynamic--namely, that of the pastor and the internet. In a day when people are loose-lipped online, pastors need to be extremely cautious about speaking of congregants, in any way shape or form, on social media or in blog posts. Even subtle allusions to "this man in my church," or "this couple in our congregation" comes dangerously close to inappropriate pastoral conversation. There is a level of trust that congregants have in their pastor; and--even if they have had a falling out--would not want him to write about them online. "Love covers a multitude of sins" comes into play in the way in which a pastor writes about situations in which he has been hurt in ministry by former congregants. It would be better for a pastor to write about a situation involving former congregants from a third person perspective or to write in such a way as to not insinuate that this occurred in his congregation. Pastors can always use real illustrations of situations that have occurred in their congregation by prefacing it with something like this: "I have known of a situation in which..." This allows the illustration to stand, without leading anyone to think it is about them specifically or others they know in the congregation in which the author has been a pastor.
In all situations, we need to remember that each and every congregant belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. The way we speak about him or her should be reflective of the fact that they have been bought by the precious blood of Christ. We will spend all of eternity with the saints in glory in the presence of the Lamb. Therefore, pastors should seek to always speak the best of the congregants the Lord has entrusted to their care, no matter the context. After all, we would have them speak the best of us!