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Be Careful When Using Church Discipline

Jun 29, 2004

This recent “Sightings” column alerts us to some issues regarding privacy and church discipline.


— Duane R. Bidwell

A minister who is licensed by the state of Texas as a mental-health

professional cannot claim First Amendment protections for a breach of

confidentiality, a Texas appeals court has ruled.

The case alleges that Fort Worth minister C. L. “Buddy” Westbrook, a

licensed professional counselor and pastor of Crossland Community Bible

Church, broke confidence when he wrote a letter to his congregation

directing church members to avoid contact with a woman until “the time of

repentance and restoration.” The action was necessary, he wrote, because

she was engaging “in a biblically inappropriate relationship” and seeking a


Under the congregation’s bylaws, church members can be disciplined for

behaviors the congregation considers inappropriate. But the woman, who had

resigned from the church prior to Westbrook’s letter, says the information

he shared was obtained during a counseling relationship and is therefore


A pastor’s right to discipline church members — even by revealing

confidential information — seems a cornerstone of Westbrook’s

defense. Earlier, a state district judge threw out the case because it

applied a secular standard to a church conflict. This implies that the

pastor’s actions are protected by the First Amendment as “freedom of religion.”

But last month the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth ruled that the

lawsuit could move ahead because the pastor is a licensed professional

counselor and therefore accountable to professional standards for

confidentiality established by the Texas Professional Counselor Act.

The plaintiff, appeals court Judge Anne Gardner wrote, has a “viable claim

involving the pastor’s alleged breach of duty in his secular counseling

role that does not implicate the propriety of the church’s disciplinary


The decision seems consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling in

Employment Division vs. Smith that generally applicable laws, such as those

governing professional counselors, may be applied even if they restrict

religious freedom.

When Westbrook revealed private information obtained through a counseling

relationship, he violated Texas standards for licensed counselors —

standards he agreed to follow when he sought and received state licensure.

But licensed or not, he also flouted well-established ethical guidelines

for the practice of pastoral counseling and standards for professional

conduct established by many denominations and honored by most ministers.

The Code of Ethics of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors

(AAPC) specifically states:

“We do not disclose client confidences to anyone, except: as mandated by

law; to prevent a clear and immediate danger to someone; in the course of

civil, criminal or disciplinary action arising from the counseling where

the pastoral counselor is a defendant; for purposes of supervision or

consultation; or by previously obtained written permission.”

Westbrook is not a certified pastoral counselor, an AAPC member, or a staff

member at an accredited pastoral counseling center. But even if he cannot

be held to the professional standards of the pastoral counseling community,

the policies of most Christian denominations would call his behavior into


Confidentiality, of course, is not an absolute standard. Clergy and

mental-health practitioners have an ethical (and often legal)

responsibility to break confidentiality when children or the elderly are

being abused or when people are a danger to themselves or others. This

does not seem to have been a factor in Westbrook’s decision to share

confidential information, however.

In allowing the lawsuit against Westbrook, the 2nd Court of Appeals has

made a decision consistent with state and federal law. More importantly,

the decision is consistent with our culture’s broader consensus —

including the consensus of professional organizations and communities of

faith — that a breach of confidentiality can often be an abuse of pastoral


Rev. Duane R. Bidwell, Ph.D., is a certified pastoral counselor and

director of the Pastoral Care and Training Center, an AAPC-accredited

pastoral counseling center at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian

University. He is author of Short-Term Spiritual Guidance: A Contemporary

Approach to a Classic Discipline (Fortress Press, 2004).


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty

at the University of Chicago Divinity School.