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Before You Pray–Consider Privacy Issues

Jun 1, 2004

Oh goody. Here’s something else we can be concerned about!

According to several reports I’ve read recently, pastors and church leaders must be much more careful about praying for people in public–you can’t reveal too much about their situation, even in praying for their welfare, because of the recent HIPAA act.

University of Chicago’s Martin Marty has written a good, succinct piece on this issue — here he gives us some things to think about:

Sightings 6/1/04

Prayer Accountability— Martin E. Marty

Those of us who find intercession (“prayer for others”) to be a high point

in worship have something new about which to be concerned. Lifting up the

names of service people in danger, collegians away from home, and people

traveling is an act that usually culminates with mention of the seriously

ill. But regular worshipers may have recently noticed that the prayer

leader is now less likely to inform God or the people as to the nature of

the prayed-for’s affliction. And if divulged, the permission of the person

named must be sought first and caution taken about details given out in

public. Worshippers may also have noticed similar discretion in parish

newsletters and the “Sunday bulletin.” Why?

Blame or credit HIPAA, the newest acronym to keep clergy and their

associates on edge and their lawyers busy. The Health Insurance

Portability and Accountability Act is certainly well intentioned. Many

people lose their jobs, suffer stigma, are set back in their recovery, or

have their well-guarded sense of privacy invaded when news of their illness

spreads, whether in secular settings or in synagogue and church

communities. What used to be a hazard in respect to taste now brings a

legal risk. Handle with care! HIPAA has even been interpreted as a

barrier for clergy and lay prayer- and care-givers who would like to call

on members in clinics and hospitals.

Bill Broadway, a religion writer for The Washington Post National Weekly

Edition (May 10-16), does such givers a service (and now Sightings readers)

by calling attention to the United Methodist Church’s website, which applies HIPAA to a local church context for the benefit of the curious or frightened. Richard Hammar, who publishes

Church Law and Tax Report in his capacity

as counsel for the Assemblies of God, offers more. Just in time.

Broadway features the story of a church organist in Cleveland who was

“greeted” in a parish newsletter. Unfortunately, the news-bringing

overstepped by describing the organist’s setback as “bi-polar illness” and

depression. No-go. Happy as the welcomers were, the organist had to be

unhappy. He sued and settled out of court, but lost his job and, he said,

his self-respect, his image, and the relishing of his recovery. Worst of

all, the church’s web-site posting meant that the organist’s name and

diagnoses now belong eternally to cyberspace and those who cruise in it.

Here, as is so often the case, we recognize how, in the age of information,

the ease of communication gets complicated and causes the need for more

communication. Instruments meant to enhance the experience of community in

religion can also disrupt it. We also recognize that laws of the state can

overrule laws or practices of the churches, that the lines of “separation

of church and state” are ever more wavy, that some illnesses still occasion

stigmatizing, that good intentions do not always serve the religious well,

and that you can’t be too careful nowadays.

Someone’s ill? Pray in secret and don’t tell anyone may be the next counsel.


With the beginning of June, all sorts of interesting things are happening. Arnold Kriegbaum–previously mentioned for prayer–is much better and he and Laura have now moved to Indianapolis.

Pastor Charles Ashman’s 80th birthday celebration is this morning over at GBNAM–what a wonderful example and inspiration his ministry through the years has been! He continues to use his wisdom in his “Paraclete” ministry, counseling churches who are in conflict or are going through changes.

We hosted a discouraged and embattled pastor and his family at our house this past week. It was a joy just to listen, to pray with them, and to marvel at how some of God’s saints can be so cantankerous and can cause their pastors so much heartache. Is there a pastor ANYWHERE who hasn’t had some heartaches and real rough spots in ministry? I hope this man of God survives–we pray daily for him and others who do God’s work under difficult circumstances.

We had a wonderful privilege last night as our Global Prayer Group hosted a young man who is now ministering to Muslims in a country in north Africa. The only believer in his family, he is a remarkable testimony and burns brightly for Christ in a very dark context. He’s in town for the Micro Enterprise Development seminar which Grace Brethren International Missions is sponsoring this week. About 40 from all over the world are expected–they’ll be discussing ways to use small businesses as a means to gain a foothold for the Gospel.

Speaking of saints–I have just learned of the death of Jack Eckard, who died at 91 in Florida on May 19. A delightfully crusty old curmudgeon, Eckard did a lot of good for the Gospel with his fortune and his influence. He was on the board of Prison Fellowship Ministries some of the time I served there, and it was my privilege to give him rides to and from the airport on occasion. I praise God for business achievers who are willing to put their fortunes and their influence to work in advancing the Gospel.

Here at BMH, the main work for this week is getting issue #4 of FGBC World off to press. The lead story will be the push to found 50 churches among the Bayaka pygmies–what a great missionary pioneering story that is!

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