To Pastors and Churches Having Online Worship Today

“O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” Psalm 95:6 (NLT)

Dear Pastors Leading Worship Online Today:

I see you. More importantly, God sees you. I’m in this boat with you so I’m experiencing this “new normal” with you. And, like you, I will get the experience of leading prayer, proclaiming scripture, and preaching a sermon in an empty worship space (minus two musicians and our worship leader) to only my cell phone and whomever watches on Facebook Live and our website. Like you, I’m having to fumble my way through and figure things out. Like you, I’m nervous, yet excited at what God is going to do through our efforts today.

It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be different. It’s also going to be OK.

God sees you as you have had to make difficult decisions, often while receiving flack from your congregation and other clergy. Claims of your “lack of faith” sting but hopefully ring hollow. God knows better. He knows that your first concern is for the safety of your flock, the flock that He entrusted you with when you were called or appointed. Calling off in-person worship today and for however long is necessary does not make you a poor pastor, nor does it mean you lack faith. Making these tough decisions means that you are being a good shepherd. Not exposing your people to a disease that could kill them means you love them. You’re not reckless with your flock. Instead, this is how you love them. If some in your congregation don’t realize this now, they will. And they will be grateful.

While online worship is not a replacement for in-person community, it will have to do for now. Thanks be to God for modern technology that He can use to keep people connected to Him and to lead them in worship. My prayer for you – for all of us – is that we remember that God can be glorified anywhere and in so many more ways other than sitting in a pew or on a chair. Like you, I long for the day when we can return to our worship spaces but for now I will lead in the best way that I can. My encouragement to you is to seek to do the same. God is with you. God is with your people. And God will be worshipped and glorified today and for however long this is our “normal.”

Press on. Be bold for the Kingdom. Preach the word just as strongly as you would in front of a congregation. The truth is, you still are preaching to a congregation, only for now they are disbursed. Try to ignore the criticism and outright shaming. God is proud of you for pressing on in spite of what the world is enduring right now. God is using you.

Most of all, God loves you.

Offered to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by a fellow preacher in the trenches…

Got a Smartphone? You Can Stream Your Service

If you have a smartphone, you have everything you need to stream your service.

With COVID-19 causing many congregations to shut their doors to the public, there has been a lot of discussion of streaming worship. There have been articles about everything it takes in order to stream, several of which includes a laundry list of expensive equipment to buy. I’ve been streaming my sermons since 2015 and when it comes to needing an expensive set up in order to stream effectively, I only have this to say: Bullbutter.

If you have a smartphone, you have everything you need in order to stream your worship service.

Typically, I go with a very basic set up using my phone. Here, I will lay out what I typically use and give some tips. I will also talk briefly about copyright issues.

A note: I’m not a “guru” or some other expert. I’m just a pastor who has been doing this for a bit and can offer some tips. I will also list the equipment that I employ and provide links for you to look at these for yourself but know that this is only for information – I receive no compensation at all so feel free to buy or not buy what you wish.

“Why Should I Stream?”

Some believe that streaming the service will keep people from attending in person but the opposite is actually true. Streaming the service is a way in which new people can find us in order to connect in community. Online worship is not a replacement for physical community. Unless someone has a reason that they simply can not attend worship physically – such as frequent travel or health issues – most people will use a streamed service as a “first look” at a congregation they are interesting in visiting. Putting a stream online can reach new people and act as an invitation to join the community in person (after the pandemic is over, of course).

Equipment

Again I emphasize that you do not need a fancy set up to stream. As I stated above: If you have a smartphone, then you have everything you need in order to stream. Seriously. Typically, I use my Apple iPhone X on a small tripod made for smartphones placed on the pulpit (here is one similar to the one I use). This works since all I have been typically streaming is the sermon. You will want something adjustable so that you can make sure your shot is level and steady. If you plan to stream more than just the sermon, I would recommend a bigger tripod such as this one so that you can make sure to include shots of worship leaders and the choir.

Another important thing on using your phone: Turn your orientation lock off and turn your phone to landscape (sideways). Doing this will provide a wide shot which will make the video look better on many kinds of screens. You want your video to give the best possible presentation for you and your congregation. Taking this step will go a long way in improving your quality.

When it comes to sound, if you’re only streaming the sermon you can likely use your phone’s built-in microphone and be just fine. However, if you want better sound quality or if you plan to stream more than just the sermon, you will want to invest in a better microphone. The one I use and have found to be of amazing quality is the Shure Mv88 iOS Stereo Microphone. This microphone plugs directly into your lightning port and provides excellent sound quality. If you choose to use audio recording for podcasting – something else you can do straight from your phone – you can use the Shure app to adjust the settings on the microphone and to capture audio. For Android phones, there are several options that will plug into your USB port. I can’t speak to these so I encourage you to consult an audio professional for guidance. My personal recommendation would be either a local music supply store or the amazing folks at Sweetwater.

EDIT: I’ve since exchanged emails with a sales engineer at Sweetwater who has educated me on feeding sound directly from a mixer/soundboard to your device. The audio interface he recommended is the PreSonus AudioBox iTwo and even included a tutorial on how this works. I am going to look into this and will provide a follow up should I work this out.

Internet?

With most cell phone plans having unlimited data, this should not be a major hurdle. I use my carrier’s LTE signal and this works just fine for streaming. If your church has any kind of wifi that reaches your worship space, you should also have enough bandwidth. The more bandwidth you have available – that is, the faster the connection – the better quality of video you can stream. If you have no cellular signal or wifi available at your church, don’t let this stop you from putting your worship service online. You can use your smartphone’s video recording feature to record the service and then upload it afterward.

Which Streaming Platform?

If you search Google for streaming services, you will be overwhelmed with the sheer number of services out there that cater to churches. Many have their advantages and disadvantages and if you hope to grow your streaming later on these services may be worth investigating. But if you’re only wanting to get through the pandemic or do something very basic, you need not worry about this. If you didn’t know, you don’t have to pay for a streaming provider because you can access Facebook Live or YouTube for free. If your church has a Facebook page, I would highly recommend streaming via Facebook Live from the church page. YouTube may be nice if you want to reach a different audience but Facebook is where I would start. All you need is the Facebook mobile app and you can go live on your church page from your smartphone.

Edit: I have since found out about a service offered by Outreach.com that allows churches streaming their services on Facebook Live or YouTube to provide a stream to their church website. The best part: It’s free! Click here to check it out.

Staying Legal

If you’re only streaming the sermon along with other spoken parts, you will be fine and won’t have to purchase any sort of license. However, if you plan to stream any music, you will probably need to purchase a streaming license in order to be covered. Copyright is a tricky thing and I won’t discuss all of the ins and outs of the laws here. Unless all of the music you use in your church is in the public domain – and I can almost guarantee must of it is not – then you will need to ensure that copyright is protected and you make sure that royalties are paid.

There are several options to be in compliance and, thankfully, this is not overly complicated. If your church already has a CCLI license, you can add on a streaming license for a small additional fee based on your average worship attendance. One License is another organization that you can also utilize in order to be compliant. One License is also offering a free month of stream licensing in the wake of COVID-19. The license is good until April 15, 2020. Click here for more information.

“Wrap, Wrap, Wrap”

To wrap up, I hope you see that streaming your worship service is not as scary as you may think it is. In all likelihood, you already have most if not all of the things you need to stream well. If you have other questions, fee free to reach out in a comment or by my social media and I will gladly give any help I can. Engaging with the world through social media is vital to ministry in the 21st century. Streaming our services is an important way to connect.

One More Time: “Why Should My Church Stream?”

“The world is my parish.” – John Wesley

Pastoring in a Pandemic

This has got to the most challenging time for ministry so far, at least in my short career. When I began candidacy and seminary, I never imagined that I would find myself ministering in the midst of a global pandemic. There were no classes offered on how to manage a congregation in the midst of a true global crisis. And yet, like so many other clergy, here I am learning as I go. Trial by fire has been a constant in my life so why not now? I’m here, do the best I can, making mistakes, but trying to learn from them. It helps to know that I’m not alone.

And as a reminder: Neither are you. You are not alone.

So, at least for this season, this is our new normal. I’m having to get use to doing nearly all of my pastoral care by phone since I can not go visit any of my parishioners right now. I’m having to navigate coordinating an online worship service and making sure we do things like stay in compliance with copyright and have the best sound possible on a shoestring (thankfully, I believe we’ve figured this out). I’m resigning myself to the fact that, for the first time in my career, Sunday I will be preaching to only the musicians and to my phone while people watch on our Facebook page. It’s absolutely different but it’s also the best we can offer to our folks, all things considered.

I’ve come across some people who have said that online worship streaming is invalid. To them I say: Save it. Streaming is not meant to be a permanent replacement for a community of faith but also it’s simply not safe to gather as a body at this time. In the early church, the body was disbursed and had to meet in small groups in houses. They used what they had available to them to continue worshipping in the face of persecution. In this situation, we must do the same but, thanks be to God, we now have modern technology whereby God can work in ways we never imagined. The awesome part about that is, he is using everyday people to do this. I have long been a proponent of using streaming technology for worship and we are now at a place where this can truly become mainstream.

I have no sage advice to offer from a ministry standpoint. Like everyone else, I’m fumbling my way through this and learning how to do ministry in the face of a pandemic. But I will say this: I am a former healthcare worker and, while I was no doctor (I was a paramedic), I learned a few things in school and educated myself on many topics that school did not cover. I’m no epidemiologist by any means but I can say this: COVID-19, and diseases like it, is no joke. This is highly contagious. The numbers are honestly frightening. Reuters did a great graphic that illustrates how COVID-19 spread in South Korea. One person attending worship ended up infecting over 1,000 people. You can see the data for yourself here. If this happened in your congregation, how many would that impact? How many outside of your congregation could it impact? How many people could die as a result?

Shut it down.

Please, take the warnings seriously. Do your part to flatten the curve. Swap to online worship and discipleship with the knowledge that this is not permanent. Reach out to your parishioners and make sure they’re cared for. Do visits by phone and FaceTime. Is all of this different? Absolutely. But it’s also necessary.

“And the best of all is, God is with us.” – John Wesley

The Clergy-Laity Disconnect

“The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission.” – 2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 127, “The Ministry of the Laity” 

When Methodism was getting on its feet in the 18th Century, the movement was largely one spread by… wait for it… the laity! That’s right, it wasn’t ordained or licensed pastors who were out beating the bushes with the good news of the gospel for all people who the church either couldn’t or wouldn’t reach – it was lay persons who were trained in Wesley’s teachings and on how to preach. Laity were the class leaders and the primary leaders within their societies and congregations. The pastors were there to be the spiritual leaders whose primary job was to equip the laity for ministry. The laity were expected to make most of the major decisions and to be the movers and shakers within the church.

Read that again: It was the laity, not the pastors, who were charged with the responsibility of doing ministry. These were not the prominent people of their day, rather they were the marginalized of British society – the poor.

There were first of all the itinerating lay preachers, assigned in pairs to circuits throughout the British Isles, and eventually sent in pairs to America. There were also the non-itinerating local ministers and the stewards who oversaw the various societies. Most important were the leaders of classes, who provided spiritual oversight for those under their care.

What Wesley did is open the door for hundreds of men and women to become leaders in the vast missionary endeavor of spreading scriptural holiness across the nation. Since most of these were not from the upper classes, British society did not provide avenues of leadership. Indeed some evangelical pastors criticized Wesley for disrespecting the class distinctions they believed God had established. But Wesley recognized their gifts and commitment, and enlisted them into God’s service.

“Wesley and Lay Leadership” – Dr. Henry H. Knight, III – St. Paul School of Theology https://www.catalystresources.org/consider-wesley-51/

At some point this began to change. Dr. Knight points to the merger that created the United Methodist Church in 1968 as a major turning point where the laity became passive consumers – largely due to their lack of education on our doctrine and theology – and the clergy were highly educated providers of religious services for the congregation, specialists in the same vein as lawyers and doctors. As Dr. Knight states, “This was hardly a recipe for vibrant outreach into their communities.”

That perception has only increased as the years have passed. Today, the UMC is hardly the movement where the laity are the primary leaders and the clergy are the equippers and providers of guidance and teaching. Today the pastors are expected to be the CEOs and to make most of the decisions. In the typical UMC congregation, the laity are not involved beyond roles such as Sunday School teacher or the lay leadership roles mandated by the Book of Discipline (which, let’s be real, are often only on paper in many congregations). This is a major problem for many reasons, but the main reason is because the widening gulf between the clergy and laity is yet another way in which we have forgotten who we are.

It’s time for Methodists to get back to our roots.

I was reminded of the width of this gulf is yesterday when I published my proposed re-write of WCA’s proposed church clergy deployment plan. I want to digress for a moment and express my appreciation for most of the feedback given being constructive and helpful. As the comments on social media continued, I realized that the tone and type of the feedback differed between clergy and laity. The reason is because we have different points of view on what is most needed in our churches and how to meet those needs. As I mentioned to someone yesterday, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. I believe clergy and laity ought to come together and to hear one another. You know, like John Wesley and the early Methodists did.

We need to get back to our roots.

In the United Methodist Church, we say that we believe in the priesthood of all believers – but do we really? Our Book of Discipline affirms the ministry of the laity but as I read the paragraph that contains this affirmation, I can’t help but question how we actually practice this aspect of ministry.

“The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission.”

2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 127, “The Ministry of the Laity” 

Spoiler alert: We suck at this.

There is plenty of blame to go around for how we got here. Part of it is societal norms changing where worship attendance is now largely seen as optional, therefore so is becoming involved in the ministry and leadership of the church. The clergy also have been afraid of feeling less important and have failed to equip their laity for ministry in addition to other failures to teach the doctrine of the church that would not be popular with many within their congregations. I could go on but you get the point.

Pastors, you may not like what I’m about to say but I’m going to say it anyway: We need to give the laity their church back. What I mean by that is, we need to reclaim our roles as the spiritual leaders and the equippers of the laity to conduct the ministry of the church. We need to allow our people to take the lead and we need to let go of some of the control that we have claimed. This is more than a great thing that Wesley taught; allowing the laity to lead is a biblical mandate.

“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.”

Ephesians 4:11-12 (NLT)

I realize that this is not the case in all congregations. I’m thankful to be able to say that I know of many churches that are doing great work because the laity took ownership of the ministry of their church. But when it comes to the majority of congregations, we still have a major disconnect and we need to address it quickly. We, the clergy, certainly have our place but so do the laity. It’s time we set aside our pride and our ambitions, took a step back, and started equipping the saints again.

Sports teams are made up of individuals with different responsibilities but with the same goal in mind: To win. On scoreboards, teams are shown as winning or losing, just one individual on the team. The same goes for the church: We all have different jobs but we are on the same team and we ought to have the same goal: To win souls for God’s kingdom. Our job is to minister to the people with the gospel but also by being the hands and feet of Christ. By being doers of the word, we allow God to use us in this endeavor. If the church is failing, it’s because we have failed to carry out this mission. We have all become power hungry or consumers. It’s time for this to change.

It’s time to get back to our roots.

Women, Preach! A Response to John MacArthur

Women, Preach!

A Response to John MacArtur

John MacArthur telling Beth Moore that she and other women who preach ought to “go home” has been well documented. He further insisted, “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion” (something I believe is a load of bunk). Except with those whom also espouse this hermeneutic, MacArthur has been decried and challenged in his views across the board. Many people would simply back down and acknowledge that not everyone agrees with them and move along, but MacArthur apparently is not content to go quietly about women preachers. Much like certain elected officials, MacArthur chose to double down on his remarks during a recent sermon.

“Women are to maintain submission to men in all churches in all times. Women pastors and women preachers are the most obvious evidence of churches rebelling against the Bible … Women who pastor and women who preach in the church are a disgrace and openly reflect opposition to the clear command of the Word of God. This is flagrant disobedience.”

Oh, is it now? Are you sure about that? You might think that “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is the way one should read the Bible but this is where you’re wrong. This attitude underscores the danger and outright ignorance that ensues when this hermeneutic is employed (I’ve written/preached about this before). Let’s remember that all scripture was certainly divinely inspired but, at the end of the day, this collection of stories, songs, letters, and biographies was written and compiled by human authors. These authors were often writing to specific people or groups. They were also writing in specific contexts with specific issues that they were addressing. This is not to say that the larger truth contained in them is not timeless but the circumstances described were often constrained to a moment in time. The sort of cherry picking and proof texting that MacArthur and his ilk engage in and claim authority under is nothing short of a disservice to scripture and to their pastoral office.

MacArthur invoked 1 Corinthians 14:34 as a proof text for his assertion that women should be silent in church. According to the article linked above, MacArthur stated, “You don’t say anything,” he stressed, later adding: “Women need to get themselves under control and realize they are not to speak in a church.” For a highly educated man, he certainly does not employ much intellect. If he knew anything about historical context and how to apply it to interpretation, he would know that Paul was not issuing a blanket ban on women speaking in church, rather he was addressing the fact that women who preached in the pagan temples of Corinth wished to preach in the newly established Christian churches. Paul was simply telling them to become educated in the gospel before undertaking this task. That’s it. Dr. Ben Witherington III, the Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written an excellent commentary on the Pauline letters, including this about 1 Corinthians 14:34:

Those asking questions were not yet educated enough in the school of Christ to know what was and was not appropriate in Christian worship. Paul affirms their right to learn, but suggests another context. In any case, Paul is correcting an abuse of a privilege, not taking back a woman’s right to speak in the assembly, which he has already granted in ch. 11

Witherington, B., III. (1995). Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (p. 287). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Let’s not fool ourselves though. MacArthur can claim biblical authority all he wants to but this is about something else entirely: Good old fashioned sexism.

“When women take over a culture, men become weak; when men become weak, they can be conquered. When all the men have been slaughtered, you [women] can sit there with all your jewelry and junk. You’ve been conquered, because you overpowered your protectors.”

There you have it: John MacArthur is afraid of women taking over the world. He feels threatened by women having any sort of power, including the authority of the pulpit and sees this as a threat upon his power. This sort of rhetoric is much more than an old man spouting off outdated cultural norms. This is a man who sees women as inferior, or at least wants to give that appearance, and who will demean any woman who dares to speak up or to take authority.

There is no valid excuse for this kind of sexist, bigoted, weak-minded thinking.

MacArthur’s views are completely unbiblical. The first one to witness the risen Lord was a woman who was told to go and tell the other men. Yes, a woman – often maligned as a prostitute in an attempt to downplay her contribution to the gospel story – was the first one to preach resurrection when she burst into a room where the men had been hiding and shouted, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18) In Romans 16, Paul specifically sends greetings to several woman, including Priscilla and Aquila who he refers to as “co-workers” in the gospel, and to Junia who was respected among the apostles. The original Greek of these instances indicates that these women were on equal footing with Paul and any other man who was in the trenches of pastoral ministry.

One might be quick to say that MacArthur’s view is a simple difference in interpretation of scripture but I disagree. I believe this is something much more malicious. The fact that MacArthur refuses to employ interpretation beyond “God said it, I believe it” aside, MacArthur’s demeaning comments about women in general reveal that he sees women as beneath him and as unequal in God’s kingdom. His point of view has no place in the church and the sooner this sort of attitude is eradicated, the better. This is more than “an old man being an old man.” This is evil. Pure and simple. This is a man who feels threatened by a woman holding power, even going so far as to say that empowering women weakens men. As we say in the south: MacArthur needs to go and sit down somewhere and be quiet.

The only weak man I see in this situation is John MacArthur.

#NextMethodism? What About #MethodismNow?

Another day, another UMC-related hashtag.

The hashtag flavor of the week is #NextMethodism. Some of the United Methodist Church’s brightest – mainly on the conservative side but a few moderates – have been engaging in conservation about their visions, hopes, and dreams of what may come out of any split of the United Methodist Church. The authors seem convinced that the UMC is too far gone to save and so they are preparing for something new to come about, perhaps in the form of a phoenix rising out of the ashes.

If such a thing were possible, John Wesley would be spinning in his grave that such a discussion was even happening.

I know, I know… The whole Methodist movement came about from a schism within the Church of England. And I also know that Wesley never set out to begin a new church. But once the new church began to take shape, Wesley had some heavy expectations out of the people called Methodist. In a nutshell, it was his way or no way (the whole bishop thing excluded) and he was not afraid to let his pastors know that they were out of line. 

I can not help but think that if Rev. Wesley were alive today, he would be having some serious discussions with several of our clergy to remind them that their minds were better served by offering the people Christ now instead of engaging in political pandering and other activities which I believe are unbecoming a clergy person.

This discussion has borne a little quality fruit but mostly it has yielded only horse apples.

There have been conspiracy theories and accusations floated, name calling and backbiting, defensiveness, and a general smug tone taken by those engaging in the #NextMethodism discussion. And frankly, I feel that much of the childish behavior that I have witnessed has been vastly unbecoming of a clergy person and some of the people involved would do well to check themselves.

And at least one lay person (who is no longer UM, I may add) would do well to stop his childish name calling campaign.

I have also been outright offended by some of the articles that have been written (that I will not even dignify with a link from this blog – you will have to find them elsewhere). One particular gem was “The #NextMethodism Will Believe in Christ.” Another was, “The #NextMethodism Will Be Biblical.” Really? So, am I to believe that you, as UM clergy, do not proclaim Christ or proclaim scripture, therefore you want a do-over? 

If one attends any given UMC worship service, they will hear scripture proclaimed and the name of Christ lifted up. In many instances, they will also experience the body and blood of Christ consecrated and given to the people. Hopefully, they may even see and participate in faith being put into action outside the walls of the church.

That is #MethodismNow

I know there is clergy who like to proclaim their political agendas from the pulpit instead of preaching the gospel (this does not seem to be confined to one particular political realm or another) but the vast majority do not engage in this behavior. This entire notion of “they’re bad so I’m going to take my toys and go play somewhere else, and here’s what I want it to be like” is just plain ridiculous.

We have better things to do than further advance political causes to score points with the leadership of any potential new denomination. I am also way too busy ministering in a very drug-infested and poverty-stricken area to be too concerned about engaging in such discussions.

I am not naive, I realize that the UMC as we know it likely will not exist in a few more years. I am also not naive enough to think that I will not have to make some serious decisions about how I live out my calling to pastoral ministry. But I also am not willing to engage in fruitless discussions or to accuse the current UMC of being anything but a Christian church (a charge that I think is despicable).

If there are those among us who truly feel that they can no longer minister in the UMC, I may encourage them to begin considering where they can best serve God and go there.

When it comes to such discussions, I will end with the words of the great philosopher Sweet Brown: Ain’t nobody got time for that.

HIPAA and the Church

hellohipaa_wideWhen I first became an EMT, I worked for an ambulance service that was based at a hospital in rural Mississippi. As it was a hospital-based service, I was required to sit through the same new employee orientation as nurses and others who worked within the hospitals. A large chunk of the session was spent talking about HIPAA. As I have worked for other services and did internships while in paramedic school, I had to have further training on HIPAA. With these numerous training sessions and other research have done on my own, I feel pretty confident that I am well-versed in what HIPAA does and does do and to who it does and does not apply to.

There is much confusion and I would like to try and address some of that.

HIPAA – the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act – is a very far-reaching law and has many moving parts to it. The short version of what HIPAA is for is to specify how one’s health information is to be stored, the type of security measures which should be taken, who can access information, and so on. One of HIPAA’s requirements is that healthcare workers and healthcare organizations who have access to one’s health information may not disclose it in any way to anyone without express written permission, except in very limited ways as allowed under the law (and there are not many). This aspect of HIPAA seems to be what has caused the most confusion. There are many people who think that the general public is subject to HIPAA, who think that clergy persons are bound by HIPAA and that even such things as sharing a diagnosis during prayer requests during a worship service is a violation of the law.

If you are a pastor or a parishioner who fears that sharing about Aunt Mabel’s bunions is going to land you in hock due to a violation of HIPAA, fear not. That won’t happen because HIPAA does not apply to such things.

Simply stated, HIPAA does not even apply to the general public in the first place. You can share your own information to your heart’s content. Further, you can share diagnoses and other health information about anyone with anyone and you are not in violation of HIPAA. Is sharing information without permission unethical? Yes. Illegal? Not so much. The only way you would be in violation of HIPAA is if your information was obtained while you were an employee of a clinic, hospital, etc. and you were obtaining this information in the course of performing your job.

HIPAA does not apply to clergy any more than it does to anyone else. While pastors are bound to ethical standards – which certainly includes not sharing private information without permission or without a legal reason such as to report a person who is a danger to themselves or others – clergy persons are not bound by HIPAA in the performance of their pastoral duties. If a pastor is visiting Aunt Mabel in the hospital, HIPAA does not apply to them. The exception to that is if the clergy person is acting within the capacity of a hospital chaplain or other employment with a healthcare organization. Further, clergy persons are not going to get in trouble with the law for sharing health information in settings such as prayer request time.

Again: Is sharing health information without permission unethical? Yes. Is it illegal (in most cases)? No.

I get really bothered when clergy persons are told that anything they share with their congregation is a violation of HIPAA because this simply is not true. Unfortunately, this is the misinformation that clergy persons are given over and over again by people who should know better but don’t. I know of clergy persons who have been told by leadership within their annual conferences that if they share any sort of health-related information that they are in violation of HIPAA. This is simply not true and I encourage my colleagues to become better educated in the legal aspects of ministry. Such education is a benefit for many reasons.

For more about HIPAA and what it does and does not cover (and it’s likely not what you think), this is a good place to start.