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Gossip: The Things Preachers Say Behind Closed Doors

men gossip

Recently, Southern Baptist pastor Rick Patrick faced public outrage over comments he made in a private forum about women, sexual assault, and the #metoo movement. His words made it out into the wild, and Patrick was forced to apologize several times for his offensive statements. I am sure that Patrick thought his words would be protected, but as President Trump has learned, offensive words said in private often make their way to the Internet. Such is the nature of the digital age.

Evangelical pastors are noted for preaching sermons against gossip and crude speech. Growing up in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, I heard numerous sermons about gossip, off-color humor, swearing, and even the use of bywords. (See Christian Swear Words.) My pastors told me that Jesus heard everything I said, and that come judgment day, he would hold me accountable for my words. What these men of God didn’t tell me is that when they were behind closed doors with their colleagues in the ministry, they routinely failed to practice what they preached.

Years ago, I was a participant on a Reformed Baptist discussion group. The group was private and had pastors and elders in its membership. It was common for group members to talk — Greek for gossip — about problems in their churches or the difficulties they were having particular members. We talked about and said things that would have proved to be embarrassing had they been made public. This group, at that time, was the Reformed Baptist version of the Catholic confessional. What was said was considered sacrosanct.

One day, as I was searching the Internet, I came across the “private” discussions from the group. Evidently, a programming mistake had made the group’s posts public instead of private. Horrified, I immediately notified the group administrators, and they fixed the technical problem. I thought, at the time, if church members and non-group clerics ever saw what we said, why, there would be all sorts of outrage and calls for discipline. Fortunately, my find saved the group’s collective bacon.

I was a pastor for twenty-five years. During my teenage years and my years in the ministry, I attended numerous pastor’s fellowship and conferences. These events allowed men of God to hang out with their own kind, giving them opportunities to talk shop and air their grievances. Most of these events featured a meal, either at lunch or before the evening session. It was during these meals that pastors would gather in smaller groups and “talk.” I have heard and shared countless stories about church problems. The gathered pastors where expected to commiserate with gossipers, and, if warranted, offer advice.

Thanks to being in the ministry for so long, I had a lot of preacher friends, including a few men I considered BFF’s. I would often visit my friends at their church offices or we would arrange to meet somewhere for a meal. Without fail, our conversations would turn to this or that problem, this or that contrary member, or one of the never-ending problems facing IFB and Evangelical churches. These discussions were often chock-full of information disclosed in private counseling sessions by church members or things overheard on the grapevine. The thinking was that sharing private information with colleagues in the ministry was okay. Who’s going to know, right?

Of course, I would know, and when I would later be asked to preach at the churches of my friends, I would have thoughts of what they shared with me over lunch or at one of our fellowship/prayer times. One pastor friend kept a dossier on every church member he talked to. He had become the pastor of a church filled with conflict and strife. The previous pastor had been accused of sexual assault (he later left the church and pastored elsewhere) and his wife had been accused of dressing seductively. The deacons ran the pastor off, and in came my friend. As is often the case when young, inexperienced pastors — it was his first and only pastorate — take on troubled churches, they become sacrificial lambs. There was so much lying and deception going on that my friend decided to write reports of every conversation he had with church members. Much like James Comey did with his discussions with President Trump, my pastor friend kept intricate records of every conversation. He would share some of these conversation with me. This, of course, colored my view of these people. I knew many of them by name, so when I was in the presence of such-and-such person, I thought of what my friend had told me about them.

Another pastor told me about a conversation he had with an engaged couple. They wanted to know if having anal sex was a sin. They wanted to “save” themselves for marriage, so they thought having backdoor sex would be okay. No hymen was broken, so the woman would still be a “virgin” when she walked down the aisle. My pastor friend told them that they had to stop what they were doing; that anal sex was indeed a sin against God. My problem, of course, was every time I saw this couple (they never married) I thought of them having anal sex.

I could spend hours giving anecdotal stories about private things I heard and said when I was in the safe circle of my ministerial colleagues. Some of these men would come and preach for me, so I am sure they had the same thoughts I did. Oh, there’s the couple Bruce said hasn’t had sex in five years. Oh, there’s the man who confessed to having secret homosexual desires. Oh, there’s the teenager who got caught getting drunk and having sex in a motel room.

Christian church members should be aware of this fact: most pastors are gossips; most pastors are going to talk out of school; most pastors think sharing secrets with colleagues is all part of effectively “ministering” to others. Unlike professional counselors, pastors are not prohibited from repeating what was said behind closed doors. Many readers of this blog have likely heard sermons that made use of what was said to their pastors in private. Their pastor might not name names, but there’s no doubt about who’s the subject of his sermon/illustration. IFB preachers, in particular, are noted for preaching passive-aggressive sermons using information spoken to them in private. Smart, attentive congregants know when the pastor in his sermon is talking to or about them. Going through a tough time in your marriage and pondering divorce, and you talked to your pastor about your feelings? If, on the next Sunday, he preaches a thundering sermon on the sin of D-I-V-O-R-C-E, who do you think he is talking to? Pastors often use their pulpits as whipping posts, attacking rumors, allegations, and private conversations. In the pastor’s mind, God is “leading” him to share the truth. In fact, he is a gossip or rumormonger sharing things said in private.

I hope you will keep what I have written here in mind the next time you think about unburdening yourself to your pastor. Your troubles may be gossiped about, talked about among his ministerial colleagues, or turned into sermon illustrations come Sunday. While not all pastors have loose lips, many of them do, and since there is nothing that prohibits them from “sharing,” people should weigh carefully what they say to a pastor, understanding that he may not protect their privacy or he may consider shooting the breeze with his pastor friends as a safe way to share secrets and get advice about how best to handle problems. It is on this issue that the Roman Catholics are right. What’s said in the confessional is privileged. When I first started seeing a counselor, I asked him about how he treated our discussions. He told me they were privileged, and he would never divulge what I said to him (and when several of my children saw him, he never divulged to me what they said).

Did you ever have a pastor use what you said in private as fodder for a sermon, or did you find out later that he gossiped about you to his pastor friends or other church leaders? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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  1. Avatar

    I can’t say anything about what pastors say/gossip about.

    But I can tell you that gossip and bullshit in the name of Jesus is alive and well in Butthump, Oregon, where I grew up.

    Only they don’t call it gossip. They don’t call it invading people’s privacy. They call it a prayer chain.

    Lady A calls Lady B and tells her to pray for poor Mrs. Unlucky, Lady B gets the message and calls Lady C… and on down the line. By the time the message gets to the end of the chain, it really has been embellished and turned into something the originator might not recognize.
    A real-life game of telephone.

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    Gossip and overstepping boundaries of privacy are horrible. And the behaviour of these pastors described above is horrible. But I have to disagree with you, Bruce, about the Catholic confessional and its sacrosanct nature. While it is perfectly okay, and indeed desirable, that a priest should not leave the confessional and share MOST of what the confessee has said, it is definitely not okay that the priest keeps quiet when what has been discussed is the abuse (sexual or otherwise) of children.

    And there have been cases of this. Australia recently held a longstanding and very thorough enquiry into child sexual abuse as it occurred in various settings, including churches. The Catholic Church in Australia was shown to have turned a blind eye to child abuse for decades, harbouring paedophile priests, moving them from parish to parish, not contacting the police, etc. The same old same old. One of the recommendations of the subsequent report was that the Catholic church reforms its rules about the confessional, so that in instances of abuse being revealed, the priests would be compelled to contact the authorities. The Australian hierarchy dismissed this suggestion: it’s not going to happen, they said, the secrecy of the confessional is sacrosanct. More important than the basic safety of children, apparently.

    Confidentiality is important in most instances. It should never be used as a protection for people causing huge harm.

    Also, sad to say but maybe not really that surprising, Catholic priests do also gossip among themselves!

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Yeah, I didn’t mean sacrosanct regarding felony criminal behavior.

      The churches I pastored knew I’d keep their secrets except if they confessed felony criminal behavior. This was put to the test when a congregants son confessed in my presence that he murdered his girlfriend. I persuaded him to turn himself in. When the detective interviewed me, he was surprised that I was willing to give sworn testimony about what the man said. I explained to him my position on felony crimes. The man, to avoid the death penalty, pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence.

      Another man, on the other hand, while on his deathbed confessed to a theft scheme he cooked up twenty years ago with his employer. He worked at a car dealership. He and his employer were turning in false warranty claims. They stopped doing it years before. Nothing would have come from his confession, so I told him being straight with God was all that mattered. His employer, who was in the room at that time, was relieved the man was not going to confess to the manufacturer. (And I’m not suggesting I was okay with theft.)

      • Avatar

        It’s good that you persuaded this man to hand himself in. But what would you have done if he hadn’t? He had told you that he had murdered his girlfriend; as a CITIZEN, you are obliged by law to go to the police.

        The main problem, I think, is pastors (of all shades), and more than likely rabbis, imams, etc too, taking the view that they and their religious groups are above the law.

        The second case you mention is less serious than the first but it’s still a crime. Is it your role to decide that nothing would have come from contacting the police? Chances are, they’d have filed a report and that would have been the end of it, but there’s a principle at stake here. Sad to say, this is what many pastors do even when faced with child abuse: they decide, self-servingly in many cases, that “It would be best not to rock the boat.” That is not their call.

        • Avatar
          Bruce Gerencser

          As I said, I reported all felonies, including several cases of child abuse and neglect.

          As far as the second story is concerned, the events detailed happened 20 years before this man’s death. This was 18 years after the statute of limitations ran out. Nothing good would have come from reporting the alleged crime.

          If I had reported every crime that was confessed to me, I would have spent way too much time at the police station. I decided early on that I would report felonies and leave other crimes between the congregant and their God. (Anyone who counsels people is going to be told things that could be considered criminal. If counselors reported every alleged crime, they wouldn’t have any clients.) I’m comfortable with how I handled things.

          If you believe that pastors should report ALL crimes, does that standard apply to non-pastors too? If so, my drug addict son was illegally buying drugs and even stole my drugs. Should I have reported him? Or was compassion, understanding, and common sense in order? I choose the latter. I a few men confess to procuring the services of a prostitute — a crime in the state of Ohio. Should I have reported them to the police? I think not. Instead, I insisted they tell their wives and have tests for STDs. Even today, as an atheist, I receive emails from people who have committed crimes in the past. Again, I report all felonies, but when it comes to other possible criminal behavior, I choose to be a compassionate listener and a helper of those in need.

          That’s the principles I stand on. They have served me well. Life is messy, and I did what I could to make it less so. I am sure I failed many times, but I did what I could.

          • Avatar

            it could be argued that reported your son for illegally buying drugs would have been the compassionate thing, in the sense that addicts (if this is what he was) sometimes need that kind of wake-up call. Not always, I accept. In any case, I hope he is happier and healthier these days.

            As for pastors and non-pastors, we are ALL citizens and should be subject to our country’s laws but I’m focussing on pastors and ministers here because many of them have, as I’m sure you would agree, an especially egregious relationship with the laws of the land. A non-pastor might choose to not report a crime (even an extremely serious crime) but s/he is unlikely to justify that with the words “God is the only judge.” Also, given that religious ministers present themselves as arbiters of morality, I think we are entitled to hold them to a higher standard.

            As a Brit, I’m going to have to say that I don’t know what the distinction is between a crime and a felony: that is a distinction in US law, I think. I take it from your comments that a felony is more serious than the other kinds of crime?

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      “the secrecy of the confessional is sacrosanct. More important than the basic safety of children, apparently.”
      Fucking asshole bullies rule reality? Fuck them.
      The point of the the sacrosanct confession is that it supports the simple truth that belief is harmful, first to victims and children and women… Do I need to go on?

      • Avatar
        Karen the rock whisperer

        Ex-Catholic here. What I was taught in Catholic elementary school was that yes, what’s told in confession can’t be repeated by the priest.. He’s meant to endure jail, torture, and even death rather than reveal it. ( Do they really do that? No idea. But under normal circumstances, priests are really, really good about keeping confessional secrets.) Now, the Catholic sacrament of confession is a two-edged sword. You confess your sins, and the priest tells you what you have to do to get right again with God. Forgiveness is not automatic, regardless of how bad you feel about what you’ve done. In the case of a serious crime, a priest will counsel the confessioner that they must turn themselves in. In less serious cases, he will insist that the sinner must make full restitution. The job of the priest is to take care of the sinner’s soul, as in “Look, guy, if you don’t turn yourself in, you’re going to spend forever being tortured.”

        Is this right and moral? Personally, I don’t think so, but Pope Frankie doesn’t routinely call me up asking for advice.

  3. Avatar

    In the church and school I grew up in, being a busybody was encouraged, except it was couched in terms of “speaking the truth in love” to a fellow congregants who needed correction to “keep their witness (Or testimony”. And typically a prayer chain was started to help with that.

    Everybody gossipped about the church leadership and their families. It was all semi-sanctioned under the guise of helping people keep their witness. Frankly, it is a bunch of sanctimonious BS.

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    Passive aggressive sermons — yes! We sat through to 5 (!) sermons on the “sin” of homosexuality while we were in the process of being kicked out of our Baptist church for loving gay people. When I think back on it, and when my husband and I remember it, we can’t believe we sat and listened to those 5 sermons. I mean, really? 5?! And they were overlong sermons and not very well written either. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t have listened to even 1 of those sermons, and I would’ve told the preacher and my “brothers and sisters in Christ” to go fuck themselves!!

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    I’ve been in plenty of churches where it was perfectly fine to trash talk congregants and their families, especially when putting in “prayer requests”. However, the moment a person even questions, or just sighs in reflection, on what a pastor says or does the claws come out! Bethel World in Brentwood, TN was the absolute worst on a regular basis. Everything about it screams CULT to me now.

    And not only do spiritual leaders speak horribly about congregants behind closed doors, they speak horribly to them behind closed doors. I went through this in Hawai’i with Ralph Moore’s authority. He had a “love you as is” seeker friendly church. However, the moment Hubs and I had to meet his assistant (a good friend, btw) for an appointment the guy was just as bad as my most rotten experiences with Evangelical preachers!

    This is why I have spent the past year or so posting honest reviews about my personal experiences with abusive Christian schools/churches. It’s amazing because I’m usually the last person to catch unto anything. However, I commented regarding these places on atheist blogs and Google before all the recent movements of #metoo; #churchtoo and #emptythepews. Doing so has been a big help in my secular therapy post deconversion.

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    To take it a step further, as a PK I heard waaaaay more church member gossip/details than I should have. That is hard on a kid, and not a burden they should have to carry. But then again, we were already taught to be judgmental (oops I meant to say “speak the truth in love”).

    After rejecting Fundieworld I found I could enjoy people because *gasp* nonbelievers are people too! People are interesting! I can learn from others! I do not have all the answers! It is a completely different world when you change your mindset, and oh so freeing.

  7. Avatar

    Hi Bruce. I have a question. I don’t know if this fits in to the topic , probably not but have you ever heard of a pastor staging a phony theft at their church whenever they were low on cash and needed some quick dough ?. I ask because I attended a couple churches and was involved in those churche where thefts of the morning offering occurred under very strange and ambiguous circumstances. One of them was a white middle class congregation and the theft was blamed on some black guy who supposedly visited that day. I was aware of how the offering was taken by the ushers and how it was secured in the pastors office after the morning offering and I concluded that it was near impossible that someone unaware of the operation could pull off such a feat in the amount of time it was to have occurred. I was always very suspicious.

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    oh yes, the “prayer list” that was nothing but disguised gossip. people could tell all if they only framed it as a prayer request. my own mother loves to have fodder for her ladies group, so I am very careful to never reveal any real details of my life or my kids lives. we only talk of superficial things like the weather, etc. she values her status as queen bee of the ladies group more than anything else. more garbage in the name of religion.

  10. Avatar

    My favorite is when the “traveling IFB evangelist” gets the 411 on what a problem your family is…in great detail…without you knowing it…the “Spirit filled Man of God” preaches “what God told him to preach” meanwhile hitting you right between the eyes hard, and leaving you a shellshocked mess and wondering what just happened. Good times…good times…

    I appreciate your honesty, it really confirms what I already believed to be true.

  11. Avatar
    Linda File

    One of the dirty secrets of ‘the pastorate’. Raised in a pastor’s family, the dismissive view of people it is a sad and despicable part of life. Even as a very young child I recall wanting to stay near the adult table for the entertainment where my parents and the visiting missionary, evangelist, etc, laughed and ‘shared’ (gossiped) about the people who had been in the service. I particularly remember a visiting evangelist asking my dad about whether he thought somebody’s ‘message in tongues’–whether he thought it was ‘genuine’. My father guffawed and said with a laugh, “well, you know God uses the weaker vessel!!” (This stayed with me.) And these laugh-fests were always closed with the disclaimer, “The pastorate is so intense that people need time to ‘let their hair down.'”

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Bruce Gerencser