Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name


Organizational Unit

Joint Ph.D. Program in Study of Religion

First Advisor

Carrie Doehring, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Larry Graham

Third Advisor

Shelly Smith-Acuna

Fourth Advisor

Pamela Eisenbaum


Confidentiality, Pastoral theology, Privileged communication, Process theology, Receptivity fatigue, Seal of confession


Receiving confidential disclosures can create burdens for pastoral care providers. This dissertation presents a study of pastoral confidentiality and the burdens associated with receiving confidential disclosures based on interviews with thirteen pastoral providers, a review of historical, legal and pastoral care literature. A thematic analysis of interviews identified three types of burdens associated with receiving confidential disclosures: 1) professional burdens associated with clarifying norms and standards for pastoral confidentiality in light of collegial, denominational and congregational norms; 2) ethical burdens created when the ethical value of pastoral confidentiality comes into conflict with another significant ethical value; and 3) structural burdens that result from serving in a designated confidential role, factors of the provider's identity, or contextual considerations about one's ministry setting. Interviews revealed that many pastoral providers are unaware of denominational statements and resources addressing normative standards for pastoral confidentiality. Additionally, serving in a designated confidential role can contribute to a heightened risk of what I term receptivity fatigue. This study suggests that failing to think theologically about confidentiality runs the risk of impoverishing pastoral practice. While legal considerations, professional codes of ethics, and social norms for confidentiality remain useful, losing a theological context for practices of confidentiality diminishes the resources available to pastoral caregivers to engage and manage the potential stress and burdens of receiving confidential disclosures.

In this dissertation I argue that optimal relational trust characterizes divine engagement with creation, and therefore provides the most fruitful foundation for and expression of pastoral confidentiality. Drawing on resources in process theology, philosophy, and psychology I present a pastoral theology of confidentiality based on a model of optimal relational trust situated within an understanding of covenantal relationship. This model provides a resource for managing the burdens resulting from receiving confidential disclosures by balancing receptive and agential dimensions of power, situating the tasks of care within an understanding of relational covenant that prioritizes loving mercy and doing justice, and reclaiming theology as a resource for managing ethical dilemmas arising in the course of pastoral care.

Publication Statement

Copyright is held by the author. User is responsible for all copyright compliance.

Rights Holder

Virginia R. Morgan


Received from ProQuest

File Format




File Size

247 p.


Pastoral Counseling, Theology, Clerical Studies