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Close Up: Clergy juggle prayer requests with privacy rights

 


Close Up: Clergy juggle prayer requests with privacy rights

April 20, 2004 

A UMNS Report By Amy Green*

Submitting a prayer request at First United Methodist Church in Rockwall, Texas, isn’t as easy as pulling the pastor aside for a chat about an ailing aunt.
 
Parishioners must fill out a form put together by an attorney and include written approval if the prayer is for someone other than themselves. The new policy comes after the church suspended publication of prayer requests in its church bulletin and newsletter for four months because of complaints about disclosed information.
 
Privacy rights have become a growing concern among churches, especially since far-reaching federal regulations meant to protect patient privacy went into effect last April. The regulations, part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, have prompted clergy across the United States to rethink how they pray for parishioners.
 
Some have scaled back or scrapped the prayer requests they share with congregations. Others find their care for hospitalized parishioners thwarted. They say they feel torn between their mission to minister to those in need and their obligation to be conscious of legal dangers.
 
“We’ve missed some people. They’ve come and gone from the hospital again, and maybe sometime later they’ll say, ‘Didn’t you know?’” said the Rev. Dennis Shock, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Crown Point, Ind., which draws about 400 on an average Sunday. “I feel a little frustrated and sometimes a little guilty.”
 

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Experts say less information is better when sharing prayer requests with congregations.

It is an unintended consequence of privacy laws and regulations such as HIPAA’s. The law was approved in 1996 to address primarily health insurance issues. Its privacy regulations direct health plans and providers in how to share patient information, but the rules do not prohibit clergy from visiting patients or praying for them with congregations.
 
However, the law does prohibit sharing patient information without consent when clergy are employed by hospitals as chaplains or churches that provide mental health services.

The laws are so vast and new, many are interpreting them in different ways. For example, hospitals used to provide clergy with a list of patients sorted by denomination. Now some continue to provide the list with patient consent, but others have scrapped it altogether.
 
HIPAA prompted enough confusion among churches that United Methodist attorneys posted a 12-page memorandum summarizing the law and its effects on the General Council on Finance and Administration’s Web site in February.

The law is not aimed at pastors, and so many clergy concerns are unfounded, said Dan Gary, associate general counsel with the council in Evanston, Ill. But some are legitimate.
 
Gary cited the case of a Presbyterian church music director in Ohio who filed suit over information disclosed in a church bulletin that was posted on the Internet. The man had been hospitalized for months with depression. The case, filed before HIPAA’s privacy regulations took effect, went to the state Court of Appeals, which ruled the man had grounds to sue.
 
“That was an example of where less information might have mitigated the situation,” Gary said. “There’s really nothing wrong with getting consent for these kinds of disclosures even when you aren’t legally required to do so. There’s what the law allows you to do, and then there’s the right thing to do.”
 

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To address privacy concerns, First United Methodist Church of Rockwall, Texas, has created a form for prayer requests.

Shock now is more careful about the information he shares when reading prayer concerns during Sunday services. But he is more concerned about how HIPAA has affected his ability to minister to hospitalized parishioners. He used to get a call from the local hospital when a parishioner was admitted. Now he struggles for information even after a member is released on whether the patient was sent home or to another facility.
 
“Rarely has this been an issue in my 30 years in ministry,” he said. “Usually the problem is the other way — the parishioner will be in the hospital and no one knows and they get upset, or they get upset that we haven’t put them on the prayer list.” 
 
It is a troubling trend because pastoral care is an important part of a patient’s recovery, said Josephine Schrader, executive director of the Association of Professional Chaplains.
 
“There are some studies that have shown that people who are prayed with and prayed for have shorter recovery times,” she said. “It’s a comfort, a reassurance, a calming effect that they don’t feel as alone.”
 
The decision to stop publishing prayer requests at Rockwall’s First United Methodist Church came last summer as a way to give church leaders time to figure out how to address privacy concerns. An attorney who is a member of the church drafted a prayer request form. Now the church is working on a new form that would allow parishioners to make some prayer requests public and keep others private just among the church leadership.
 
“We want to take seriously our responsibility to pray for each other as a community,” said the Rev. Valarie Englert, associate pastor of the church, which draws about 650 on an average Sunday. “So we’re trying to figure out how to walk that fine line between showing trustworthiness and sharing of each other’s burdens.” 

*Green is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn. News media can contact Kathy L. Gilbert (615)742-5471 Nashville, Tenn.or  newsdesk@umcom.org.

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