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The prayer list meets privacy
Lefavi Bob
Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi

Christians often feel an obligation to pray for those who need assistance, both individually and corporately. Church congregations therefore regularly pray for members and extended family and friends who are struggling. Each church handles such prayers differently, but they usually involve some sort of prayer list.

When I receive a request to place someone on the prayer list, I do not always ask if that person wants to be on the list. But I should.

I suppose I don’t often ask because the member who requests someone be put on the list usually tells me the circumstances. And those circumstances suggest the individual involved would be happy that others knew about his or her situation and were praying for healing. Someone might say, “Pastor Bob, John Doe is having open heart surgery Monday. Would you please put him on the prayer list?” In my mind, at least, there is no reason to question whether John Doe wants to be on the prayer list. But again, I could be wrong.

But what about a circumstance in which the person involved may not want others to be aware of his or her difficulty? Case in point is Mitnaul v. Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Ohio.

In this case, the church posted its prayer list on the church Web site with the following entry: “We have good news for you! Bryan Mitnaul is returning to Fairmount after a long medical leave of absence. Since the summer of last year, Bryan has been treated for bipolar illness; a condition that at times has resulted in serious depression for him. Various therapies and medications have been tried, and finally, after much experimentation, his health has improved considerably. For that we are all very happy.”

After he fully recovered, Mr. Mitnaul filed a suit against the church, claiming Fairmount Presbyterian invaded his privacy. The court sided with him, ruling that “An actionable invasion of the right to privacy is the ... publicizing of one’s private affairs with which the public has no legitimate concern, or the wrongful intrusion into one’s private activities in such a manner as to outrage or cause mental suffering, shame, or humiliation to a person of ordinary sensibilities.”

The appeals court, in approving his claim for trial, stated, “Information about his bipolar illness could be viewed as offensive or objectionable to a reasonable person.”

I think we — all of us in churches (not just pastors) — need to be very careful about sharing information with others pertaining to someone’s private health information. Sure, we all want to know exactly what we are praying for, I understand that; but we must also balance that with the person’s possible desire for privacy. And we can do that by making sure the person we are placing on the prayer list — online or in a church bulletin — actually wants to be on such a list (or would want to be if they are not capable of expressing such desire), and that any specific health information is not provided without that person’s consent.

Regarding suggestions of caution like this, I have heard pastors lament that this is yet another way the church is affected by society, citing the increasing litigious nature of our culture. I do not agree. I see this as simply being considerate to those who are already struggling with some difficulty.

The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.