Heard About the Pastor Who…? Gossip as an Ethical Activity

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 31, 1990, pp. 994-996, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Most of us tend to be disdainful of gossip, even if it is a universal phenomenon But is gossip necessarily malicious? Although acknowledging its seamier side, Willimon discourses on its positive aspects: as “the moral casuistry of ordinary people” and as “a primary means of congregational bonding.”

Not long ago I was with a group of clergy discussing a mutual acquaintance of ours who serves a large midwestern church. "I heard that his wife is suing him for divorce," interjected one person. "Really?" I said, my countenance brightening at the prospect of a juicy piece of information about someone who serves a church larger than mine. "Tell me more. I’m all ears."

"Let’s not descend to the level of gossip," said another person in an offended tone. "Can’t we skip the smut?"

"It’s not gossip. It’s called pertinent professional information," said I.

It is called gossip and I was caught red-handed in the act -- or at least in the act of wanting to hear more. Most of us take a dim view of gossip. We like to think of ourselves as above it. But is there a vast difference between the information offered in People magazine and the columns in the New York Times that inform readers using sources "at a high level"? A vast industry churns out anecdote, rumor and celebrity scandal for voracious millions ("Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," "Entertainment Tonight") What vacuum does this outbreak of gossip fill in our public discourse? Sally Quinn theorized in the Washington Post that after the Nixon resignation, "We were hooked on the heroin of the Watergate scandal and now we needed the methadone of gossip." Balzac said that every day in Paris a paper with 100,000 subscribers was produced yet never printed. He was referring to the amazing daily round of gossip.

Let’s face it, most of us enjoy talking about other people. To quote the great theologian Oscar Wilde, "If you can’t say something good about someone, come over here and sit next to me." The right to gossip about the famous and the powerful -- be they a Hollywood star who sniffs cocaine or a big church pastor who cheated on his marriage -- may be the stiff price our egalitarian society extracts from those who rise to the top of the heap. Few of us can resist the lure of the tidbit concerning the ugly spectacle at the motel during the last meeting of the synod’s finance committee. And I would be deeply suspicious of those who condemn such gossip if they also claimed that they never succumbed to a furtive glance at the National Enquirer while standing in line at the supermarket.

Gossip has its seamier side, to be sure. When we are talking about other people (or condemning those who talk about other people) , the situation is replete with opportunities for self-deception. Yet while slander is destructive, not all gossip is slanderous. When Ralph Abernathy said that Martin Luther King, Jr., was unfaithful to his marriage vows, was this slander or a truthful depiction of one aspect of a life? When Abernathy implied that King’s extra-marital activities were the result of his spouse’s inadequacy, then, in my opinion, he fell into slander. Presumably, the committee from the United Church of Christ that called on Abernathy to "repent" of his authorship of the King autobiography felt that King’s personal life was so uninteresting, or that such a neat separation could be made between personal morality and public ethics, that Abernathy could have only destructive motives for his revelation.

Yet I would like to join with Patricia Meyer Spacks, author of Gossip, in contending that talking about the personal lives of others need not be wholly immoral. Gossip can be the moral casuistry of everyday life. Spacks says that gossip, at its best, is a means whereby we attempt to figure out who we are and how we ought to live. In other words, my talk about others is not always an attempt to build them up or tear them down but rather, to make sense out of myself. After all, if John Denver could sing love songs to his beloved wife and then divorce her in a nasty marital squabble, imagine what a person like me could do -- provided I had as much money as Denver.

In the parish, among fellow Christians, gossip seems particularly destructive. Yet even in church, gossip may be more moral than it first appears. As Spacks notes, the word "gossip" derives from the older godsip -- a contraction of the words "God" and "sibling." Gossip must have been that privileged conversation among the family, the siblings, probably about someone in the family who was absent. The abuse of that privilege was undoubtedly the beginnings of the negative connotations of gossip. But the abuse of the practice does not negate the importance of gossip as a means whereby those who are relatives by the grace of God (the baptized) know better, for better or worse, to what sort of folk they are now related.

Spacks contends that gossip is particularly important for subordinated groups. She speculates that one reason gossip became associated with the conversation of women was that early usages of the word referred to the speech of women who attended at childbirth. To be present at so intimate an occasion was to be privy to some very personal information. Male envy at being excluded from the mystery of childbirth may have contributed to the negative assessments of the speech of those who were present. At any rate gossip is often an alternative mode of discourse, a rhetoric of inquiry, an invasion and a possible subversion of the domain of the powerful and privileged. It strikes us as morally interesting, for example, that a person can be at the helm of a great nation and still be powerless to make his own children behave. Through gossip, power is defeated. Gossip need not be malicious, but it is usually at least incipiently aggressive (and can therefore lead to great hurt).

Gossip also can be a primary means of building and sustaining communities. Community cannot emerge without intimacy, and gossip enables people to explore the lives of others. Shared intimacy leads to bonding, not only by linking those who share through gossip but also by linking us to the life of the one who is being gossiped about. After all, if a person can be at the helm of a great nation and still have problems with his own children, I am more like Ronald Reagan than I want to admit.

More than simple bonding may occur in gossip. In a heterogeneous society where fame is so fleeting and class is defined by money rather than intelligence or bloodline, gossip is sort of a navigational aid; it gives us a fix on our moral location. Gossip is a mode of knowing and therefore is intimately related to the birth of the novel, which is also a means of providing unifying, explanatory structures for life’s events. Gossip in the form of the novel enlarges our grasp of someone else’s experience and thereby increases our understanding of ourselves.

Admittedly, the bonding and the information provided by gossip may be at the low end of the ladder of moral inquiry. But it may at least be at the beginning. We are desperate for information about other people, particularly the private information beneath their public façade, because we want to know more about ourselves. Why is such desire considered to be an illegitimate form of prying? For one thing, gossip may be a deadly means of self-deception, arbitrary and mean. I welcome news of the sins of others because it makes my sins appear more normal. Misery loves company. Have we not all encountered that overly zealous moral crusader who pounces on the sins of others (particularly their sexual or financial ones) only to be exposed as a perpetrator of the very same sins?

Despite the possibilities for self-deception in our talk about other people, morality is dependent upon such talk. Many of us find the more refined gossip of the novel a greater help in seeing our lives accurately than the work of academic ethicists. Modern ethics has-sought to rise above the mundane level of everyday discourse in the pursuit of the universal and the objective, the great overarching principles whereby ethical decisions can be made. And what ethicist would want to be labeled as a gossip? Yet there may be some truth to the claim that Ann Landers is about as helpful in teaching me to live well as Stanley Hauerwas. Ethical reflection is dependent upon a range of ordinary and specific examples. I need to see morality lived out in real people’s lives and the results of decision as they are mirrored in the lives of people like me.

I recall asking a friend of mine -- a nationally renowned Christian activist -- why he was leaving his busy and important projects for a sabbatical. He told me -- at an undisclosable location in Des Moines -- that he had worked with King in the final days. So many people were pulling at King, he recalled, so many causes were demanding his attention that he was exhausted, incoherent and personally, ethically confused. "If that could happen to a great Christian like Martin," said my friend, "just imagine what that sort of stress could do to a person like me."

Imagine indeed. My friend did not know that his offhand comments about King’s personal life were new information to me. But they were also more than idle gossip. They provoked deep, personal reflection. We were talking, as it turned out, not so much about King as about ourselves.

In church, gossip may be particularly important in what Reinhold Niebuhr called that never-ending task of "the increase of the love of God and neighbor." Many times as a pastor I have taken pastoral initiative with people, knocking on their front door and saying. "Joe, Joan, I hear you’re having some marital problems." Sometimes they would say "Oh, we see that the church rumor mill has been hard at work" -- congregational gossip making its nasty intrusion into their personal lives. "Call it gossip if you will," I would counter, "but I heard this as the genuine concern of some fellow Christians who care about you and are not sure how to show their care." More often than not, the information was accurate and the couple was grateful that we had made their troubles our own. Christians are members of a family, siblings by virtue of baptism who pledge to make their stories available to one another out of conviction that they become better people in the process. In baptism I "go public" with my life, offering it to the familial scrutiny of others, taking responsibility for the lives of others.

Indeed, I’ve decided that one of the greatest and most indefensible burdens pastors bear is knowing so many secrets about their parishioners. Why should the pastor be expected to be the sole repository of other people’s pain? We need to re-examine the whole notion of privacy and confidentiality in ministry. One can understand why a physician or a mental health worker ought to practice confidentiality. After all, it is a risky business to tell our deep secrets to perfect strangers. But that is not our situation in the church. We are busy creating a community of trust. In a church, as in a marriage, we aspire to be the sort of people who know a great deal of very personal information about one another without using that information to destroy one another. Indeed, one of the primary goals of pastoral care ought to be encouraging private pain to "go public" as soon as possible. That does not mean that I will divulge something a parishioner has said to me in confidence. It does mean that I help the troubled individual to see that the main resource for pastoral care in the church is the whole church.

A woman admits to me that her adult son is an alcoholic. She tells me not to tell anyone in the church because "I know how they would look down on me." I have two problems with her request. First, two-thirds of the congregation already know her son is an alcoholic. A congregation that doesn’t know intimate information about one another isn’t much of a church. Second, the dozen or so members of the church who are parents of alcoholic children could be her primary path to care. As her pastor, I must help her to see that her deep, unmentionable secret is in the eyes of faith a church problem, an invitation to renew her baptism and possibly that of her son as well by allowing her brothers and sisters in Christ to minister to their need. If she can do that, then she may enable her brothers and sisters in Christ to claim their baptismal commission to be siblings in Christ and priests to one another rather than detached strangers or consumers of individual therapy.

Perhaps we ought to encourage our pastors not to think of themselves as "above" such mundane conversations as gossip or as prohibitors of gossip, but rather as those who help us to gossip well in the congregation. For example, old gossip is uninteresting because it is old information. Who wants to be told a secret that everyone already knows? Old gossip may also be immoral, a means of locking another person in the past, tying a person to a past sin in a way that is anything but Christian. Thirty years ago a leader of a church I once served was caught misappropriating funds at a bank. He was convicted and served time in prison. I knew about his past as did everyone in the congregation, but it was never mentioned. Indeed, if someone had dredged up that part of his past, I am sure that person would have been told, "That’s all over now." Forgiveness means, in great part, that the forgiven sin is no longer the subject of continued conversation.

It is often difficult to decide what constitutes malicious gossip in a society that handles its lack of cohesive bonds by exaggerating its notions of individual privacy. Pastors can help people learn how to know secrets about others without using those secrets to destroy them.

Our society makes strangers of us all, gives us the right to privacy without giving us anything to do with it and unjustly separates private and public ethics. The gossip of the church family, however, the talk of siblings by baptism, is sanctified. Gossip, as a church activity without malice, may well be, at its best, the moral casuistry of ordinary people, a primary means of congregational bonding, a source of utterly essential moral data about ourselves, an everyday means of investigating communally what it means to be baptized.

When Richard Nixon’s henchmen were being justly excoriated for their political "dirty tricks," which included spreading malicious gossip, Senator Russell Long of Louisiana recalled the dirtiest campaign against him. "My opponent said some nasty, unverified, undignified, disgusting things about me," said Long. "Worst of all, much of what he said was true."