naWMGQyThis week’s question is about a request pastors regularly receive. Is this an easy way to support our folks, or are there pitfalls?

Dear Matriarchs:

I am writing a pastoral reference for someone in my congregation whom I know to have issues with alcohol abuse. She has had a DUI within the past year. She has been, to my knowledge, sober for 6 months since that incident.

The reference form asks “Are you aware of anything which hasn’t been covered which someone considering this person for a job should be aware of?” The position is a managerial/sales position in a Christian organization. Confidentiality says I cannot disclose this information, yet it may be a factor in the future. How would you wise women navigate this?

Let’s hear from the matriarchs:

Kathryn Zucker Johnston
Well, I think there are a few options:

a) Write “yes” on the form, send it in, and see what happens. If they call for a follow-up, you can tell them it’s confidential. Let them go from there.

b) If you don’t feel like you can be a good reference, tell your parishioner that and don’t do it.

c) Analyze what the worst case scenario is – is she being hired as a driver or to care for children? Then maybe the “someone considering this person for a job” needs to at least get the “yes” with no explanation on the form. If they are being hired to do something with slightly less stakes then perhaps you can honestly answer “no” in that spot.

I’m thinking in a managerial/sales position you can honestly answer “no” there.

Sharon Temple
Thanks so much, Kathryn, for offering three good options and a wise conclusion. Given the question as asked, I agree that you can honestly answer “no.”

Both the job applicant’s pastor and Kathryn are seriously respecting the consideration of confidentiality in this scenario. In the United Church of Christ — and I’m sure we aren’t the only ones — “keeping confidences” is a promise we make at ordination. My advice to all clergy: As often as possible attend the ordinations of colleagues and hear again what we promised at our own ordination. Not only does our presence embody support for a new colleague, remembering those vows is like a tune up for our ministries.

Further thoughts on this one? We invite you to comment below.

Have you been asked to do something in ministry that may, or may not, be yours to do? No need to figure it out alone. Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and let the matriarchs offer some ideas.


Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.


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3 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: An Honest Job Reference

  1. I agree with Sharon. Her background check will turn up her DUI. You do not need to be the one to break confidentiality. ‘No’ is honest. As a former 12-step groups member, a therapist, and a pastor, confidentiality is everything.

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  2. My sense is this is a person who is trying to turn her life around. I would check “no.” The organization could discover the DUI with a basic background check, so I don’t think a personal reference is the place to disclose that past history. And the confidentiality issue.

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  3. If you tell your parishioner that your response must be “Yes, but I can’t discuss the details,” then she may say “Go ahead,” or “Don’t write the letter,” or “You have my permission to discuss the details.” It will be her choice.

    If you respond “No,” and the organization does not agree that an alcohol problem is immaterial, then they will not respect any references you might write for anyone else.

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