Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Definition of Gossip and the Art of Pastoring

Recently, I had an email conversation with a wise pastor who had some good practical questions about how to use my definition of gossip in pastoring people. Our interaction demonstrated a few things to me. First, that this is an important thing to be thinking about because it involves real people in real situations. Second, sometimes there are no easy answers. It's an art not a science. Third, pastoring is a terrific privilege and worth the hard work of learning to love people well.

I asked my new friend if I could post our conversation for others to read, and he said yes so long as we kept it anonymous. We don't want to gossip about those who might be gossiping! Below is a lightly edited version. Chime in, too, if you like, in the comments below.


Hi, Pastor Matt,

I have a read and watched many of your resources and am thankful for your ministry to the church. I have a couple questions on gossip and would love to hear your thoughts if you have some time:
  • Is it gossip for people to tell me (as a pastor) things in a counseling session? If not why would that be different than one friend coming to another friend to receive counsel? 
  • For that matter is sharing things in counseling, or in small group settings when people share their personal history or testimony in general about family history, conflict, etc. gossip? 
  • Is it gossip to share parts of our story that involve others negatively? A woman in our church often talks with other gals sharing her experience of abuse by her ex-husband. But is she gossiping about him in order to minister to others? 
  • Is it gossip to tell someone to watch out for another person because of danger? Paul seems to do this with various people. If it’s not gossip does that mean one single gal telling another single gal “I wouldn’t date that guy because he did…”? 
  • Can spouses share everything with one another since they are one or is that still gossip? 
  • Last one: if there is distance of relationship does it not counted as gossip? For instance, if someone shares with their friend about how they struggle with their Mom’s trying to be involved in their parenting is it okay to share that since the friend doesn’t know the mom at all and it doesn’t become divisive. 
If your able, thank you in advance, if not no worries.

Pastor Anonymous


Pastor Anon,

Great questions! Thanks for asking.

The short answer to all of them is, "It depends." It could be sinful gossip in any of those cases, but it might not be, especially depending upon motivations and how the information sharing was conducted (carefully and in love or carelessly, recklessly, and divisively?).

I've written a brief article about this on my blog, "So, Is This Gossip?" that might be helpful to you.

After reading that, let me know what you think.




Hi Matt,

Thanks for the quick response. I appreciate it.

I had read that blog and I think I’m still left with questions. I’m sure I’m looking for a hard fast rule that simply doesn’t exist.

Most all of the instances I listed are done in a hidden way so that part of the definition is present. However, the “bad heart” seems hard to define. I think many times the way people defend their (potential) gossip is by saying “I wasn’t doing it to harm anyone I just needed counsel.” While that may be true it can still cause harm. In addition “bad heart” might not be trying to harm another person but rather trying to make ourselves look, appear, feel good, etc. So…I guess maybe a follow up question would be how would you define bad heart in these contexts? And isn’t it possible to do something that’s not from a bad heart but still has bad effects and thus we should refrain to begin with? I don’t know the answers to these…want to help folks not gossip, and not participate in it in my role as a pastor but also don’t want to draw unnecessary and even harmful lines in the sand.

Thanks for listening,

Pastor Anonymous


Dear Anony,

I understand. I went looking for those hard and fast rules when I did my biblical research and was disappointed to not find them.

The hard and fast rule we do have is that if we are loving those whom we are talking about and loving those to whom we are talking then we aren't going to be gossiping. What's difficult about that is that we can fool and justify ourselves and others can fool and justify themselves to us.

For ourselves, the more we are aware of our sinful tendencies and the biblical truth that undoes them, the more able we can be to see our own sin and turn away from it. That's the focus of my book. It's written to those who want to resist gossip in their own lives.

In ministry to others, we have to both (1) try not to judge others motives when they are doing something that looks, at first glance, unloving and sinful, and at the same time, (2) be discerning of possible motives that would be sliding a conversation into a dangerous place. We can really tell a lot about why someone is talking about someone else negatively by how they do it. Does it appear to be just someone running someone else down? Do we get facts and story that doesn't help anyone? Is there an attempt to provide alternate explanations for someone else's behavior or do they seem to be jumping to conclusions? Are the warnings being offered to others careful and nuanced based on facts or cutting and rash and based on feelings or hearsay? Is there evidence of the Golden Rule at work in this conversation or is it one-sided? In a conflict, has person A gone to person B, or are they talking about it with people C through Z who don't reasonably need to know any of these facts? Is there an obvious true, constructive, loving purpose to this conversation or is it aimless, careless, entertaining? You're right that our bad hearts may not be malicious to the one we are talking about but they might be careless and not thinking about the one we are talking about. That's a lack of love, as well.

Our pastoral response needs to be in proportion to what we discern is going on. If someone is spreading bad information, it's more cut and dried. If someone is calling families one-by-one in the church about a conflict to make sure that everyone knows all the details and won't go directly to the subjects of the talk, that's more obvious. But a few of your case studies call for more discernment.

Is that helpful? I could write more, but I'm trying to give the principle and let you work it out in your own practice.



This is good Matt, thanks for helping me to continue to think through this. Appreciate the time very much so.

- Anonymous


You're welcome. It's a privilege to have gotten to study this on this level and share with others what I've been learning.

Blessings on you and your church family.


Westminster Bookstore's fantastic sale on all resources for Resisting Gossip ends tomorrow.