Sunday, September 18, 2011

Prayers of the People and HIPAA

Anyone who has recently had dealings with the medical community knows that the initials HIPAA stand for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. It’s a law including rules that protect the privacy of our medical information.

Neither the law nor its rules apply specifically to churches and services of worship. Nevertheless, its wisdom is worth our attention.

Here are a few examples of why this is a good idea:

I was getting myself oriented before the service where I was to be the guest preacher when I was approached by a woman who thrust a slip of paper into my hand with her request/instruction: “Please include this in the prayers this morning." The note included a name, a hospital, and a diagnosis to be shared with the worshippers. I told her I’d include the name and hospital; I left out the diagnosis.

Another time I was attending worship in a congregation that had the custom of offering an open microphone as part of the Prayers of the People. As I remember it, a woman came to the mike and spoke for five minutes or more about the illness of a friend.

Still another church I’ve attended prints the names of all who are sick on a bulletin insert, and has been known on occasion to describe ailments.

The practice in the church I often attend is more discrete. The pastor solicits from the people the names they wish to be included in the prayers, and he uses only the first names, and no illnesses are mentioned. After the service I suppose private conversations reveal some of the full names and medical situations.

Of course these can be held up as examples of compassionate caring among members of the church community. It is right that we are concerned for the well-being of one another, and vitally important that we hold in our prayers all who are in need, including the sick in our midst. The Prayers of the People should include prayers for one another.

At the same time, some HIPAA-like rules should be in place to guide us. Here are a few suggestions.

Rule 1. Remember that the Lord’s Day worship is a public event. What is said there could just as well be yelled on the street corner or printed on page one of the New York Times. Using people’s full names in the prayers of intercession should be approached with extreme caution and sensitivity to the people involved.

Rule 2. No one’s name should be mentioned out loud in worship or put on a prayer list without their personal permission. Some people willingly give such permissions, while others would rather keep it all to themselves.

Rule 3. Be extremely careful about passing along medical information about somebody in worship, or anywhere else for that matter. HIPAA rules restrict what medical people can do. For those of us who are not medical people, our ignorance almost guarantees inaccuracy.

Rule 4. Be sure to mark the line between concern and gossip. It can be easily crossed. For example: A prominent woman in the church had gone to the hospital to be tested and treated for what was feared might be cancer. It turned out to be something far less and curable. Nevertheless, the word went around that she had cancer. Her friends looked at her as though she was at death’s door, and she began to wonder if maybe she did have cancer and the doctor didn’t tell her the truth…and so forth. When that gets out of control, it’s like a room full of loose ping pong balls.

The models for Prayers of the People that we find in the Book of Common Worship(1993) call for the insertion of (first) names of the sick and sorrowing audibly, or in the silence of one’s thoughts. The eight forms shown in the BCW, and the outline for free style prayer that precedes them, are more than adequate resources for showing compassion and respective personal privacy at the same time.

Are people’s names mentioned out loud in the intercessions in your church service? Do you print names of sick and bereaved on your bulletin insert, in your newsletter? Do you have their permission first?


  1. Don

    This one is a keeper. It raises the issue of the training of a congregation. Glàucia often used the “sentence stems” approach and asked, “Are there others for whom we should pray today?” I was never present when anyone shared diagnoses, but it was an invitation that some person could have used to violate confidences . I will share this with our pastor.


  2. I mention people's full names during the "Joys and Concerns" that precedes the pastoral prayer. However, I ask for permission beforehand.

    During the prayer itself, I keep the prayer more general ("for those facing surgery, for those seeking healing, etc.") which can gather in those among the congregation who haven't shared "healing" or health issues with anyone.

  3. What a contrast from another local church (denomination) which devotes more than a full page in the bulletin for who and what. I know they don't have permission from everybody. There was another church where the minister wouldn't accept anyone's name from the congregation without first knowing "What's wrong with them?". My wife works for a doctor and yes, HIPAA is easily overlooked, but it has to be considered nevertheless.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!