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04 Dec 2016

4 Helpful Tips on Writing Better Pastoral Reference Letters

Raul Rivera

Being a pastor is a trusted and honored profession. 

As a pastor, you touch many lives and have a strong impact on the people who enter through your church doors. Because of this, what you say and how you say it matters. 

When you are called upon to recommend the people with whom you have worked and served, your word is taken seriously. One of the most common instances in which you will be asked to recommend an individual is with a reference letter.

You know both the good and the “not-so-good” side of many individuals in your church. When writing a reference letter, you are speaking on behalf of someone’s character in a situation that will affect his/her life.

How exactly should you respond? Are there limitations and parameters that you need to be aware of as a pastor? How much information can you share? 

These are all important questions, and you should be familiar with the answers before responding to your next request for a reference letter.

The importance of pastoral reference letters

Your reference letter can impact whether or not someone gets a job offer. Employers want to know if the job candidate has the following traits: (1) a team player mentality, (2) the skills needed for the open position, (3) the character needed to work with integrity, and (4) a personality that fits the culture of the company.

Get 112 Pastoral Letter Templates Today!

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There are also times when you may be asked to submit a reference letter for a married couple in your church looking to adopt a child or become foster parents. 

What do you need to know when writing a reference letter? Next, we will take a look at a couple of key matters.

Legal implications of a reference letter

Individuals are quick to reveal their struggles to you as a pastor. You often learn of unflattering things about people that are told to you in confidence. Therefore, there are two key matters for you to consider when writing a reference letter.

1. Understand the clergy-penitent privilege

The degree of understanding the clergy-penitent privilege varies among people. In short, the clergy-penitent privilege is the protection of the communication between you, as a pastor, and individuals in your church.

Does this mean that all communication between clergy and an individual is covered by the clergy-penitent privilege? No, not exactly.

There are some requirements that must be met in order for the communication between a pastor and a congregant to be covered by the clergy-penitent privilege. Those requirements are as follows:

  • The communication must be made in confidence.
  • The communication must be made to a minister.
  • The communication must be made for the purpose of seeking spiritual counsel.

Know that your state has some version of the clergy-penitent privilege. Although the underlying purpose is essentially the same, you should become familiar with the clergy-penitent privilege statute in your state.

Be careful not to violate the clergy-penitent privilege in your reference letters. If you question whether or not a reference letter that you wrote is in violation of the clergy-penitent privilege, we recommend that you seek the guidance of a qualified attorney in your area before sending the letter.

(Recommended reading: “Are You a Mandated Reporter? What Every Minister Should Know”)

2. Avoid defamation

There will be instances when you are asked to write a reference letter for someone whom you may not like that much. In order to maintain the integrity of your word, it is important to provide an objective view of that person’s strengths and weaknesses. To disclose something about someone simply because you do not like him/her, can be construed as defamation. 

According to LAW.COM, defamation is “the act of making untrue statements about another, which damages his/her reputation.” In essence, defamation is a catch-all term for any comment, remark, or statement that harms someone’s reputation. Defamation may be false, written statements (libel) or false, spoken statements (slander).

"As a pastor, there are two key matters for you to consider when writing a reference letter."

At times, as a pastor, you have to deal with an individual in your church whose actions are troublesome and may not align with your church’s standards. The best way to avoid defamation is to write your letter with an objective explanation of both the positive and negative traits of that person. 

(Recommended reading: “5 Effective Ways to Help Avoid Defamation”)

Tips for writing pastoral reference letters

To protect the integrity of yourself and your ministry, let us review four tips to create the finest reference letter possible.

1. Create an ongoing review process of employee performance that can validate your references.

To help protect against the possibility of defamation, you can create an ongoing review process where your employees are evaluated and trained to fine tune their strengths and improve their weak areas. This program will serve a two-fold purpose.

First, having an ongoing review process for employees with measured goals for growth will help you to develop and train your staff.

Second, if an employee has an issue with character or a skill that caused problems in your organization, then you will have documented proof of it, which can serve helpful should he/she become upset with an unfavorable reference.

(Recommended reading: "How to Hire Church Employees the Right Way; Part 1")

2. Know your state’s mandatory reporting laws.

It is important to note that the clergy-penitent privilege laws do not apply to issues of child abuse in many states. There may be instances when you are asked to write a reference letter (e.g. for adoptive parents or foster parents) and you feel it would be necessary to disclose such information. Should that ever be the case, it would be best practice to seek the advice and guidance of a qualified attorney in your state.

"Being a pastor is a trusted and honored profession."

3. Be careful not to violate the clergy-penitent privilege.

Where possible, protect the private counseling sessions that you have had with all individuals. Issues with employees discussed openly regarding their performance are not considered part of the clergy-penitent privilege. However, issues shared by an employee or volunteer that meet the criteria of a conversation covered by this privilege are protected. Violating that confidence could cause legal liabilities for your church.

(Recommended reading: "How to Hire Church Employees the Right Way; Part 2")

4. Remain objective and respectful in what you share.

It is helpful to always remain respectful in any reference letters that you write. Stay objective in your description of what the individual has to offer. Relying on information from review processes of church employees can support the claim that an employee is excellent and boost the standard of your referral. Likewise, it can allow you to remain honest when an employee may not be the best fit for a particular employment position.

Some help along the way

We realize that as a pastor you are often wearing many different hats. Your attention is being pulled in multiple directions and, at times, it can be too much. 

StartCHURCH exists to help alleviate some of the load on your shoulders. That is the reason behind our servicesproducts, and Ultimate Church Structure Conference

One resource to help you with the task of writing letters is our Pastoral Letters Applet. This invaluable resource will provide you with 112 different letter templates to help you along the way. 

Get 112 Pastoral Letter Templates Today!

Click Here

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Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Raul Rivera

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About the Author

Church Planter. Speaker. Author. CEO. Raul Rivera has had ample experience in the church planting world. His current venture, StartCHURCH, has helped 1000's of churches to start right. Raul has compiled an array of manuals and software tools that help churches stay compliant with the IRS. He also hosts over 35 national conferences per year, training pastors on how to launch their churches. Raul is married to his wife Genel, and they and their five children live in Atlanta, GA.