How Ministry Leaders Avoid the Hard Work of Boundary Setting

We talk a lot about boundaries in our culture.

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.

Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” (Boundaries, Townsend and Cloud, pp. 29)



In fact, boundaries is one of the first things I address most often in my therapeutic work because a lack of clear and defined boundaries often leads to many problems in relationships with people. If people don’t have clear boundaries they often have a confused sense-of-self and identity.

But I feel like I’ve started to notice a trend regarding boundaries, especially in ministry circles.

The trend is this

A pastor/ministry leader/lay leader, et cetera makes a sweeping or non-negotiable statement about the boundaries they are practicing or want to practice.

Usually the statement comes from up front, preferably in front of many people as possible (Sunday worship perhaps) so as to communicate to as many people at one time the established boundary.

It may go something like this

“Because our church is so big, or because I’m so busy, I want you to know that I will NEVER personally return any emails/phone calls that you send to me. And I will NEVER meet you one on one at dinner/lunch/coffee, et cetera. I have a family and it’s a boundary that I have set in order to protect them.”

Though there are situations that this may be appropriate, it often feels like many ministry leaders do this in an attempt to avoid the difficult task of establishing healthy boundaries that can only come about in up and close relationships and interactions with other people.

Sure, it’s easier to just cut people off and avoid them.

Sure it’s easier to tell 6,000 people you will never return their emails than to have a heart to heart conversation with them about why you are setting a boundary with them regarding their emails.

It certainly helps us try and squash our own anxiety…but it certainly doesn’t lead to the relational growth that I think is necessary for not only people…but especially ministry leaders.

We only grow as people when we have to do the day in and day out hard work of being in relationship with people. We don’t grow by avoiding them or cutting them off.

I definitely think ministry leaders can do a better job of setting boundaries, but I just wonder sometimes if they avoid it because it’s such hard, ongoing work. Nothing is easier than getting up front and just delivering a boundary in front of 6,000 people. That way we can avoid the individual relational interaction and just address the big, anonymous crowd before us.

And when we do this, I wonder if we are actually avoiding the task of being a pastor.

How do you go about setting boundaries in your own life and ministry work? Any tips or suggestions?

3 Comments

  1. by Kristie Vosper on June 2, 2011  2:06 am Reply

    Wow. Such a good post Rhett. Very true. The volume of need can be so overwhelming that I know at times the easiest thing is emotional cut off. Emotional cut-off is never the healthiest way to go most of the time.

    I'm curious, in the kind of setting like the churches you describe, do you think it's also a cop-out to have an admin assistant do this dirty work, "Oh, unfortunately pastor so and so isn't available to meet with you."?

    I suppose my question is also: were we ever intended to have mega-churches if the real needs of the people can not be addressed because the volume is too large? Do you see larger churches who do meet the pastoral needs well? What do they do? I'm totally curious.

    I suppose there aren't any easy answers, but I'm wondering, what do you practically suggest for a mega-pastor to do?

    I know I struggle to keep up with my world and it's nowhere near as large.

    To answer your question, I find boundaries are hard work. They never seem to be work that is finished doing. One thing to set them, another to hold them. Just today when something was going to be planned on my day off, and I was being vocal about "um, I'd really prefer not to do that. That's my day off. With VBS in a couple of weeks I know I'll need to take care of my down time in order to be on the way I'll need to be." I felt like the crew, who were holding their own very firm boundaries, were annoyed that I would place importance on this day of Sabbath.

    As an introvert, a social one, but all the while, an introvert...I have to take good care of my boundaries. Perhaps my alarms just go off earlier than an extrovert's but I'm working hard at it. It's like laundry or email...you keep having to do the work...but you learn ways to respond that work and are thoughtful, kind, truthful and loving.

    The work of the Lord is often much more valued than His rest.

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