• Jane insisted that the pastor visit her mother (not a member) in Hospice care every few days, even late into a Saturday night when the pastor’s sermon wasn’t yet done.  Jane was extremely picky about the memorial service, and when it was all over, there was not one word of appreciation, not one expression of gratitude for the pastor’s ministry. 
  • A visitor began attending the church, and it soon become clear that Jim had extreme emotional and physical needs.  His demands for attention bordered on abuse, sucking all the energy out of those providing pastoral care.  Realizing that they were being used, the pastor and lay caregivers finally began to say “no.”
  • Andrew was an early riser and was accustomed to calling the pastor at 6:30 a.m. to chat.  It wasn’t until the pastor’s wife began sleeping in another room that the pastor put a stop to the calls.
  • A family left the church after Jacob did not come to the hospital on his day off to be with them after a car accident seriously injured their teenage son. 

Like most pastors, I learned the hard way that no one but me can control my life.  Placing appropriate boundaries around our ministry and not over-functioning or under-functioning is one of the most challenging tasks as a pastor.  This past summer a therapist I highly respect said to me, “Laurie, if there is any book a new pastor should read, it’s Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.  It will set the stage for their ministry and give them the tools to stay healthy.”   

What are Boundaries?

A boundary is a limit – it defines who I am and who I am not.  Healthy human beings, including pastors, have good boundaries.  They know that taking care of their own life and needs is not only their responsibility, it is also good stewardship. 

Unfortunately, many Christians often confuse servanthood and discipleship with not setting limits.  The result is that we respond to any and all requests, give up control over our own schedule, and are run ragged.  Eventually, we become sick or burned-out and are forced to rest. 

On the other hand, boundaries are not rigid walls that keep people away from us.  For a pastor to refuse to respond to a critical situation simply because we’ve already put in our hours for the week can also greatly damage our ministry.  Boundaries are more like fences with gates in them.  Gates enable us to be flexible, to choose healthy interactions as well as keep out those who seek to control our lives.  In addition, gates empower us to always stay in relationship with others whether we say “yes” or “no.” 

What do the scriptures say about boundaries?

It would be easy to live without boundaries if we focused simply on Jesus’ commands to give ourselves away, go the second mile, lose our life in order to save it, and practice servanthood.  If we dig deeper, we find lots of wisdom for when to say “yes,” when to say “no,” and for taking care of self by setting limits.

  • Galatians 6:2-5 asks us to bear one another’s burdens.  “Burdens” refers to excess pressures or suffering.  Yes, we need to care for others in times of crisis.  However, a few verses later, we are told that each person must carry their own load, “load” referring to everyday tasks.  It is not healthy for us or others when we attempt to be responsible for every aspect of their lives.
  • Matthew 5:37 and James 5:12 emphasize that we need to let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.”  “Yes” is sometimes appropriate, but so is “no.”  Having the wisdom to know the difference is a mark of maturity. 
  • In Mark 6:31 Jesus and the disciples leave the desperate needs of the people and go away by themselves to relax, rest and be renewed.  Even Jesus placed boundaries around his ministry.   
  • Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 9:7 that we should give freely and not reluctantly or out of compulsion.  It is not appropriate to force others to do things they don’t want to do.  Nor should we feel pressured to say “yes” when to do so would not be healthy. 
  • Galatians 6:7-8 says that we reap what we sow.  As human beings, we are called to take responsibility for our own attitudes, resources, talents and actions.  Just as we can’t tell others what to do, nor should we blame others for our poor decisions.

The 4 types of boundary problems

  • The person who can’t say “no” because of guilt, fear of rejection, or a disconnection from one’s own desires and needs
  • The person who can’t say “yes” because of extreme narcissism or boundaries that are too rigid 
  • The person who guilt trips and controls others into saying “yes” or “no”
  • The person who needs help but avoids asking for it for fear of bothering others

Boundaries Problems in Churches

Healthy churches have boundaries.  Because churches can’t do everything, their vision and mission statements and strategic plan must define their limits.  Unfortunately, many churches haven’t yet figured out how to say “yes” to good decision-making and “no” to individual and collective bad behavior.     

  • Churches live beyond their means.  They overbuild and cannot pay their mortgage or run a deficit and decide that ministry shares are expendable.  They do not act responsibly, then expect that the conference or someone else to bail them out.
  • Lay Leadership Committees do not prayerfully recommend emotionally, mentally, and spiritually healthy people for positions of leadership, thus setting churches up for conflict. 
  • Churches that see boundaries as walls rather than gates refuse to change and then wonder why they are not growing.
  • Churches expend all of their time developing programs to serve themselves, then wonder why there is no energy left to reach out in mission to the community.  
  • Churches neglect to practice good communication skills and allow certain people to cross boundaries and hold the church hostage by their dysfunctional behavior.
  • Churches become experts at guilt-tripping others into filling empty slots.  Arm twisting does not ultimately work because people are resentful even as they serve reluctantly. 

The heart of Advent is contained in the prophet Isaiah’s plea in chapter 64:1, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  The course of our world changed when God decided that the boundary separating God and humans needed to be transformed from a wall to a gate.  Jesus even referred to himself as a gate in John 10:9, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”  In Jesus we not only experience the essence of God’s character and claim the promise of salvation, but we are also empowered to take control of our own life after the example of Christ.   

There may be no more important time than Advent think about boundaries as we to attempt to set appropriate limits around our gift-giving and Christmas celebrations.  Here are a few simple suggestions:

  1. Realize that you are not responsible “for” others but “to” others.
  2. Understand your motivations.  Take time to think and consult before saying “yes” or “no.”
  3. Since Christmas is a family time, look at your own family history and how you developed certain patterns of behavior and decision-making.
  4. Stay connected with others, especially if you have to say “no.”  Keep the gate open!
  5. Reread Boundaries or put it on your Christmas list: it will provide the foundation for a healthy life in 2010.


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