But First, Read This

Setting Boundaries: a must to survive in the ministry

by Rev. Frank Schaefer

Boundaries are hard to set and maintain--especially in the ministry. Listen to the (familiar?) words a clergy colleague had to digest after he decided to call on his pastoral relations committee for help on setting boundaries around his work-time schedule:

"What happened was completely unexpected -- at least by me! After I made my presentation I paused to await the reactions of the pastoral relations committee members.

Four people spoke up right away and their comments nearly overwhelmed me. The first person to speak was the lay leader of the congregation. She said to me, "Well, Larry, if you can't do the job, you're still young enough to get a job in counseling!" (She knew that I had a degree in counseling.)

Then the lay member to the annual conference spoke up and asked me; "Well, pastor, what did you expect when you came into ministry?" Then a third lady responded, "I know pastors who do more than that." (i.e. work more than sixty-two hours per week)

Finally, an older man spoke up and said, "I raised cattle for thirty years and I never had a day off." [1]

This same clergy colleague comes to the following conclusion on setting and maintaining boundaries in the parish ministry:

The issue is boundaries and if one does not have them when first hired or appointed as a pastor it can be very difficult to reestablish them once they've been violated. That includes the use of our time and space and sometimes even the use of our spouse's time. Of course, there are some of us, like me, who make it difficult to set limits for ourselves because we are workaholics. We will find all kinds of excuses to go to the office "for just a few minutes" even on our day(s) off. [2]

The problem is that ministers face a vast number of boundary issues--perhaps more so than any other professionals. In most religious communities the leader takes on a role larger than life when it comes to ethical, spiritual, and even family value issues. In the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, the priest is often viewed as "being married" to the church. A priest's life is to some degree expected to be public. Similarly, a Protestant minister is also expected to live a highly transparent life--to set an example for others to see and follow in the local community.

It is easy to see how such expectations of a "public life" can challenge any boundaries that a minister attempts to set or maintain. It may also explain the great number of boundary issues clergy are faced with.

It may be helpful to identify a few boundaries ministers need to have in place:

  • Theological boundaries--ministry should be done with theological integrity; sometimes, ministers may feel obliged to compromise their theology; e.g. in performing controversial marriages; "private" baptisms, Christian funeral services for non-religious people, etc.)
  • Ethical boundaries--issues concerning morality and values-- ministry should be done with integrity; e.g. a minister may feel pressured to compromise on ethical convictions by tolerating poor (if not illegal) church business practice for the "survival" of the local church, etc.)
  • Personal boundaries--private sphere may be violated; personal space needs to be created by finding spaces away from the ministry; this is especially true for clergy living in parsonages connected to the church)
  • Family boundaries--this is an often overlooked personal boundary. Ministers must be very intentional to draw boundaries around their families. Too often is the privacy of clergy families violated. In many congregations, there are still high expectations on clergy spouses and other family members.
  • Spiritual boundaries--It is absolutely essential that leaders in ministry block time out for times of spiritual refreshment. Even Jesus got away from his ministry for this purpose.
  • Economic boundaries--it's easy to get persuaded into making economic sacrifices in the ministry. For example: many clergy are expected to forgo in a "spirit of modesty" an adequate pension plan or other equity-building alternatives.
  • Professional Boundaries--there is of course a code of professional ethics every clergy person should be morally committed to. These boundaries may vary from denomination to denomination, or even from local church to local church.

Tackling Boundaries--A Few Helpful Tips:

The Twelve "Unit" Schedule for Pastors:

Some churches are following a guideline with regard to their pastor's work week. For a full-time pastor, the normal working week should have twelve--a unit being a morning, an afternoon or an evening. Twelve units equal roughly 42 hours per week (if you assume 3.5 hours per unit).

If this kind of boundary is adopted by a local congregation, it can be very beneficial for both pastor and congregation. In his thoughts on the "unit" schedule for pastors, Larry LaPierre adds an important aspect: "It can be especially helpful to have a list of duties with approximate amounts of time to be devoted to each task as a guide for both the pastor and the congregation." [3]

Setting Boundaries of a "Pastoral" Kind:

In a recent interview, Bill Easum reminds us of how important it is for ministers to set a clear boundary on their calling. It is very easy to be bogged down with the pressing tasks of administration, visitation, or even" janitorial" tasks in the church ministry while loosing one's pastoral vision and direction. He says:

[Pastors] are called to preach and bring people to Christ. They are to make a difference in the world. They aren’t called to be nursemaids to people who are never going to grow up. Over a period of time, I have seen pastor after pastor lose his or her edge and give in to people’s demands that he or she take care of them. That’s what I mean by returning to the initial call—where it became clear what God wanted you to do—and you went out and believed you could change the world. That’s what we’ve got to return to. [4]

Setting boundaries in the ministry should probably be viewed as a long-term project. It is a matter of raising awareness and educating laity over a long period of time. Eventually, however, such endeavor should produce advocates for the minister and her/his family. The first step, of course, is that the clergy person becomes aware of the significance of boundaries in their ministry. The following list of questions may be helpful in this challenge:

As You think About Boundaries Consider the following Questions:

  • Is there someone else who could do a better job of completing the task I am working on right now?
  • Am I trying to be too many things to too many people? Remember that there was only one Messiah and He died and rose again 2,000 years ago. You are not him.
  • When was the last time I spent quality time with my spouse and/or children? Am I maintaining a dating relationship with my spouse? Am I involved in my kids' lives? Am I having fun with them? Do they enjoy the fact that I am their dad or mom?
  • Am I involved in an equipping ministry so that others in the church body are being given an opportunity to exercise their gifts and talents? Am I training and preparing others to share the work of the Lord in this place? We realize there is no ideal situation, but according to Ephesians 4, one of the key roles of a pastor is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.
  • Is my life a total outflow? We should all be immersed in ministry, but even Jesus took regular breaks to rest and reflect.
  • When was the last time I took some vacation time? A weekend off? A sabbatical?
  • Am I making time to have regular exercise? Am I taking care of myself physically? Take a walk. Make a healthy habit of doing things that help you relax and unwind.
  • Am I learning how to say 'no'? We cannot do everything asked of us. We need to stay close to the Lord so that we can discern how He wants us to most effectively spend each of our days.
  • Am I expecting to see my pastoral goals reached too soon? God wants us to dream and plan, but sometimes the key stress in ministry that causes boundary breakdown is being impatient with God's timing when we are trying to change, adjust or refine a program in the church. [5]

This article was originally posted at DesparatePreacher.com.

[1] Larry LaPierre in Limits and Boundaries to Protect the Pastor

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] Bill Easum in How do I define boundaries in my ministry? How do I define boundaries in my ministry?

[5] Focus on the Family in The Parsonage.org

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