Where I End and You Begin - Clergy Boundaries

How are your boundaries?

Good? Weak? Depends on the day?

I had a professor in seminary who shared with students over and over again the importance of boundaries in life and in ministry. And he is right. Except my experience in our society, in our churches, and even in our circles of friends and family, is many don’t understand boundaries.

At their most basic level, personal boundaries are where I begin and you end. I am responsible for my thoughts and feelings. You are responsible for yours. My feelings are not for you to change, manipulate, or take responsibility. Same for your feelings.

Good boundaries make good relationships. Good boundaries certainly make for good pastoral relationships and are a must for these interactions. Good boundaries remind me that I am not responsible for another’s happiness or emotional well-being (something many clergy forget at times).

The challenge, however, is while we all may nod in agreement with the idea of boundaries, the day to day implementation of them is a bit more challenging. So, what are some ideas about having good boundaries? 

1.  Recognize boundaries as ways to care for yourself. Sometimes the word ‘boundary’ isn’t helpful because it’s been used so much we no longer hear it. My spiritual director asked me to list the top 3 things boundaries did. My top one: they helped me care for myself. Your top 3 may be slightly different. But putting some meat on the bones of the concept helped me clarify why boundaries were important for me, what ways I needed to care for myself…and what ways I’d not been caring for myself in my interactions with others. We all have a right to boundaries; they are not something others give us permission to have or not to have. Setting boundaries is a way we follow God’s commandment to love our neighbors and ourselves. 

2.  Work with a spiritual director and/or therapist. Regularly. Have someone who has a healthy distance from you personally who can give you perspective and help you recognize patterns, who can ask the difficult questions, and who can help you take care of yourself. These professionals can help us recognize our limits, when our limits have been ignored, and what we can do to prevent these repeats.   

3.  Pay attention to your feelings. We often initially don’t have an intellectual reason as to why someone’s actions trouble us, but we have the feeling. Feelings our are canary in the coal mine of our souls. These feelings often live in the neighborhood of discomfort or mild anger when our boundaries are being ignored. Too often we bury those feelings or tell ourselves to get over them. Don’t. Heed the messages they are sending, that something is occurring that isn’t honoring you and your limits. Reflect on what is (has) happening, what actions led up to the moment, and how you can respond to the situation next time.

4.  Be clear with your boundaries. Yes, I know. This is so much easier said than done. But how many of us have taken the time to reflect on what our boundaries are in tangible ways? What physical boundaries feel comfortable - do you feel comfortable only shaking hands with congregants, or are you also comfortable with appropriate hugs? Do you leave your office unlocked or do you prefer it locked (or home - I’ve heard numerous accounts of churches who demanded the pastor leave his/her home unlocked)? Do you regularly meet members for meals or coffee or do you feel more comfortable with pastoral meetings in your office only? Are you okay with members having your personal phone number and using it? How do you interact with members on social media? What parts of your personal life, if any, do you consider appropriate to share with others? These are only a small portion of the questions that clergy need to address in our interactions with members. Only when we are clear with our boundaries can we communicate them to others.   

5.  Recognize the way we interact with others changes as we change. One of the more challenging truths about boundaries is their malleability. Healthy boundaries change. They change as we change. We have different boundaries with different relationships. My boundaries with my family, my friends, and my congregants are different…and should be. Boundaries we have with members while we are their pastor change when we are no longer their pastor. Boundaries with members can change as we walk with them through difficult times. The boundaries we have with friends changes as we discover and trust the relationship. Setting boundaries is often a grace-filled act of give and take. With boundaries, patience and kindness as we negotiate our relationships with each other is paramount. 

6.  Other people do not get to define your boundaries. Nor do we get to define another’s boundaries. Negotiating boundaries is not telling another that his/her boundary isn’t right, but instead reflecting on the boundary and why it may feel uncomfortable to us (therapists are helpful for this work). Negotiation does not mean we capitulate to someone’s demands. Boundaries are ways we protect our selves and souls. We all have places too sensitive for all but the gentlest touch. When someone lets me know I’ve come too close to a wounded place, a loving response from me is not to say, “Oh, you don’t hurt and I’m going to continue to injure you because I want to,” but instead to believe each person knows his/her self and soul and acknowledge I’ve come too close - “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize that hurt you. I won’t do it again.” 

7.  Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. One of the more important moments of holy boundary setting is the Sabbath, the recognition that we need time to drop the walls around us and give ourselves time to rest, recharge, and refocus on a regular (hopefully weekly) basis. During my Sabbath time (and vacation and retreat time are Sabbath time, as well), I don’t check work email, respond to communication from parishioners (except in emergencies), or do work. I do things I find life-giving and enjoy. I connect with friends. I breathe deeply so I am better able to do the work of ministry.

Those are a few of my thoughts. What experiences of creating and maintaining good boundaries do you have in your ministry?


Popular Posts