Guarding boundaries: Not a one-way street

April 20, 2022
Boundaries training courses are ubiquitous for pastors in the mainline traditions. For many these courses are required as a milestone to ordination. Such training may be revisited every few years for in-service pastors to maintain standing with a denomination. The message is clear: pastors are to understand and maintain healthy boundaries, including appropriate relationships with congregants and work-life boundaries that include sufficient time to rest and restore. But what is the role of the church in maintaining the boundaries? How do churches understand and support the needs of pastors in maintaining appropriate relationships with congregants and taking appropriate care of the self?

The metaphor of boundaries is especially powerful as, globally, countries face strife in boundary maintenance. Currently in Ukraine we see vivid illustrations of pushed boundaries. The wounds of war, the damaged homes, the hurt children, the struggle of the people to hold on to what belongs to them are visible. We see what happens when one entity does not respect the boundaries of others in brutally obvious ways. And we know that it wasn’t simply a matter of Ukraine not making its boundaries clear. Their neighboring countries also bear responsibility for maintaining boundaries.

The consequences of poor boundary maintenance in clergy/church relationships may not be as obvious to the naked eye as they are in a war. The effects, though, can be as personally devastating as living through violence. Relationships can be broken; physical health suffers; children receive collateral wounds from the parent whose boundaries have been violated. Psychologists recognize that boundary challenges in work life can result in ethically poor decisions, some of which may end careers.[i]

Healthy boundaries are essential to maintaining not only clergy health but church health. Clergy who are happy and healthy are more likely to serve with longevity and lead churches with ethical clarity.

Clergy receive regular reminders of the devastating potential of repeatedly broken boundaries. But boundary maintenance is a two-way street or, perhaps, a potentially problematic intersection of many streets. Church members, who exist on the other side of the boundary, also bear responsibility for maintaining the line. However, no regular training for congregants and church committee members exists (if it does, it is exceedingly rare, buried in the internet search results of pastoral and counselor boundaries training courses). The time to consider the role of congregations in maintaining healthy pastoral relationships has come. Just as one country is expected to respect established boundaries and not invade another country, churchgoers may need gentle reminding not to invade a pastor’s (and pastor’s family’s) boundaries. (This is especially important when considering the growing trend of bi-vocational ministry. For this group of ministers, schedules are more complex, making time for Sabbath rest more difficult to establish.)

So, what can church members do to help clergy maintain healthy boundaries? Healthy boundaries are easier to maintain if they are mutually observed.

Encourage (perhaps insist) that your clergy member schedule a day off every week. Ensure that this day off is known, observed, and respected. Consider providing two days off per week if one day off is established practice in your faith community.

If your pastor is bi-vocational (holds an additional job or two), respect that the other workday bear differing and additional stresses and challenges.

Challenge traditional viewpoints about clergy being “on-call” 24/7. While some after-hours calls may always be necessary, these should be limited to true emergencies. Establish and publish acceptable hours to call.

Identify lay leaders within the church who can help fill the gaps. Who else can be available to pray with a family on the pastor’s day off? Who might be able to visit a person in need while the pastor is on vacation?

Gently reset congregational expectations regarding pastor and pastor’s family time, availability, and committment. For example, clergy spouses and children may not be as interested or available in being involved in church life as in past generations. They are not extensions of the pastor, nor should they be treated as such.

Work to understand and respect that friendship with clergy members is always informed by the clergy-congregant relationship first. Friendship is best when it does not further erode boundaries.

Consider incorporating a brief, gentle boundaries training for boards and committees as part of the church culture. Establishing good boundaries practice among lay leaders can help shift the congregational culture.

Healthy boundaries are essential to maintaining not only clergy health but church health. Clergy who are happy and healthy are more likely to serve with longevity and lead churches with ethical clarity. Recognizing that healthy boundaries need to be guarded by all sides is important to the continual health of the church.

Rachael Lawrence, PhD, is senior editor, Judson Press. She is also a classical musician.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Crisp-Han, G. O. Gabbard, and M. Martinez. “Professional Boundary Violations and Mentalizing in the Clergy,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 65, nos. 3–4 (Fall–Winter 2011): 1–11, doi.10.1177/154230501106500307; and E. Wayne Hill, Carol Anderson Darling, and Nikki M. Raimondi, “Understanding Boundary-Related Stress in Clergy Families,” Marriage & Family Review 35, nos. 1–2 (2003): 147–66, doi.10.1300/J002v35n01_09.


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