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Crossing the Line

Boundaries protect both church leaders and parishioners

Jody has always enjoyed serving others. But lately life has become a little too stressful, and she finds herself scattered and tired in all parts of life: with her children, her husband, and her staff and congregants. She begins to ask herself, “I’m always helping others, does anyone care about me?” Being a self-sufficient kind of person, she is taken aback one day when after an elders meeting, Betty, a long-standing elder, takes her aside and comments on how tired she looks. “Is everything ok?” asks Betty. To Jody’s amazement, a gush of words and emotion pour out. Betty listens.

John is a youth leader and has been a “superstar” his entire life. He recently participated in a workshop on boundaries and left feeling that it was a waste of his time. “More rules and regulations, just what we need. Another opportunity to be lectured on the professional side of ministry,” he thinks to himself. “I know how to read people; how much grey area can there be anyway?” John ascribes to a model of ministry that has less structure and more friendship. “That’s what kids need today!” John takes out his phone to catch up on his Facebook account where he saw 100 of his youth group kids had commented on a post he wrote. “They know I’m their friend,” he thinks, “especially those who have very few friends.”

These scenarios may seem harmless to some; others may cringe. Still others may wonder exactly where the line is–how much should Jody be sharing? Should Betty feel like she has to listen to things she may not have anticipated? How close is too close for John and his youth group? Do they all need more obvious boundaries? How do you establish boundaries anyway? 

When I was in ministry, many people advised me on how to relate and minister to the people I served. Some said walk closely beside them like a friend would, while others said to keep a safe professional distance and never become too close. I struggled to know which approach to take, and without consciously knowing it, I did both. I was 21 when I began my ministry and I watched my colleagues struggle with finding the balance between these two approaches. Volunteers and staff in churches continue to face the same choices. We need to create spaces where everyone feels safe, and we need to create ongoing formation programs that contribute to a healthier church environment. We all have needs and are not always sure how to get our needs met. How do we know when we’ve gone too far? 
Dr. Brené Brown, author and researcher at the University of Houston, has done extensive research in the area of boundaries. In a YouTube video she asks, “What boundaries need to be in place for me to stay in my integrity and make the most generous assumptions about you?” Her question points to the fact that boundaries actually benefit both me and you, and they need to be set for all of us, all the time. Boundaries should be proactive, not just when something has gone wrong or as an afterthought.

The latest research by Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, Director of the Faith Trust Institute, supports this idea. In her course, Healthy Boundaries 201: Beyond Basics, she offers an interesting perspective on sometimes subtle boundary differences: Boundary crossings are ordinary occurrences like reaching out to offer a healing touch or communicating through words. Boundary violations do not consider the other person and can result in harm. We, therefore, need to reflect on the purpose of crossing a boundary and in whose interest we do it. This is the starting point, but we cannot stop here. We need to ask ourselves some questions: What power dynamics are at play in our relationships with one another and how can we use them for good (and how might they harm others without us even realizing it)? What do we need to be aware of inside ourselves that could cause a boundary violation to occur? What healthy boundaries do we need to have in place in order to maintain the integrity of the ministerial relationship and to protect all people within our community?        

Life can be messy, and it is in the messiness of life where we meet people and minister to them. It is for this reason that we all need boundaries; they are an essential part of life and ministry for us all. I invite you to work towards creating a healthier church culture, to engage in conversation, and to offer a sign of hope to those who are most in need.  

  • Marg has been a consultant with Credence and Co. since 2015. She comes alongside churches, organizations and their leaders as they work through conflict, change and renewal. Marg has extensive experience in ministry and social services. She lives in Stratford, Ont., with her husband and two children.

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