Getting the job done

Several years ago, when the founding pastor of our church retired, he appointed a search committee of six members, myself included. He warned how anxious people might pry us for information, and wisely insisted that we keep our proceedings absolutely confidential until we were ready to formally announce a candidate.

Sure enough, I was approached on a Sunday morning by a church member who wanted to know the names of people we were considering. When I refused to tell him, he became exasperated. “Why?” he demanded.

“Because,” I replied, “if I give you names, you’re going to go home and Google them. You’ll find their churches. You’ll call the people you know who live in those communities and quiz them. You’ll tell them not to breathe a word to anyone else — but word will leak to the candidates’ congregations anyway. And when they hear that their pastors are considering leaving, that will be bad for everyone, including us.”

It was more of an answer than he was expecting. He stood there for a few moments, expressionless and blinking, then let out a sigh. “Yeah,” he admitted. “That could happen.”

Last Thursday, I wrote about personal boundaries for pastors. Before that, I wrote more generally about boundaries for Christians. Both of those posts assumed an understanding of “boundaries” popularized by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, drawing on a theory of how the self develops in childhood. Babies aren’t born knowing a clear boundary between self and others. They only learn this gradually. And what they learn depends on how they’re treated by their caretakers.

Imagine little Susie shouting “No!” when her parents try to get her to do something. This is, of course, what toddlers do. It’s a normal part of their development.

But how will her parents respond? Will they get angry and punish her verbally or physically? If this happens consistently, she may learn not only that it’s dangerous to say no, but that she has no right to say no, no right to make her own wishes known. She may grow up to be someone who must say yes, because she fears saying no, even when it would be appropriate to do so.

That’s the personal side of the importance of boundaries.

But there’s an organizational side, too. In family therapy, the word “boundaries” means something different. It begins with the idea that there are smaller groups within larger groups, and these subgroups have specific jobs to do. In a family, adults have parental roles and responsibilities that the children don’t. They might, for example, ask the kids what they want to eat before going shopping, but it’s still the adults who pay for the groceries and decide which ones to buy. In a church, there may be subgroups like search committees. They too have specific responsibilities that others do not.

Here, “boundaries” refers to the rules defining who belongs in each group — and therefore who has the corresponding roles and responsibilities. Imagine what would happen in a family if the kids insisted it was their role to make up the grocery list, and the parents felt powerless to say no. Imagine what would happen if the pastoral search committee freely named names. In effect, the entire congregation would become the search committee — and, well, you know where that would go.

Clear boundaries are needed. Who decides the grocery list, and who doesn’t? Who’s on the committee, and who isn’t? That’s not to say that the parents or the search committee sequester themselves. They’re still open to input, but without anxiously spreading responsibility to others.

That’s how the job gets done.

If you’re a pastor, you’ve probably already seen the problem of poor boundaries in your congregation. Some group is given a ministry responsibility. How clearly do people understand who’s part of that group and who isn’t? The group might guard their boundaries too tightly, closing themselves off and refusing to listen to anyone else. Or they might let everyone in, refusing to take responsibility for the task they’ve been given. Either way, chances are that the job won’t get done, or get done in a way that doesn’t stir up conflict and resentment.

And here is where we circle back to the question of your own boundaries. It’s not just a matter of your well-being as an individual. You need proper boundaries to do your job.

The same could be said about the boundary between the ministry and your family. More about that in next Thursday’s post.