Is it OK for pastors to have “boundaries”?

Sometimes, ministry can bring incomparable joy. You’ve felt it, haven’t you? There are those moments when everything comes together. You were in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time — and God used you to accomplish his will. It feels like confirmation of your vocation: Yes, this is where I belong. Yes, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

And then there’s the other side: the times when you’re just trying to keep up with the demands of the role and you’re not sure what else, if anything, is getting accomplished. You wear so many hats. Preacher and liturgist — those are the roles most obvious to everyone else, and some people think that’s all you do. But others also expect you to be a wise counselor; you try to be warm and encouraging as you listen, even when you’re thinking to yourself that you’re in way over your head. Help, God — what do I say next?

Then there are all the administrative roles you play behind the scenes, particularly if you’re in a small congregation with limited staff. You manage personnel, budgets, maybe even a website.

And for some strange reason, you’re the only one who seems to remember where the plunger is kept.

Here’s the thing: you can’t do it all, nor should you. Trying to do everything — and do it to your own and others’ lofty level of expectations — will take its toll on your body, your spirit, and your family. You will, at some point, need to say no and embrace the fact that some limits and boundaries are valid and necessary.

I know that the very idea of establishing boundaries can be a bit controversial, because to some, it sounds like the opposite of the Christian ideal of sacrificial service. If that’s your concern, please see the earlier post I wrote on the subject, which you can access here. Suffice it to say that saying yes or no to others’ expectations is not inherently virtuous in itself; what matters is saying yes or no for the right reasons. To always say yes to the demands of a congregation because you don’t want to deal with the hassle that follows isn’t true self-sacrifice, not of the kind that put Jesus on the cross.

So what are the “right reasons” for saying no? It can’t just be a matter of personal preference: I like doing this, but don’t like doing that. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that our likes and dislikes are entirely irrelevant (especially when we dress them up in Christian-speak and say, “That’s not my gift”). But they cannot be the foundation of how the church goes about its business and its life together.

The right reasons have to do with ecclesiology, with your understanding of what it means to be the church in general and how that applies specifically to your congregation and its mission. Obviously, the decisions you make affect the life of the congregation. At one level, that means that if you let yourself become depleted and burned out, you won’t be able to fulfill your proper role in the body, and the body will suffer. Who wants a burned out preacher in the pulpit?

But the matter goes deeper than that. Ask yourself honestly and prayerfully: does your yes to others’ demands make it easier or harder for them to say yes to their proper role in the church? Does your attempt to set a spiritual example encourage their spiritual growth, or do you suspect that they’re happy letting you be the spiritual one?

Sometimes, you have to set limits for the sake of your own health and sanity, or that of your family. We’re going on vacation; please don’t call us unless it’s a real emergency. And here’s the plunger, in case you need it.

Even better, however, is to set limits in a way that furthers a right ecclesiology: help people understand why it matters to the life of the church. I’m reminded here of the conversation Eugene Peterson once had with his congregation over the matter of Sabbath rest. He could simply have asserted his own personal boundaries: “I need my Sabbath, so please don’t bother me on Monday.” But he went further. “I believe it’s my job to help you enjoy Sabbath,” he told them. “And in order for me to do that, I need your help — I need you to help me enjoy Sabbath.”

They got it.

So by all means, know your limits and set appropriate boundaries. But more than this, help people understand why, in a way that encourages them to take their proper place in the body.

And if it helps, I’ll give you another way to think about boundaries in next Thursday’s post.