Boundaries and the pastor’s family

A pastor’s kid was misbehaving at church. At least that’s what the angry church member claimed. The man hauled the kid aside and lectured him, then marched him to the pastor between services, demanding that something be done.

The pastor wasted no time. When the next service began, he made an impassioned announcement from the pulpit. The essence of the message was this: These are my kids. They are my responsibility. If you have something to tell me about them, fine. But it’s my job to raise them and discipline them. Not yours.

When he finished, there was silence.

And then, thunderous applause.

As a pastor, you’ve signed on for a lifetime of public scrutiny. People want to know if you practice what you preach, and have plenty of ideas about what you should or shouldn’t do.

Congregations can be loving and supportive. But they can also be curious and intrusive. If you’re not married, you have to deal with the rumor and gossip mill if you dare to date. If you’re married, your spouse and children will be subject to the congregation’s expectations of them, and your marriage and parenting skills will subject to examination.

Pastors’ families experience intrusions of all kinds, some innocent or well-meaning, from the congregations they serve. Family meals at restaurants may be interrupted by people who at first just want to say hello — and then the greeting turns into a longer conversation. Family time at home can easily be short-circuited by a phone call. I’ve had male pastors tell me of their wives being followed in the grocery store to see how the pastor’s salary — the congregation’s money — was being spent.

And families who live in parsonages? It would be nice if they could count on the same kind of privacy that everyone else takes for granted. But they’re living on church property. Family members never know when someone will suddenly show up with a crisis, or tell them to turn off the porch light and stop wasting the church’s electricity, or enter the house without warning to do maintenance or construction, or look in the family’s closets.

In case you’re wondering: no, I’m not making this stuff up.

In last Thursday’s post, I described an organizational understanding of the word “boundaries.” Groups have roles and responsibilities that are specific to them. If it’s not clear who’s part of the group and who isn’t, the group will find it difficult to do their job well. If they make the boundary around them too rigid, they’ll close themselves off from the input they need to make good decisions. If they make it too loose, they’ll be unable to stop taking input and may be anxious about making any decision.

Similarly, families have a job to do. Spouses need to do the work of marriage, being open, honest, and loving regarding their own shortcomings and each other’s. But it’s harder for ministry marriages when they’re constantly under the microscope, when spouses feel the pressure to keep up appearances. Couples need to build intimacy and a deep sense of unity. But it’s harder to do that when the spouses are being pulled in multiple directions by ministry commitments.

Parents need to parent. They need to create a home that’s safe, where kids know that they’re loved and valued no matter what. But PKs live under the microscope too. It’s harder to feel safe when the adults in the congregation think they have the responsibility — the right! — to single out PKs for special correction.

Pastors, please be careful about using your family as sermon fodder. Family stories from the pulpit are often good for a laugh or making you seem like a normal person. But there can be hidden costs involved. It’s one thing to talk about your own foibles; it’s another to talk about someone else’s, especially without their knowledge or permission. It erodes trust. It makes your spouse and kids have to be more careful around you, lest their latest gaffe be broadcast to the congregation.

And don’t assume that it’s all okay if you just limit yourself to funny or cute stories. What teenage PK wants their friends laughing about how cute they are? Bottom line: if you’re not sure, ask — and listen to the answer. Your family needs to know that your loyalty is to them first. That’s one way to maintain clear boundaries between the family and the congregation.

Boundaries aren’t just about saying no for personal reasons. They’re about making sure that people have the freedom to do what they are responsible to do, without undue meddling or interference.

So take the time to figure out what your marriage needs, what your children need. Set boundaries accordingly, and help your congregation understand why. Maybe, just maybe, their own families will be the better for it too.