Understanding God-Honoring Boundaries in Ministry

Ministry is fraught with contradicting demands. Reaching people for the Kingdom, growing churches and multiplying the ministry are essential elements of implementing the Great Commission in the local church. In all of these endeavors ministers encounter people who have needs. People view ministers as caregivers and place massive demands placed upon them.Demands come from many sources:

  • spouses,children, & parents
  • staff members,deacons, orcommittees
  • the congregation
  • the denomination or even the community at large.

Not only is it physically impossible to meet all of these needs but the reality is that some of the needs are mutually exclusive.

For example, the community may see the minister as a central figure and press for greater public service. To pursue that would mean that ministry might be compromised. The church may press for more involvement or action by the minister. Doing more for the church could possibly compromise time for personal renewal as well as time for family involvement — both of which are essential for the long-term growth of the ministry. How can the minister deal with all of these demands?

The essential element in addressing this issue is found in the concept of boundaries.

What is a boundary?

A boundary is a fence line that denotes or defines where one person's space ends and another's begins. It clarifies, shapes and defines who we are and what is our sphere of control. God calls us to define healthy and balanced boundaries in order to have the best in healthy relationships and experience a greater sense of control in life.

In ministry it is easy to see ourselves as responsible for meeting all of the needs of those we serve in a 24-hour/seven-day-a-week fashion.

If we do not establish God-honoring and grace-based boundaries we will quickly deal with the issue of burnout or even compassion fatigue. Both maladies keep us from performing at peak levels and limit our ability to generate growth in our relationships and our churches.

Unrealistic demands for ministry can come from both internal and external sources.

In a larger congregation with multiple committees, a minister may perceive a demand to attend every meeting of every committee. This can create a great deal of stress, a severe time drain, and will almost guarantee that the family's needs will not be met. Even if it is not essential to attend the various meetings of the church, ministers often place that demand on themselves.

The process of boundary setting is one of a grace-based reality.

Establishing healthy boundaries means finding a place where we can be fully who we are, do what God has asked of us, and be sensitive to the needs of others and try to meet their needs in a reasonable manner.

  • We neither ignore the needs of others nor do we ignore the reality of our own.
  • We do not ignore the needs of our spouses nor do we pretend that we have no needs ourselves.
  • We neither ignore the requests of our parents nor do we act on every stated or implied suggestion.
  • We neither ignore the needs of our children nor do we give in to their every whim.

God sets limits and boundaries for us through the Ten Commandments and other scriptural directives. He also gave us the greatest example of setting boundaries well - Jesus Christ.

  • In Luke 4:22 Jesus refused to allow others to define his ministry for him.
  • In Mark 6:31 He leaves the multitude behind so he and the disciples can have some privacy. He also, in that same passage, sees the needs of the multitude that come after Him and proceeds to feed the five thousand.

God calls us to set limits that protect ourselves from being ruled and overwhelmed by the demands of others, but to also make certain that those limits do not ignore the needs or hurts of others.

Jesus healed many of the people who came to Him but He did not heal all of them. Jesus understood that if He did not take care of himself He would not be able to function over His three-year ministry. When confronted with the demands of His family, the disciples, His friends, the religious community of the day and the government He made choices that were consistent with what He understood God's will to be in keeping with that ministry.

In the conflicting demands and roles that we face as ministers we must be focused precisely the way Christ was, seeking God for His direction, wisdom and courage to do what is best and what is in keeping with His will for us and the people we serve.

By saying "no" to others we position ourselves for greater health and avoid being controlled or taken for granted by others. We regain control of our lives and cease giving that control away. We also position ourselves to be more connected with others. This is a paradox of the first order. By being able to say "no" we can be in much closer proximity to others because we do not have to fear being controlled by them. If we cannot say "no" then we have to maintain a greater distance from others for safety. This distance is often misinterpreted as lack of caring on our part.

Ministry requires us to communicate our care, love and value of others while we protect ourselves from taking responsibility for their every need or request — just as Christ did.

Barney Self, Ed. D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist.

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