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Five Healthy Boundaries in Ministry

Few jobs bring more satisfaction than serving others in ministries that bring glory to God. Words of advice from experienced leaders can empower those who are just getting started in those ministries.

For my husband and me, the longer we served overseas, the more we enjoyed our work. Nothing compares to doing life in another culture. Yet, we could not have made it without the guidance of those who had already been serving there.

We remember their words of wisdom. Some told us not to spend all of our money on imported peaches but rather to learn to eat the local food. They also recommended putting a fan in the bathroom in our hot, humid climate. This intrigued us but made more sense as time went on. We needed to learn to relax in our new culture if we wanted to last for the long term. We needed to listen.

In the online course, Spiritual Formation as a Leader, Dr. Noel Forlini talks about how we must come to God with our weaknesses, not trying to do everything ourselves. 

She says, “The love of Jesus finds us at the end of all our striving to heal ourselves.”

Dr. Forlini also reminds us, “So it requires that we stop wrestling and begin to embrace God, and let God embrace us.” Here are five healthy ways to stop wrestling and begin setting boundaries in ministry.

Establish the “why” in ministry, and check the agenda against that why. When we know our why, we can limit our time on things that don’t match it and focus on the most important work.

Robin Revis Pyke finds encouragement by using Jesus’ example in setting boundaries. She says, “I'm a giver-- one of my top ministry gifts. As we all know, our strengths can quickly become our weaknesses if not used wisely. I am aware of this, so I must seek God daily for His leading and guidance with my planning and serving. If not, I can quickly become a hindrance to my own ministry efforts.

“Once I learned (that aha moment) that Jesus set boundaries, I no longer felt selfish for setting boundaries. 

As Dr. Forlini shared, "we must accept why we do what we do."

“I was raised in a patriarchal family where the word no was not an option. I did not have a voice and my opinion was not sought. I did not have strong boundaries in my early adult years because I was not permitted to have boundaries in my youth. Boundaries are unheard of in my family. Knowing this, I must meet God where I am and depend upon Him. Studying His words strengthens me and shows me the way I should go as a wife, mother, leader, follower, and student. He said no. He left the crowds. He rested. He sought nourishment. He asks us to do the same!”

Stay focused on the missions part of the ministry. Once we know our why, we should periodically check to see that we are limiting our involvement to those activities that focus on missions.

Lorraine Allender shares her experience in children’s ministry. “Boundaries have been a big help to me in working with children. We can get so excited about some events or activities and want to jump right in.

When I have kept my focus on the missions part of the activities for the kids at church,
I don't get wrapped up in so many of the activities that I lose my focus.

“Getting involved with too much (for me at least) causes tiredness, not accomplishing what needs to be, irritability, and sometimes just downright failure of the activity. Boundaries help me do a better job.”

Set time limits on work and build in time for important relationships. When we choose not to protect family time, others will choose to use that unprotected time instead.

Patsy Kaufman, a fifth-grade teacher, reflects on how setting time limits on work can help us avoid burnout. She states, “I can think of how not setting boundaries for myself led to a failure in ministry. I taught fifth grade in a Christian school for five years. 

Being in bondage to perfectionism, I would do whatever I thought necessary to be that perfect teacher-- no matter how much time it took, or how it kept me from having enough time for my husband and family, or how stressed and worn out I became.

“I believe if I had set boundaries on how much time I allowed myself to use, that the eventual burnout I experienced would not have come to pass and I might have been able to continue teaching.”

Create time to refuel. Knowing that we need to stay healthy in order to help others gives us courage to say “yes” and “no” with confidence.

Gail Hallman shares, “Boundaries allow me to know when to say yes or no to an idea, a person, an opportunity. If we design our lives with goals and mission statements, it helps us set boundaries for where we believe God wants us to work.

“Being an introvert means I need my ‘alone’ time to refuel. There have been many times, while working with women in the churches, associations, and states where I've ministered, that I could have been drowned by the needs and desires of others.

Understanding that I needed to have my time alone with myself and with God gave me the ability to deal with some of those issues and know when it wasn't my time or place to do so.

“We cannot be any help to anyone else if we do not keep ourselves strong and healthy in our relationship with God and with others.”

Live within God’s boundaries. Christians often get a bad rap as being rule followers, yet following God’s commands is meant to protect us.

Joy Bolton shares how she learned the importance of boundaries from watching her dog. “I began to appreciate the value of boundaries many years ago after observing our dog, Gus. We had gotten Gus as a puppy and had fenced our backyard to give him a safe place to be. It was a nice-sized yard with trees. But Gus began to climb the chain-link fence to get out when neighborhood children were playing in the nearby woods. As more houses were built in the neighborhood, we could not let Gus roam at will. Eventually he had to be chained to keep him in the yard. I often thought about God's boundaries. Living within them gives us great freedom. When we refuse to live inside those boundaries, we discover consequences that chain us as surely as the dog was chained. 

God's boundaries were not designed to inhibit us but rather to protect us.

“Yet, when we break His laws-- when we steal, lie, cheat, kill, etc.-- there are consequences to which we are chained. Even though we can be forgiven by God, in this life there are still consequences for sin. Some wrongdoing will result in jail time. Some will result in a felony record that will make employment difficult. Sometimes there are physical consequences for sin that we live with. In each situation, choosing to live within God's boundaries, we could have avoided the chain.

“Upside-down leaders (based on the book Upside-Down Leadership by Taylor Field)   understand the value of boundaries. Boundaries keep egos in check. Boundaries are a guide for ethical practices. Boundaries guide leaders in how they treat co-workers. Scriptural admonitions such as ‘do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,’ don't slander, put away rage and malice [see Eph. 4:29–32 NIV], etc., are all helpful boundaries. By living within them, we protect relationships and our reputation. Who wants to be known as the one who always has a short temper? Or the one who can't be trusted? Or the one who cuts corners? Living within God's boundaries is protection. And we are free inside those boundaries. I am free to be patient. I am free to speak truthfully. I am free to work with integrity. I am free to work without expectation of reward or recognition.”

Boundaries serve those who serve others. Let’s consider setting a few, so that we’ll still be around for the long term.

Claudia Johnson, CWLC Leadership Consultant