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The Importance of Boundaries in Mentoring Relationships

by Abbie Smith

Vulnerability is prized by many these days. In fact, for many people, it’s on par with the fruit of the Spirit. As mentors though, how do we balance vulnerability and honesty? One answer is boundaries.

Boundaries are limits, or recognized limitations and expectations for a given relationship. At first, this word sounded dreadfully unchristian to me, like putting barriers around my interactions, or fences around how I interacted with people. But I’ve learned the hard way that boundaries are actually an aspect of a mature Christian. They give structure to relationships and remind us that we’re limited in nature and have limitations as a human being.

What’s the Point?

Odd as it may sound, the point of creating boundaries is freedom and a grounded understanding of where one stands in a given relationship.

No boundaries, on the other hand, means no bearings for the state of your relationship. Lines get blurred between parent/friend/counselor/peer, so chaos can ensue in how you relate and respond to one another.

Many of us have experienced relationships in which we had false expectations of where we stood with a person, or assumed a person stood with us. Maybe our false perceptions were about how we fit into a group dynamic, and we were eventually let down. Poor boundaries can result in anything from mistrust and hurt, insecurity and one-sided relationships, to unclear expectations and even codependency.

Mostly due to pride and insecurity, I’m sad to say I’ve led mentees into most of the above—all of which could’ve been prevented by upfront communication. Mentoring a girl some years back, I held tight to an ideal of “being available all the time, day or night.” When she took me up on this, however, calling late at night, or multiple times throughout the day, I slowly got bitter. Instead of realizing that I, in fact, was the one who’d set this lenient boundary, I began to resent the girl for following the boundary I’d provided.

Where To Begin

Lacking boundaries leads to chaos and an overload of them leads to legalism, so there’s no easy middle. Different relationships will require different boundaries. And to some degree that discernment will be up to you and your awareness of your self, and of the other person. A teacher in the Bronx may need different boundaries than a businessman in Des Moines, Iowa, just like a stay-at-home-mom will likely thrive with different boundaries than a single thirty-something who’s on staff at the local church. When it comes to mentoring college-age individuals, begin by exploring hopes and expectations for the relationship, as well as asking what’s wise in light of where God has you.

In a general sense, boundaries flow from our time, energy, expectation and discernment of what God might be doing in a given relationship. If you’re married, your spouse will likely have some feedback, and the same may be true with roommates or co-workers if you’ll be meeting in a common space. Your boundaries may need to shift at some point, and often finding them means crossing them, and then having to backtrack.

Case in point, generally speaking, I choose not to spend one-on-one time with males. But in the middle of editing this, I received word from a guy friend that he’d popped his bike tire and needed a ride home. I reasoned with God for about thirty seconds on why this boundary is important to me and how it seemed beneficial, or potentially detrimental, in this situation—and then I gathered my things and went to pick him up. Another scheduling boundary might be a commitment to fully resting on the Sabbath. And though Jesus seemed committed to this God-ordained boundary, too, He also challenges us on it as a hard and fast rule in Luke 13:10-17.

There’s no firm list of what you should/shouldn’t cover, but here are some starting points you might consider:

  • Define your role: “I’m not here to fix, heal, or parent you. I care about you, but I cannot change you, or take away your problems.”
  • Discuss how you tend to communicate: “When I disagree with you, it doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. I will have my own opinions at times and you will have yours—my goal is never to prove you wrong, but to search with you toward common ground in our relationship with God.”
  • Talk about your expectations of frequency and duration of meeting, as well as availability: “I love meeting with you weekly (or however often you decide) and you’re welcome to call or email me anytime. I will try to reply to reply to messages within 24 hours. And to prioritize my wife and kids, often I’ll silence, or even turn off my phone, after 5 p.m. and on Sundays.”
  • Recognize that part of learning boundaries coincides with learning to guard our hearts. Proverbs 4:23 says: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life,” (NLT). I probably would’ve told Solomon that all was a bit extreme, but apparently he (with God’s inspiration) thought not. Our hearts are apparently worth guarding more than anything else we guard, including another’s expectation of us.
  • If there are topics you prefer to avoid discussing, it’s best to mention these upfront.
  • Share any preferences, or pet peeves (sensitivity to feedback, punctuality habits, etc.), upfront as well (when they seem quirky and funny, versus embittering).
  • How do you view confidentiality in this relationship? (What is strictly between you, or is there a time you would seek, or refer, to further counsel?)
  • We encourage you to be open about your ups and down with God, and otherwise. But do keep in mind that your mentee is carrying his/her own bag of burdens and came to you seeking an ear to listen and possibly a life to lean on—not the other way around. The following may be helpful in your discernment of whether or not to share:
  1. Will sharing this be beneficial to the degree that the mentee might be moved closer to God by doing so?
  2. Am I reconciled enough on this topic (theology, sin struggles, etc.) to speak truthfully and lovingly toward its contents, or might I stir up greater confusion by doing so?

Talking about boundaries can seem obvious and selfish. But by choosing to set them, you’re choosing to honor your limitations and point to God as the only One who’s limitless. When a mentoring relationship happens with clear communication, purpose and expectation, there is literally no limit to how transformative it can be—for both individuals!

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The Orange Group is a gathering of leaders who are passionate about engaging churches and families to influence the faith and character of the next generation. Contributors include some of the most widely respected thought-leaders in children’s ministry, including Reggie Joiner, Sue Miller, Kendra Fleming, Jim Wideman, and Bre Hallberg. New blog entries, podcasts, webcasts, and video downloads are available every week to help you keep leading yourself and growing with your team.