Can Leaders Create Healthy Boundaries Without Cutting People Off?

We talk a lot about boundaries in our culture.

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.

Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” (Boundaries, Townsend and Cloud, pp. 29)

In fact, boundaries are one of the first things I address most often in my therapeutic work because a lack of clear and defined boundaries often leads to many problems in relationships with people. If people don’t have clear boundaries, they often have a confused sense of self and identity.

But I feel like I’ve started to notice a trend regarding boundaries, especially in ministry circles.

The trend is this:

A pastor/ministry leader/lay leader, et cetera, makes a sweeping or non-negotiable statement about the boundaries they are practicing or want to practice.

Usually, the statement comes from up front, preferably in front of as many people as possible (Sunday worship perhaps) so as to communicate to as many people at one time the established boundary.

It may go something like this:

“Because our church is so big  (or because I’m so busy), I want you to know that I will NEVER personally return any e-mails/phone calls that you send to me. And I will NEVER meet you one on one at dinner/lunch/coffee, et cetera. I have a family, and it’s a boundary that I have set in order to protect them.”

Though there are situations that this may be appropriate, it often feels like many ministry leaders do this in an attempt to avoid the difficult task of establishing healthy boundaries that can only come about in up and close relationships and interactions with other people.

Sure, it’s easier to just cut people off and avoid them.

Sure, it’s easier to tell 6,000 people you will never return their e-mails than to have a heart to heart conversation with them about why you are setting a boundary with them regarding their e-mails.

It certainly helps us try to squash our own anxiety…but it certainly doesn’t lead to the relational growth that I think is necessary for not only people…but especially ministry leaders.

We only grow as people when we have to do the day in and day out hard work of being in relationship with people. We don’t grow by avoiding them or cutting them off.

I definitely think ministry leaders can do a better job of setting boundaries, but I just wonder sometimes if they avoid it because it’s such hard, ongoing work. Nothing is easier than getting up front and just delivering a boundary in front of 6,000 people. That way we can avoid the individual relational interaction and just address the big, anonymous crowd before us.

And when we do this, I wonder if we are actually avoiding the task of being a pastor.

How do you go about setting boundaries in your own life and ministry work? Any tips or suggestions?  

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Rhett Smith
I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate (MDiv, MSMFT, LMFT-A) and pastor to youth and families. I write about the relationships between psychology, theology and technology.