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Boundaries Have Saved My Ministry—and They Can Save Yours

It has happened again.

The news broke a few days ago that a well-known and -respected pastor has confessed to a “moral failure” and resigned from his position (story here).

The church hasn’t specified the nature of the moral failure, which is a good thing. No one profits from sharing details. There are only too many ways a pastor can fail, though some wise boundaries can help to protect both pastor and flock.

Sometime early in my ministry, wise counsel helped me establish a few boundaries that have protected me, my family and my flocks for more than three decades. Maybe these specific “hedges” (as my friend Jerry Jenkins calls them in his excellent book Hedges) aren’t for everyone, but they have often and repeatedly been a cause for gratitude and deliverance in my life:

Sexual/relational boundaries
At some point early in my ministry, I decided not to allow myself to be alone in a room or vehicle with another woman who was not a member of my immediate family. While this sometimes made for awkward adjustments (and my total lack of style or sophistication sometimes hurt feelings), it ensured that neither I nor anyone else ever had the least opportunity to become emotionally involved, let alone romantically or sexually compromised. I gave my wife regular and unfiltered access to all my online activity—emails, websites, etc.—as well as employing filtering and reporting software. Also, on occasions, when a woman has begun calling me a little too frequently, I made sure to have my wife answer the phone and return calls on my behalf. Not everyone understood such “hedges,” of course, and I’ve even been criticized for “legalism” in adhering to them, but they’ve kept me from failing and (as far as I know) protected me and others in my flock from becoming the subject of suspicion, rumors and gossip.

Financial/ethical boundaries
When I started ringing bells for The Salvation Army as a (just barely) teenager, my father instructed me never to reach into the red kettle, not even to help coins or bills make it all the way into the hole; he showed me how to turn my little bell upside down and poke stray money into the kettle with the handle. That may seem extreme, but it taught me an important principle, to avoid both the appearance of and the opportunity for financial impropriety. From that moment on, as a pastor and agency executive, I avoided counting or processing money without at least one other person (non-family member) present. I made sure donations and offerings were speedily processed and immediately deposited. Whenever possible, I placed responsible and gifted people in charge of church finances, including my salary and benefits, and encouraged regular audits. I strove to be among the biggest givers (by percentage, anyway) in the congregations I served. And I didn’t shy from opportunities to let people see that I drove a car and lived in a home that clearly indicated a lifestyle of stewardship, not extravagance (inviting people into our home, for example, or offering to be the driver for various outings, etc.).

Professional boundaries
Early in my ministry, I was part of an organization that provided careful and thorough oversight to pastors. Regular (and detailed) reports, reviews and audits were required. On my best days I viewed these, not as necessary evils, but as opportunities to express myself and receive feedback from others. Since then, I have tried to give board members and church members alike as much information as possible into the tasks and demands of ministry. At the same time, however, I did my best to install and honor a high level of pastoral confidentiality in praying with and counseling people—even when it kept me from explaining or defending myself.

Personal/marriage/family boundaries
It took a few years, but eventually I learned that my marriage and family were not separate from my ministry but a primary focus of it (see more here). Therefore, the lovely Robin and I did our best to make our weekly “date night” inviolable. We eventually prioritized a “family night,” too. And by the time I had the privilege of planting a church, I had learned the importance of a weekly Sabbath day to restore my energies and refresh my soul (and those of other pastoral staff). Regular meetings with accountability partners and prayer partners also became an important part of my personal and spiritual growth, as did the prioritization of friendships outside the church, which enlarged my vistas and assuaged the loneliness that often accompanies pastoral ministry (and sometimes leads to failure and tragedy).

These are not the only boundaries pastors need, of course. But they are pretty high on the list, I think. In any case, I’ve had cause to give thanks to God for those who urged such practices on me, knowing the truth of the Scriptural admonition, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, ESV).