4 Obstacles Pastors Face in Setting Boundaries

Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote the wildly popular book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of your Life. Dr. Cloud also wrote Boundaries for Leaders. I recommend them both. Essentially a boundary for a ministry leader or a pastor is like a property line around your yard, only in this case that yard is your soul. Healthy boundaries make for healthy souls. Unhealthy boundaries make for unhealthy souls.

In my 34 years in ministry, I’ve seen many pastors with poor boundaries. Sometimes I’ve not kept healthy ones myself. Why is that so? I suggest 4 reasons and 4 potential ways to build healthy boundaries.

First, our call and vocation is rooted in our desire to help people. And helping people takes time, and lots of it. If you are successful as a ministry leader, people with needs will keep coming your way. So, you’ll never check everything off your ministry to-do list. There will always be one more person who needs to hear the Gospel, one more person who needs prayer, one more person to counsel, one more call or email to return, one more hour you could spend polishing your sermon, etc., etc. Our vocational call places us in a position where needs will always vie for our attention.

  • Solution: Remind yourself that Jesus didn’t heal everybody and he didn’t make himself available 24/7. In fact, he often spent time along with His heavenly father away from people. If the Son of God needed healthy boundaries, it seems that we do too.

Second, our 24/7 connected world makes it hard to disconnect. I recall the first cell phone I owned. It was a Motorola flip phone that looked like a brick with one edge angled. It was novel and fun. Few other people owned cell phones at the time. And because cell phone usage was expensive, I didn’t give out my number to many people. So, I didn’t have to field many calls even though I looked cool as it hung off my belt. As cell phones evolved from ‘stupid’ phones to ‘smart’ phones they no longer served as tools for talking. Now not only can someone call us, but they can text and email us. My current phone is actually set up to send me a text when I miss a call (ugh!). We can be reached 24/7 in multiple ways which blurs boundaries.

  • Solution: Put your phone away after 6 pm. Don’t answer emails after 6. Don’t put your cell phone next to your bed even if you put it on vibrate. If it’s within reaching distance, you’re still connected.

Third, our brains are social. Neuroscientists are now learning boatloads about how our brains impact life and leadership. It’s one of my passions and why I’m pursuing a masters in the neuroscience of leadership. And next year my book Brain-Based Leadership: The Science of Significant Ministry comes out. This month Leadership Journal’s theme is called Neuro-ministry: How Brain Science Informs Discipleship. I wrote this article in that issue for LJ on neuroscience and communication.

When I say our brains are social I mean that human interaction stir ups biological processes within our brains. When we say, ‘No’ to someone (we attempt to establish a boundary) and feel disapproval from them, it actual hurts. Even mild forms of rejection light up the same parts of our brains that register physical pain. Since it actually feels bad, we often acquiesce to a request and say, ‘Yes’ to avoid that uncomfortable feeling that rejection brings. In doing so, we again blur our boundaries.

  • Solution: Expect to feel an uncomfortable emotional tinge when you try to establish a boundary and feel disapproval from another. Remind yourself that feeling that way is normal. Give yourself an hour and the feeling will fade, as long as you don’t feed it by ruminating on what the other person is thinking after you said, ‘No.’

Fourth, we want to feel needed. God gave us a desire to feel needed, that we matter, that what we do counts. And when we help others, preach a good sermon, or lead a meeting well, it feeds our souls and feels good. However, sometimes we can get hooked on feeling good. Dopamine, one of the feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) moves into our brain’s pleasure centers when we accomplish a goal (preach a good sermon, etc.). Serotonin is another one we feel when we get an ‘atta-boy’ from another. Just as some people get addicted to alcohol and drugs because it feels good (they affect neurotransmitter production), we can can addicted to the jolt we get when we serve another well or check off something on our to-do list. Addiction to affirmation and accomplishment can subtly overtake our motivations and blur our boundaries. In this post I discuss how to leverage four key brain chemicals.

  • Solution: Ask yourself if you may be addicted to feeling good. Can you take your day off and turn off ‘productivity’ and ‘helping others?’ If you can’t, I’d read Cloud’s two books on boundaries.

How do you keep healthy boundaries?

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  • Charley Blom

    Charles, Thanks for another great post for pastors. I love the comment on cell phones. the ‘smart’ phones still need a person to operate. and so we can choose to turn them off completely. i like the idea of turning them off after 6:00 PM

    • Thanks Charley. You’re right, it ultimately comes down to our choices.