By Mitch Dowell, Director of Missions for Delaware Baptist Association
Many of us who live in the Maryland /Delaware region cross the Bay Bridge every day. We simply pay our $4.00 toll and speed across the 4.3 mile, 186 foot high bridge without giving any thought to our safety. Why is that? What would happen if they suddenly removed the steel or cement guardrails? Would we still speed across in the left or right lanes? I don’t think so. Oh, I might cross the bridge, but it would be at a much slower speed, and I would certainly straddle the center line. Why, because I wouldn’t feel safe without those guardrails. This is my point, boundaries, whether on the Bay Bridge or in pastoral ministry provide a measure of safety.
There is no shortage of books on the subject of “boundaries,” but for this article I want to share just a few thoughts from my own experience of over 36 years in ministry. I wish I could say I got it right all the time, but I didn’t. I did however learn some valuable lessons from my mistakes and bad choices. If someone had shared with me what I’m about to share with you in this short article, I believe I would have been able to avoid a lot of pain and sorrow. In church planting if you’ve not already experienced it, you will soon come across people who mistakenly think you are God. They think it’s your responsibility to resource them, meet all their needs, always be available to them, and always be present. Of course you’re not God, you’re just a man. That’s why it’s vitally important that as a church planter, early in your ministry you establish clear, healthy God-honoring boundaries.
So, what is a boundary? A boundary is a fence line that denotes or defines where one person’s space ends and another’s begins. It clarifies shapes and defines who we are and what is our sphere of control. God calls us to define healthy and balanced boundaries in order to have the best in healthy relationships and experience a greater sense of control in life. (Barney Self Ed. D.)
I like to define boundaries very simply as stewardship of my life. Proverbs 4:23 (NASB) says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.” The word for “heart” in this verse is the Hebrew word “leb.” It speaks of the inner person, feelings, core values, thoughts, perceptions, what we believe in and how we spend our time and energy. So, we are to be diligent stewards of our “leb.” I want us to consider 3 C’s related to establishing healthy God-honoring boundaries in ministry. These may seem simplistic, and my list is certainly not exhaustive, but I think these are non-negotiable for anyone in pastoral leadership. I’ll spend most of my time on this first one.
First: Guard your Covenants
God’s Word from Genesis to Revelations is about relationships, man’s relationship to God and man’s relationship to man. In Matthew 22 a lawyer asked Jesus this question, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40 (NKJV) Notice the order. First we love God, second we love our neighbor. We see in this two covenant relationships—the first is with God and the second is with our first neighbor our spouse. Everybody else comes after these two. The order never changes. God, spouse, family, others.
The first covenant relationship that you must guard is your relationship with God. You cannot allow the busyness of ministry to get in the way of your alone time with God. Jesus didn’t. He would regularly dismiss Himself from His disciples and the crowds to be alone with His Father. If Jesus needed it, how much more do you and I? Schedule a time everyday at least an hour to be alone in prayer and communion with God. It’s also important that you set aside time for personal Bible study. And by the way, sermon preparation is not personal Bible study. You will need to include in your schedule a time for regular systematic Bible study for your own personal growth.
Second, you must guard the covenant relationship with your spouse. One of the character qualities of the minister of God according to 1 Timothy 3:4 is that he is a man who “rules his own house well…” Your family is your first congregation. It’s where you practice pastoral leadership. Before God gave you children, he gave you your mate. I remember how that in the early years of my ministry I blew it in that area. I was on call 24/7 and it almost destroyed my marriage and family. In a conversation with my adult son after years of being away from the Lord he said, “Dad, I’m thankful that you lead me to Christ as a child, but when I was in college I hated you.” When I asked why, he said, “I really admired you and Mom for your commitment to Christ and ministry. You would leave at the drop of a hat in the middle of the night to take care of a church member in need. You were always at church or in the community taking care of somebody, but Dad, you weren’t there for me.” Months before the meeting with my son, I had had a similar conversation with my wife. It is only by the grace of God and a godly counselor that we are together and in ministry today. Remember, you are NOT God. Here’s my counsel to you. Make it a habit to talk to your mate every day. Call her just to see how her day is going. Meet her for lunch on occasion. Schedule a date night and put it on your calendar as an appointment. Don’t allow anything to get in the way of that appointment. It’s equally important to schedule times to be with your children both individually and as a family.
Third: Guard your Calendar Your calendar will fill up quick unless you guard it.So, consider the following:
Take your day off. Establish at least one day every week for you and your family. Do not go to the office that day. Do not read your emails. Do not think about work. Do not talk to your spouse about ministry. Do not take ministry related phone calls. It’s your day off!
Take your holidays off. If the holiday falls on your regular day off, take an additional day off.
Set a daily quitting time. I remember a time when I didn’t get home until six and sometimes eight o’clock at night. My wife and family got tired of eating alone. Big mistake! Now my smart phone is set to alarm at 5:00 p.m. and it says, “Go home!” If you have to make a committee meeting or appointment, take a couple of hours off during the day to connect with family or to do chores. If you anticipate a late night, take a half day off. Make it a point to be at home in time for dinner with your family.
Take your vacation time. The church will survive without you for a week. I try to take at least a week at a time, and I try to get away from home if at all possible. Record an “out of office message” on your phone and email. Arrange for another staff member to handle things in your absence.
Plan six to twelve months in advance. This was always a challenge for me but once I disciplined myself to do it, it made all the difference in the world. It’s really not that difficult. Here’s what you do. Plan your personal stuff first. Put you days off, date nights, vacations, and family outings on your calendar first. Then schedule your committee/team meetings and other appointments around them. See, that wasn’t hard.
Finally, Guard your heart from your Congregation. I know that sounds terrible, but hear me through. When I was in the pastorate people would often describe me as a “hands on pastor.” Sounds good doesn’t it? If you’re the pastor of a mega-church this probably doesn’t apply. The church where I served was about 150 members. I was expected to be at every birth, every death, every surgery, every youth/kid’s sporting events, Youth New Years eve all nighters. You get the picture. Everybody loved me, but it was killing me. Your members are people and people have real life issues that need attention. You cannot be everything to everyone. That’s why God has given you gifted leaders to help. Here’s my counsel:
• Learn to say “No.” It really is ok to turn down an invitation to be at an event.
• Delegate. Crises hardly ever occur at opportune times. Use your team members, deacons, elders, and other gifted members to help make hospital visits, respond to emergencies, care for shut-ins etc. You have to make the call as to whether the situation demands your presence and attention.
• Get out of the counselling business. From time to time you may have to counsel with members. Church members love to have you do their counselling. Why? Well, first of all it’s free, and they know they can schedule it after work. The result is it cuts into your family time and you’re back to getting home around eight or nine at night. As a rule I did only pre-marital counselling and even with that I had others trained to do it as well. Even if you’re a trained counsellor, it will eat up all your time. I’m not suggesting that you never counsel with your people, but if you do, and you can’t help resolve the issue with two or three sessions, you need to refer them to a professional Christian Counsellor. It would be wise to have on your desk a listing of professional Christian counsellors for referral. Remember, counselling is not your primary role as pastor. Often pastors who counsel others find both their role as counsellor and their role pastor to be compromised. That’s why I believe setting boundaries in this area is best for the church as well as the counselee.
Remember, setting boundaries is all about stewardship of your life (Prov. 4:23). You must guard your heart because no one else will. You’re no good to God, your family, or your church if you’re tired, burned out, or dead. So, guard your covenants, guard your calendars, and guard your heart from you congregation.