Leading churches

Little By Little, Your Boundaries Should Improve

Pastors need to have healthy boundaries—with work, with congregants and with themselves. God shows us His faithfulness through small steps in the right direction.

November 09, 2022

I no longer run competitively, but I’m still one of those guys who thinks he can run a faster time in a one-mile race next month than he can this month. Really, I think about this sort of thing a lot—probably too often. I know that makes me a little goofy. But hear me out. If I train right and eat right and rest right, why not get faster?  

Now, I’m not deluded enough to think this logic can scale across the decades; I can’t keep getting faster and faster every single month when I keep getting older every single decade. Still, I enjoy trying.

As long as we exist, seedtime and harvest, so will our boundaries.

In life generally and ministry specifically, I think this desire to improve is good. We should want to get better at what we do. We should want to see improvement in our ability to steward the gifts God has given us, whether we run miles, write words, pastor a church, or love our spouse and parent our children. And in all our striving and struggling, in addition to reaping thorns and thistles, by the sweat of our brows we should long to see fruit from our labors, for God made a sowing and reaping world. We should pursue what Paul pursued: an active taking hold of that for which Christ took hold of us (Phil 3:12). 

Most ministry leaders can look back over the last decade and thank God for their growth, seeing improvement in their sermon illustrations, counseling applications and discipling of others. For me, after more than a decade in ministry, I think I’m a better preacher, better counselor and better disciplemaker.  

There might be one area of ministry, however, I’ve actually gotten worse at: establishing boundaries.  

Maybe you are getting worse too. You want to eat right, sleep right, run right, pastor right, parent right, love right, but when you do them all at once, everything gets hard. 

Could my boundaries actually be getting worse? 

Over five years ago I wrote an article for our district titled “Pastors Need Healthy Boundaries.” I used illustrations and high-sounding theology to show the necessity of boundaries. I suggested that only Satan offers a ministry without limitations: “You will be like God,” he promises. “Just fall down and worship me, and you’ll be so productive and famous that you’ll have all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” But we won’t be like God, I said, at least not in unlimited ways. 

As long as we exist, seedtime and harvest, so will our boundaries. We all have twenty-four hours in a day, with the need for sleep devoted to six or eight of them. And no one can go much more than three days without water or a few dozen days without food. Thus God baked boundaries into creation. From Eden to the New Earth, the omni-attributes (omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient) belong only to God and remain incommunicable. Pastors are no exception to these limitations, I wrote.  

Then I gave some recommendations about coming home at a regular time from work, watching the number of nights away from home and taking weekly sabbaths to distinguish the boundary between the days of work and the day of rest. I encouraged putting one’s phone in a drawer in the evenings and watching what we eat and drink, especially after late church meetings.  

The article has aged well; that’s not bad theology and advice.

In the simplest terms, boundaries signify the line between two places, where one area starts and another stops.

But the execution of my own advice has lacked, shall we say, vigilance. Too often the craziness of my days and weeks leaves me and others frazzled. Too often others can see in my eyes what I can’t always see myself: that one more email or evening out might be the straw that breaks their pastor’s back.  

And I’m not sure boundary problems belong only to me. Most of my fellow pastors and I suspect the majority of our parishioners would answer the question “How are you doing?” with one word: busy. Author and pastor Adam Mabry writes about this in his book The Art of Rest

“In the West, we’ve managed to take something that has in every culture until recently been a vice [that is, being overly committed and busy] and, through the magic of repeating a bad idea long enough, have turned it into a virtue!”

This is why the title of Kevin DeYoung’s book on time management, Crazy Busy, feels so relatable. 

However, while busyness in life and ministry can accomplish much, we must consider if our frantic pace accomplishes less than we realize in other significant areas. For instance, do our over-extended lives undermine our testimony of glad dependence upon Jesus? It’s hard to say we fully trust the Lord when ain’t nobody got time for sleep or Sabbath.  

Or am I just more aware of my failings? 

In the simplest terms, boundaries signify the line between two places, where one area starts and another stops. Perhaps as our church has grown in size, my children have gotten older and my writing and other extracurricular activities have become more involved, it’s not that I’ve gotten worse at maintaining boundaries. Maybe the Lord has just broadened them. Maybe it’s like the way we speak of sanctification: the longer we walk with Christ, it’s not that we are necessarily more sinful but rather that we simply become far more aware of our sin. So, perhaps it’s not my lack of boundaries that I feel so deeply but my awareness of how much growth in Christ I’ve yet to experience. 

Because I can honestly say I have seen growth in my ability to maintain boundaries. My boundaries have grown thicker against criticism from church members. More maturity in Christ has led to less angst over criticism. I got a doozy of an email the other day, and, by the grace of God, the complaint didn’t bother me a tenth of what it would have when I first began in ministry.

The longer a pastor works in a church and the more senior a pastor becomes, the fewer the people who will oversee that pastor’s time.

Here’s another area in which I’ve grown: I used to struggle with how much I should disclose to others at church. For example, someone would ask me, “How are you?” and I used to feel that if I didn’t give the fullest, deepest answer to that question, I was somehow being dishonest. But pastors often get asked how they are doing. Because I had few boundaries in this area, I frequently overshared. I’ve since grown to see my answers in a different light. Now, when I restrain my answer a bit, I don’t feel that the restraint is an evasion of truth but rather the establishment of a healthy boundary between acquaintances, church members, the elder board and dear friends.  

In the last five years, the Lord has also taught me how to manage the staff of a church. I still struggle with it, but if I were to think back to just a few years ago, I would tell you that I tried to do everything at church and rarely delegated to or empowered others. I’d make updates to the website, design posters for the men’s retreat, visit small group leaders, preach sermons, oversee construction projects, officiate most weddings and funerals, and so on. The job of lead pastor, at least as I experienced it, felt boundary-less. The Lord caused me to grow in leading others, empowering volunteers and delegating to staff. I sense our church is better cared for, and I’m a healthier pastor, not to mention Christian.  

Are you establishing healthy boundaries? 

My struggles with boundaries might be particularly acute to me, but most pastors I know could benefit from improved boundaries. Henry Cloud, along with his coauthor John Townsend, have become famous for books on this topic. In Cloud’s book to leaders, he shares this: 

“[In the] flurry of activity, too many leaders forget that they also need to manage themselves since no one else is doing it. They fail to put into place key boundaries of self-leadership that the sheer volume of work and responsibilities can obscure...No one else can set these boundaries for you...The higher you go as a leader, the more responsible you are for yourself for how you allocate your time...[and] the less you have someone looking over your shoulder.” 

This is especially true in ministry: The longer a pastor works in a church and the more senior a pastor becomes, the fewer the people who will oversee that pastor’s time. At some point in your ministry, no one tells you when to arrive at the office and when to go home. No one even tells you when your sermon is sufficiently complete. Each Thursday afternoon before you go home, you must decide whether to polish the sermon’s conclusion for another thirty minutes, catch up on your emails, call a shut-in who you suspect feels out of sight and out of mind or pray for the souls in your church—or whether to do all this and more.  

Because the job of pastoring is, in a sense, never finished, pastors also need to set proper boundaries between church and the home because no one else will do that for you either. In his book The Pastor’s Justification, Jared C. Wilson writes a section about boundaries. The first priority God establishes for a pastor, Wilson argues, is to love his spouse well, if he is married, and after that to raise his children well, if he has children. 

“Some people in my church may not understand when I refuse to meet with them on a day off. That day belongs to my wife. I will obviously make exceptions for emergencies and other unavoidable circumstances, but otherwise, I protect Fridays fiercely.”

This could seem selfish, but note how Wilson frames this in terms of continuing to pastor his church: “What some may not understand is that I am actually pastoring them quite well by refusing to sacrifice my time with my wife on those days.” 

We must keep getting better at establishing boundaries 

Near the end of my seminary education, a professor required us to write a special capstone paper—not the typical book review or exegesis of a passage of Hebrews. He required his students to write a paper on the one sin in their lives that, if left unchecked, could grow to the place of disqualification from ministry. In short, if our ministries were to crash and burn, what would be the most likely cause? The professor wanted us to stare into the face of our sin and its destructive consequences long enough to become self-aware and afraid.

I see the Lord’s kindness even in our slow, “little by little” growth...

I wrote about gaining the whole world and forfeiting my soul in a paper I titled, “On Saying Yes and On Saying No.” I wrote about what might happen if my boundaries utterly broke down and I became the fullest version of a people-pleaser I could be. “Perhaps,” I wrote in the paper, “there are more provocative sins as some measure provocativeness. There’s substance and pornography use, as well as being a rage-aholic. But to spend a life seeking other people’s favor is as destructive as sins come, particularly because the collateral damage hits so close to home.” 

The paper helped. I stared at my sin, the commands of God and the person and work of Christ until I became afraid—in the good kind of way.  

In the paper, I also reflected on the kindness of God described in a few verses buried in the book of Exodus. As the Israelites transitioned from Egypt to the land God would give them, in God’s kindness, He promised to give them the land slowly and incrementally. 

“I will not drive out [the inhabitants] from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates.” Exodus 23:29–31

God promises that “little by little” He’ll help them until they “have increased and possess the land.” Then God specifies what the new boundaries will be, so they can prepare. 

I don’t know what it would be like to rule a land from “the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines.” Many times I’ve longed for our church to grow faster and reach more people for Jesus. But I see the Lord’s kindness even in our slow, “little by little” growth because I barely know what it means to lead a small church sandwiched between Union Deposit Road and Jonestown Road. And I’m thankful that little by little as God expands our borders, He’s also expanding my ability to keep them. Just as He delights in doing for you too. 

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