Boundaries: Not Sexy, But Good
I know boundaries is not a sexy topic, but boundaries are my friend and I want to spend some time introducing you if you have never met.
My natural, built-in instinct is to look for the boundaries in any given situation. Boundaries are what help me understand expectations. I learned that understanding expectations allows me to know what my role is, what I should give to the situation and what I should withhold; boundaries have kept me safe and sane.
I was exploring this topic with a fellow staff member the other day and chose to reveal a larger component of how my boundary system operates and his response afterward was, “If I’m honest, that sounds exhausting.”
And it can be. Boundaries can be exhausting – if that is the focus of every interaction and relationship. For me, they have become a practiced habit that helps me regulate and safeguard myself.
This practice began before stepping into ministry due to my personality, my upbringing in my family and my church, and a few years in the world of counseling. The older I get, and the more ministry I sink into, the more boundaries are blurred and, at times, discarded. This is because ministry falls into so much of life and life is messy. I cannot distinguish what to withhold or give to whom at all times. In this continuous shifting, I hear one of my friend’s voices repeat in my head: any strength can also be a weakness.
Boundaries have become a strength after years of practice yet, true to my friend’s wisdom, they have also created weaknesses in my life. Sometimes these weaknesses are due to calling things boundaries that are not so and sometimes making boundaries the primary reason for actions or inactions instead of grace, compassion and Christ as my purpose and focus.
How do I keep healthy boundaries AND live a life of gracious ministry?
First, let’s see what I mean when I say, “boundaries.”
Purely by definition, a boundary is:
- something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent
- something that shows where an area ends and another area begins
- a point or limit where two things become different
- (boundaries) unofficial rules about what should not be done – limits that define acceptable behavior
Boundaries are lines that help me see where I end and where something or someone else begins; what is my responsibility and what is not. We can see this more tangibly in job descriptions. A job description clearly outlines what we are to work at and, in most cases, also helps us see that for which we are not responsible.
Next, let’s look at the differences between a few of the overlapping areas. This is how I have defined Work, Ministry, Life for the necessity of this discussion:
This is my “9-5” job. This is the time I have committed to be available for meetings (staff meetings, one-on-one meetings for discipleship, planning meetings, emails, phone calls, etc). On paper, this is what I get paid to accomplish or be present to attend. It is, by no means, only from 9-5.
This is my intentional serving of others and the church for the betterment of the body of believers, as well as seeking those who are lost. For me, this includes my work in the church as well as my interactions in the community for the intentional purpose of the church. This is what God has called me to do this season and for today. For previous years in my life, when I had a 9-5 job, ministry was what I did in the church as well as what I did as I accomplished my 9-5 work/job tasks.
This is my every hour of life from coming home and taking care of household concerns to going out and interacting with people and places throughout the day. This is the part that tells me that I am not allowed “off time,” as in, I am not allowed to stop being gracious or be a good steward – there’s no stopping point – and praise God he calls me to something I cannot do without him. This is the part that permeates into every part of work and ministry.
How do I function in these overlapping areas with boundaries?
I establish “down times.” You may already call them something similar or different. These are times I do not answer emails (work), I am not seeking the lost or the church (ministry) but filling my spirit with my own infusion of Truth through personal study and/or prayer, going for a run or working out, cooking, etc. These are times and places I can be apart from ministry and the work I do as ministry – other people may call this a weekend. I have found this is called a Thursday night, Friday morning, Sunday afternoon or evening.
I have to protect this time because people will ask for it and I will want to give it; but, in most cases, I cannot. If I want to continue doing the work of the ministry I have been called to, I have found I need these times to reconnect and recharge.
In these moments of downtime, I can, however, ask for a delay in meeting or defer to another; in most cases, this is more than adequate. However, in all of this, I am still called to be like Christ and to be gracious and truthful etc (life).
Continuing, let’s review some difficulties of not having boundaries.
Without boundaries, we run the risk of extending ourselves into the work of others’ calling. This means we leave no room for other people to serve, essentially stripping others of their ability to answer a call the Lord has placed on them. If we are busy filling the needs in a place that is not our calling or ability to fill, how can the church see there is a need? How can others answer a call to fill the void if we are busy filling it?
This also strips us of energy and resources needed to be able to work in our own ministry; it is poor stewardship. Each of us is created differently, I have found that I am not created with endless amounts of energy and a wide variety of ability as I believed I was when I was 23. Rather, I am created with a choice amount of energy and a smaller, more focused variety of ability as I have come to find at 33.
On the flipside, let’s look at some benefits of having boundaries.
Boundaries help us see where our responsibility ends and helps others see where their responsibility begins. Our “no” may allow there to be a “yes” for someone else. Another person’s “no” may allow us to say “yes.” Essentially, boundaries help us see clearly and serve freely what God has called us to and not wear ourselves out on what he has not called us to, but has called someone else to accomplish. Boundaries allow us to steward our resources (time, money, emotions, etc) to complete that which He has called us to do.
[bctt tweet=”Boundaries allow us to steward our resources (time, money, emotions, etc) to complete that which He has called us to do.” username=”ys_scoop”]
Boundaries help us see God’s provision. Like a Sabbath, it is a practice in trust that God will provide when we cannot. The work of the ministry does not depend on my ability or yours but on God’s ability, and I praise God for that.
Finally, some practicalities of boundaries.
1. “No” is not a bad word. We can say “no” kindly yet without explanation or justification.
- “Thank you for inviting me! I cannot make it, but I hope it is a fun time!”
- “Thank you for thinking of me to fill this ministry role. I am honored to be considered, however, this is not something I can commit to at this time.”
There are a plethora of ways to graciously decline without feeling like we need to justify ourselves just because the answer needs to be “no.”
[bctt tweet=”No is not a bad word. We can say no kindly yet without explanation or justification.” username=”ys_scoop”]
2. Establishing and enacting boundaries takes practice.
It feels awkward to say no, especially to ministry opportunities or to people we know well or strangers in need, however, it gets easier. Then, when it does feels awkward, maybe it’s more a prompt from the Holy Spirit than our own pride. It also may feel awkward to say yes to a new area of ministry, however, this also gets easier.
3a. Take an inventory of your life. What is your work, life, ministry? Define these areas for yourself.
3b. What about other areas of life, such as emotions? This can be a tricky one and often still is for me.
A helpful viewpoint on emotions: Knowing you, and you alone, are responsible for your emotions (not what others “make” you feel), how can you begin to build boundaries around your feelings, and thus establish or reinforce self-control? In the same way, knowing that others are responsible for their emotions (although we are called to live at peace with one other and to submit to one another out of love), how can you begin to lovingly allow others to experience their own emotions and no longer be weighed down thinking you are the cause of all things?
4. Help others know your boundaries.
One of the ways I do this is by responding to questions and texts I received when I am not at work with, “Thank you for sharing or asking! I will make a note to take a look at this once I am back in the office on Monday morning.” Or I will simply ask if this question or task can wait until I am available. If needed, sometimes it is helpful for me to explain my current load of ministry/work, or that I am away from “the office,” for others to see the reason for my response (this is rarely needed).
5. Do not check email when out of the office.
If this means turning off notifications, do it. If someone needs to get in touch with me, they have my number or the number of someone who does; I am accessible if needed more immediately than email. Email in its design indicates it is not an urgent matter.
To some degree, this is all a framework from which to then be wisely flexible. I like to say that I am flexible as long as that is the plan. As I have come to find, in ministry, and much of life, flexibility is always the plan.
In addition, in ministry, as you may know, most of these ideas on boundaries are more blurry than a 9-5 job. I get it. There are always exceptions. Just this last weekend I was responding to work texts and setting up last minute communications for an event. Because I determined ahead of time I would need to be available and, because I had anticipated this to steward my time, energy and availability, I was able to respond in a timely and gracious manner.
Another exception for myself is that I have invited the girls I disciple to contact me at any time on any day if they need me. That is my own choice to bend my boundaries on my time.
An excellent resource I wish I could have all of my students read is a book called Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend. I didn’t read this until my mid 20’s and it was instrumental in helping me understand the goodness of boundaries and how finding, establishing and enforcing boundaries is not harsh, neglectful or mean; but it is healthy and allows me to run in the ministry I am called to in this place and time.
Ultimately, my hope is in God to provide and sustain me, not in my own boundaries to protect me. Everything should lead back to Him, not me. Even a tool as helpful as boundaries can lead me to him.
Andrea Gaston received her Master of Arts in Counseling and spent several years as a professional counselor as well as an adviser position in higher education before becoming involved with women’s ministry, which led to a focus in college ministry. In the Summer of 2016, Andrea moved from Georgia to Iowa to pursue the opportunity of working specifically in college ministry. She practices working out the rambling thoughts in her head through writing in THE MESSY PLACES OF GRACE blog.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.