The value of boundaries

[Note: this post originally appeared on Searching for the Called.]

As a minister with standing in my region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I am required to attend boundary training at least every ten years. This is important work, not just because abuse by clergy is (sadly) in the news so much these days. It’s also essential because the emphasis in these conversations shifts. For example, we spent much more time discussing preaching in this iteration of the training than in my last go-round. That’s because the political climate is such that pastors have to check their motivations and their theology every week so that the pulpit doesn’t become, well, the bully pulpit.

The increased attention to preaching was not the only new piece for me, however. The training materials lifted out that boundaries aid ministers’ work; they allow pastors to recover from the emotional, spiritual, and sometimes even physical demands of their roles so that they can come back to lead another day. That seems obvious enough. For the first time, however, I heard that boundaries themselves actually are the work.

I bristled at that statement initially. Surely ministers are not being encouraged to walk around wrapped in caution tape! But the materials clarified that we are constantly crossing boundaries – anytime we step over the threshold into a homebound member’s home or a hospital room, get buzzed into a school to eat lunch with a youth, hear the intimate details of a parishioner’s hurt, embolden our leadership in the midst of conflict, share a bit about our lives to let others know they are not alone, or enter the pulpit to preach. It is the minister’s job, though, to acknowledge those boundaries, to be clear on why we are or are not pushing through them, and to ensure that those reasons are to help the people in our care grow closer to God.

At the same time, spiritual leaders are called to help others recognize the boundaries they have set up between themselves and God and between themselves and their fellow humans so that they can remove these obstacles. Clergy do this through preaching and prayer, teaching and serving the community alongside church members.

Boundaries, then, are in fact the heart of ministry, recognizing and then either holding to or tearing them down. The hoped-for end is the same, regardless: to see and celebrate the image of God in all people and to remember that rootedness in relationship to God is essential for us all.

May we thus be aware of boundaries, sometimes using and other times obliterating them to promote connection and wholeness.

Photo by André Bandarra on Unsplash.

No is a complete sentence

As a southerner and a lady (pronounced uh-LAY-dee), I have always received the telepathic cultural message that “no” is not a proper response to questions or requests – at least not without a lot of explanation or qualification. Of course, not saying “no” is at best a setup for my own resentment and passive-aggressiveness. At worst, it puts me in danger of violations big and small at the hands of others.

CC JUST SAY NO - marc falardeauI recently had lunch with a couple of friends to discuss my interest in search committee training. In the midst of talking about all that can go awry in the pastor-parish relationship – both before and after a call is extended – we segued into a conversation about a church’s expectations for a minister’s family. One of my colleagues recalled a mentor who, when being asked if his wife and children would be at church that evening, simply replied no. He did not feel the need to justify their absence. “Because “no,'” the mentor said, “is a complete sentence.”

I was taken aback by the truth – and the power – of that statement. I don’t have to deliver a monologue in response to an inappropriate question. I don’t have to agree to an inappropriate request. In one sense that seems obvious, but in another sense it is revolutionary.

Certainly there are times when explanation is warranted. Our noes can be opportunities for teaching. Our noes may be misconstrued and cause problems in relationship if no context is given. Our noes to supervisors pretty much always need fleshing out. But sometimes (often?) our “no” sets a boundary that we have every right to set. An accompanying explanation would permit our hearers to expect that under different conditions, that boundary would be permeable.

Now, I think it is true that middle-aged white men feel much freer to say no and leave it at that than women of any demographic. But if I am hesitant to say it for myself, perhaps I can think of it as advocacy on behalf of someone else. I want to protect my family. I want to push against the message that women should smile and go along with anything. And if I say a simple no enough times for others, then maybe one day I’ll also be better at doing it for myself. I’ll be able to summon my inner Julia Sugarbaker at a moment’s notice.

Some questions to consider, then, are:

What requests do we need to say a flat “no” to?

Where do we find the courage to say “no” without justifying our boundary?

Image: Creative Commons “JUST SAY NO” by marc falardeau is licensed under CC BY 2.0.