This is the fourth article in a series (intro, part one, part two) regarding pastors developing healthy boundaries in their ministry. I’m sharing four key points in the process, thinking of them as four fence posts around a healthy ministry.
I have already shared the first two “posts:” recognize your role in the church and pursue personal emotional health.
The next may be the hardest to implement in our culture. Also, I imagine it will generate the most disagreement. However, I think it demonstrates a biblical approach to shepherding of a congregation, rather than turning the church into a place where a group of customers demand that their area of interest is paramount.
The third post supporting a healthy ministry is guarding your flock, even if it is from other Christians.
It may seem ironic, but some of the people from whom you have to most tenaciously guard your church are other believers. If you don’t, the focus of the ministry is to respond to the special interests of customer Christians. And, that means your ministry (and its boundaries) will be focused on keeping customers happy — and no boundaries will exist.
I wrote about this in another article entitled, “Why I Have No Problem Helping Issue-Christians to Move On.” It generated more than 100 comments in two days. Some people were retweeting it and praising me for my words, and others were coming just short of calling me the antichrist. (Note: most pastors were the ones who were supportive of the article as they have dealt with the “issue Christians.” Yet, some people — who thought their issues would not get the attention needed — were upset. Take a look at the comments and you decide.)
The inspiration for the post came from an incident after a service at Grace Church, the church I planted and pastor while continuing to work full-time at Lifeway Research (something, by the way, that I could only do with a lot of boundaries).
I basically encouraged a first-time visitor who was clearly well-versed in Revelation prophecies (and enjoyed sharing his interpretations with everyone he met) to move on from our church and find another that was going to best meet his passions and beliefs.
Now, let me clarify my thinking behind my actions. If someone in my congregation came up to me after the service saying, “I’ve been doing some reading and I have some questions about prophecy. Could we talk about it?” I would take some time right there for discussion. But that clearly wasn’t the case.
This guy was obviously a pro. He actually told me that his friends call him the “Prophecy Terrorist.” This was his introduction: The Prophecy Terrorist. He didn’t have questions. He wanted to get inside my church to find someone who would give him the attention he desired. He wanted me to meet with him so he could debate me — and convince me.
And, I have boundaries. I don’t do that. And, I shepherd a congregation that also has boundaries. We did not need The Prophecy Terrorist distracting us from our mission.
You may not have met “The Prophecy Terrorist,” but I bet you’ve met other issue-driven Christians. There are “issue Calvinists,” “issue Charismatics,” “issue homeschoolers,” “issue political Christians,” and the list goes on and on.
Your church is not a public square for people to debate and opine. It’s a place that you are to guard and shepherd. You create boundaries both personally and congregationally.
People won’t like that (so bring on the comments), but if you allow your church to be a gathering of special interest groups, then your ministry will be built around keeping them happy. Or keeping them apart. And promising them attention that you then spend your life trying to fulfill.
There is a better way (though not everyone will like it).
Creating a healthy boundary for your church means knowing who you are as a church, where you are, where you’re going, and what that means for people who are outside of that. Your church is not the place for issue Christians who want to dominate your time to be given the freedom to do so. Save that time for counseling the hurting, not arguing with the agenda-driven.
On the other hand, I will welcome and talk to “issue non-Christians” all day long. If someone came up to me and said, “I’ve been reading Deepak Chopra and thinking about some deep thoughts.” I would sit down and talk with them in a heartbeat about what Jesus has to say about Deepak.
There is a big difference between the two.
Issue Christians want to get inside so they’ll have someone to give them attention, and it destroys the boundary. Issue non-Christians need to be brought inside so that they can hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The most important reality is that “Prophecy Terrorists” and other issue Christians are not going to stop walking with Jesus because they’re not in my church. They will find a place — probably a church (and a pastor) without boundaries.
If it is in your church, however, I’m guessing there are a lot of people who are going to be driven out, including some who need Jesus.
Boundaries are set up by shepherds. That’s the term that the Bible uses several places in Scripture. You must be a shepherd. Your church is not a voluntary society of opinion givers and special interest groups. It’s a body that needs to be in community with one another — served and led by shepherds, pastors, and leaders, focused on a common mission.
So this is a touchy ministry fencepost, but an essential one. You (and your church) must recognize that the mission is more important than special interest groups. Your church needs boundaries (so that it is focused on its mission and won’t be distracted from that). You need boundaries (so that you won’t spend your time trying to keep “issue Christians” happy and placated).
Those boundaries will cost you a few people, but they will focus your church in powerful ways and free you to do ministry among the hurting that otherwise will be overlooked.
In the conclusion of this series, next week I will explain the fourth and final ministry fence post: know what you can and cannot do.
Ed Stetzer oversees all activities of the Lifeway Insights division, including Lifeway Research, Corporate Communications and Ministry Development. He has planted churches in several states and trained pastors across the United States and on five continents. Author or co-author of more than a dozen books and numerous other publications, Stetzer is a leading voice among today’s evangelicals.