In the introduction to this series, I talked about how your schedule is not the primary problem that leads to burn out, rather it was not setting healthy boundaries in your ministry. Last time, I said the first “post” in your ministry boundary fence is to recognize your role in the church.
For the second post, we have to understand that unhealthy pastors create unhealthy boundaries.
Look, it’s nice to be needed. When people in the church look to you for everything and you do it, they’ll think you’re awesome. Wanting others to think you are awesome isn’t necessarily bad. It can be perfectly normal. The enjoyment of deserved praise, however, can quickly snowball to an unhealthy dependency upon praise.
Your congregation is not naturally going to help you with this. In most church contexts, many look to the pastor as a “distributor of religious goods and services.”
The congregation feels that they have chosen you, and that they are regularly “paying” for you. As a result, they have certain expectations of what you should do. Those expectations can include things like personal visits to every sick person. If it is not done, people may get mad or claim their spiritual walk has been compromised.
The second post supporting a healthy ministry is to pursue emotionally healthy boundaries.
In order to create proper boundaries, pastors must be healthy and confident enough to be able to say, “No,” when other people want you to say, “Yes,” even when they don’t understand why you have to say, “No.”
Once when I was serving as an interim pastor, a long-time family in the church asked if I could talk to little “Johnny” so that he could receive Christ. I very calmly and kindly answered, “No.” The parents were confused as to why I would not meet with them, but I explained that I did not want to take that opportunity from them.
They protested again, explaining that he had questions. Really? He was 8. Was he struggling with the ontological argument for the existence of God? I expressed that I was confident the questions would be basic, which they should be able to answer since they had been sitting in a great church for 15 years.
If people need to go through you, as the pastor, to meet Jesus, their understanding of the gospel is rather limited.
Unfortunately, Johnny’s parents didn’t see it that way. Actually, they saw it in a way that resulted in calling two small groups worth of people explaining that the interim was the, well, a yankee devil.
Within two weeks, however, they found me after church and thanked me for not robbing them of the opportunity of praying with their son. It doesn’t always work out that way, but in this case, the boundaries created a really special moment for this family — but they never called back the families they complained to two weeks before.
Creating boundaries is hard for everyone, but necessary for longevity in ministry.
At the end of the day, pastors must not allow the people in their congregation to bring cultural expectations to their boundaries. Instead, they must allow the Bible to inform their implementation of healthy boundaries. The Bible does command and describe what pastors should do, and most boundary making is unrelated to those biblical commands, but is rather driven by church-culture expectations.
The properly established boundaries create a much healthier pastor and church. Part of the health of the church comes from the third post, which we will examine next – guard your flock … even from other Christians.
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.