Setting Spiritually Healthy Boundaries

Published on: February 11, 2015

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Of all the ways we are to minister, it seems we often falter when we must minister to and for ourselves. Understandably we have responded to the call from Spirit to minister to others, and for me it is the best “job” I have ever had. So do I still need to balance my life? Yes.

It is interesting to write about healthy boundaries and to be the minister in the church I attended for about 15 years prior. When everyone knows about you and your family, the work you did, your attitudes and opinions about things, it can seem awkward to do this work. Immediately you are in a different place. I still have strong ties with those to whom I now minister. Our families meet socially and in the coffee shop or grocery store.

Being a psychologist, I thought I would be prepared for this adjustment to ministry. The boundaries set in that field are succinct. Daniel Keeran MSW mentioned eleven of them in Effective Counseling Skills. Please consider these, but know that some of them do not apply to what we do, while others are crucial. Our work is unique. We must assemble our own spiritual boundaries.

Keeran’s Eleven Boundaries for Counseling

Never say I care for you or care about you or I love you to a client.
As a rule do not touch a client.
Do not accept gifts from a client.
Do not disclose your personal life.
Do not express thanks to a client.
Do not engage in extended phone calls unless the client is suicidal or phoning to keep the suicidal contract.
Do not engage in a social, sexual, or business relationship with a client.
Do not express anger to a client.
Do not express your personal religious views.
Do not extend a counseling session beyond the agreed time.
Do not accept substitutions for the fee for service.

Now as a minister, all bets are off. We are in the most sacred relationship and the most all-encompassing one. We are teachers and counselors, but primarily we are ambassadors of God. And in every case the leading word is spiritual.

The difference between being a psychologist and a minister is that a spiritual leader could have an individual, a group and a congregation to minister to, and so it is not the same. When you look at professional standards through the lens of ministry, traditional boundaries can get murky. We minister from love and so it is not the same. The parishioners know our religious views and who our families are and so it is not the same. We do not necessarily thank the congregants, but we do thank God for all our Good. Why in some cases, the church (clients) may be paying for our housing—and we may receive gifts.

Simply put, some of these boundary points are required: confidentiality is key, we cannot engage in sexual or business relationships. However, other points need to be adjusted to fit our mission. Considering this, how do we proceed?

Minister-Centric Boundaries

The truth is that we start with an entirely different focus than those in the general relationship professions. We start with seeing the Christ in others and we co-create from that perspective in ourselves. We can set healthy boundaries because we see others healed, whole and free. We do not have to be all things to anyone because we know God is the all of everyone. We are the messengers.

We know that another unique setting of healthy boundaries for us includes prayer. Do we pray before every encounter with members of the church? You know we can get too busy. Therefore, be sure to give yourself prayer time before all the different interactions you have. I also suggest praying afterwards in gratitude for all you and God have done together.

I have heard of ministers who burn out over time. How can that be when we are giving God’s message wherever we are? It could be because we become so involved that we turn off the internal notification from Spirit to stop for a while. We must deal with our own inner core needs for security, safety, rest, recreation and companionship. Only then can we be a healthy soul for others to come to share their needs, wants and desires.

It is a mighty elixir to be in God’s service and to be there for others. As you hold in mind ways to keep yourself spiritually strong, you will maintain your boundaries. You know that music, prayer, meditation, going to movies, good conversation, travel, hanging out with your family are wonderful things to do. But I suggest that humor is essential in maintaining boundaries and balance. You are so necessary in many peoples’ lives. Please take a deep breath and laugh a little. I laugh mostly about myself. It helps me not to take myself so seriously. It keeps my love for God deep, my faith strong, my commitment fun, and my boundaries healthy.

Bessie Duncan
Rev Dr Bessie Duncan is the minister of Unity Church of Christ, Teaneck, N.J.

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