Emotional and Relational Boundaries For Those in Ministry
How can we tell when our emotional boundaries are pushing the limits? In today's blog, Dr. Chris Grace shares three warning signs of unhealthy boundaries and describes how to create safe, healthy, and effective ministry environments.
All humans have the compelling desire to know and be known by others. And those who minister, teach, counsel, or coach will face one of the most powerful “know and be known” drugs on the market. To talk about deep issues—emotional, relational, or spiritual—then to be attentively and actively listened to, to feel heard and understood and agreed with, is quite captivating. Thankfully for most of us who work in these areas this drug does not lead to addiction—we minister and teach and connect and move on to the next topic or group or client. But for the unaware, unprepared, or needy, a few draws from this potent cocktail can quickly lead to some unwise choices.
Warning Sign #1: Becoming dependent on others' approval or attention often causes us to miss some potentially troubling issues brewing in our own hearts.
Wise ministers know that healthy relationships come with certain boundaries put in place by God to protect us, likely because of the incredibly high cost we pay when we do not do them well, and the incredibly high reward we gain when we do. It is certain that emotional boundaries are important because they protect the heart, and Christians know that it is vital for us to guard our heart, as the writer of Proverbs puts it, above all else. Why? Because “it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The NLT renders it “Your heart determines the course of your life,” and the Complete Jewish Bible says “The heart is the source of life’s consequences.”
In other words, whatever is in your heart overflows out into the other parts of your life, impacting everything. Whenever we reach for the drug of approval from our students or clients—to provide us what we should be getting from God, close confidants, or even ourselves—we set ourselves up for disappointment and court disaster. Our heart moves to places it should not go, leaving us vulnerable to all sorts of unhealthy connections.
Warning Sign #2: If you make conscious choices of what to say or do or teach based on what you believe will appeal to your audience—rather than what is true, honorable, or commendable—you are courting trouble.
Psychological research shows that healthy connections and relationships impact our emotional well-being. Relationships play such a central role because the need to connect with another person is a fundamental human motivation. This motivation is core to who we are as humans. In fact, having healthy personal relationships is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and emotional and psychological well-being.
In contrast, studies also show that distressed relationships predict an increased risk of all kinds of problems, including loneliness, depression, and physical illness. All of us, including those we minister to, experience anxiety and loneliness when social ties are weak, coloring our thoughts and emotions.
Many we minister to experience distressed relationships at home and will seek to meet their relational and emotional needs at school or church or in the office. Is it any wonder that those we minister seek to affiliate and then become attached to us, especially when provided with boundaries, discipline, consistency, and love? Most Christian ministers I know excel at imparting such things. But, for those who may just be starting their career, or for those who are in a vulnerable season, caution is advised.
Warning Sign #3: If you frequently leave your work feeling emotionally high, or emotionally exhausted, based mostly on how your interactions went with a few you minister to, you may need to check your boundaries.
So how can we tell when emotional boundaries are pushing the limits? How can we better guard our hearts? How can we establish healthy boundaries that may have slipped? When our heart is well, the reward is that our lives will resemble springs of living water, nourishing, and encouraging. Such a reward is what drew many of us to ministry in the first place.
Here are some guidelines to help you set reasonable, healthy, God-honoring emotional boundaries.
Discretion is your friend. Slow and steady are the words that should come to mind. Let your guard down, but do it a little at a time. Do not share your most intimate personal details or secrets at any time or stage of the relationship. Protect the deep, intimate parts of who you are, both emotionally and spiritually. “Be real, be genuine, and be honest,” says my friend Debra Felita, “but never without the anchor of boundaries and the weight of wisdom.”
Set your boundaries before you need them. Set aside time to think through and pray through them. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in establishing reasonable, healthy, God-honoring emotional boundaries that will help protect both you and those you minister to. Then actually put them in writing and have a friend hold you accountable to them. Post them somewhere in your office or classroom or at home. Revisit them often to assess whether you are keeping your commitments.
Guard your spiritual heart. For Christian ministers, it is important to continue pursuing your relationship with God. And this is where prayer becomes so critical. Prayer is meant to be deeply intimate, bearing your heart and your emotions before God. Jesus prayed often and regularly, in obedience to His will. It is the same for us: Prayer must be a central part of our life, as commanded by God. Make your classroom a sacred place by regularly praying over it, and asking God to be present.
Maintain your connections with close friends and advisors. It is normal to want to spend as much time as possible on something you enjoy. But do not let ministering isolate you and keep you from spending time with close friends and family. Keep interacting and participating in your existing relationships on a frequent basis. These friends should be the main providers and shapers of your emotional life, your character, and who you are becoming.
Recruit healthy collaborators. One of the main joys of ministering is the emotionally and relationally healthy people we get the pleasure to interact with. Bring them into your inner circle or onto your team, especially those with complimentary gifts. Enlist them to help you with the needier ones you minister to. Some people are more gifted at including others, coming alongside, and inviting them in. Of course, not all of them are equipped for such a mission, but what a joy it is to see the fruits when it works! Remember that God knows us, and knows those we have been called to minister to. He never forgets them and has provided for their needs, and we can gratefully entrust them into his caring hands.
If we do indeed guard our hearts well, if we go slow and steady and commit our way to the Lord, setting good boundaries, we will create safe and healthy ministry environments. We will be blessed with deeper and more enriched relationships. And we will know and be known, confident that our lives will resemble springs of living water. “And the LORD will guide you continually… You will be like a well-watered garden; like an ever-flowing spring.” Isaiah 58:11.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.