By Lisa Whittle
Start talking boundaries and leaders break out in a sweat.
We want them, know we need them, but most of us didn’t go to “leadership boundary school” to help us manage and implement the steps.
We’ve also been burned from events in the past when we tried to set a boundary with someone and unpleasantries ensued.
Turns out, boundaries make others nervous, too.
Not long ago I started a social media discussion on boundaries through this Instagram meme: “There’s room in your heart for everyone, but there’s not room in the car.”
The idea behind the meme: We should love and be willing to serve everyone without exclusion, but we ought be selective with our close travel companions, for that is quite a different thing.
People had some strong reactions.
Wisdom! I’ve struggled with this all my life!
Love this analogy. This is hard for me, but I know it’s important.
I hear you, but as Christians aren’t we supposed to love and accept everyone?
Boundaries aren’t for believers. Jesus didn’t have boundaries. Check your Bible.
I knew it would be a love-it-or-leave-it kind of a post. But I plowed onward, since I find the subject vital to the health of ministry leaders after watching us struggle in this area for years—often throwing in the towel after extended periods of feeling used, manipulated, and exhausted by the people we intended to serve.
As I say to leaders in our weekend workshops with Ministry Strong—and as I’ve occasionally reminded myself: Your unwillingness to set boundaries is forcing your own early exit from ministry.
The truth is, we struggle with boundaries because we misunderstand them.
Myth #1: Boundaries are meant to divide.
We mistakenly feel boundaries are meant to divide. But healthy boundaries—done with a right heart and spirit and in the right way—aren’t the same as barriers.
Barriers are forms of solo self-protection, for the sole purpose of walling off the one putting them up. But boundaries are different: They’re meant to help relationships on all sides, creating greater unity and health.
Boundaries help the boundary giver in that they keep us humble and aware we have limited capacity, unlike God. Where God is not limited by time, space, or emotional capacity, we, as humans, are.
So while we strive to emulate His character with love and service, we simply can’t duplicate His supernatural abilities. Boundaries keep us reminded of our capacity, a healthy thing to remember.
Boundaries are just as helpful for the boundary receiver, even if they don’t understand it as such at the time. It helps them run toward and rely upon their real source of strength, hope, and counsel, Jesus Christ, rather than a human substitute.
It helps foster a correct dependency on Him and not another human, as wise as they may be.
Myth #2: Boundaries are ungracious and rude.
Boundaries have nothing to do with whether you are a nice or gracious person.[epq-quote align=”align-right”]Your unwillingness to set boundaries is forcing your own early exit from ministry.[/epq-quote]Those adjectives (ungracious, rude, nice) are ways in which we handle situations, not convictions based on wisdom and responsibility. We can be kind or rude in any situation.
Clearly, we should always be kind as we set a boundary, which will require prayer for wisdom in how we enact the boundaries. Sometimes, the person on the receiving end will make this more difficult and it may require us to involve a third party who can intervene.
But boundaries are often the kindest thing we can offer to everyone involved, as they quite often become the necessary element when a healthy ministry relationship isn’t in place. Boundaries help off-kilter relationships get back on track.
Myth #3: Boundaries are unspiritual.
The most confused aspect of boundaries is the one that has us believing Jesus would not support us setting healthy boundaries because it is not spiritual or what He, himself, would do.
We need not look further than His close travel group of 12 to know that the “room in your heart but not the car” philosophy was something He implemented as He walked this earth. He ministered to large crowds. He healed the sick. His heart was and is for everyone, and He died for this entire world.
But He kept only a few close to Him. Even within the 12 were His closest three: Peter, James and John. Jesus modeled healthy boundaries—and it wasn’t only with friendships.
He went off by Himself to pray, even when people wanted His attention (Luke 6, e.g.). He taught the disciples discernment when He encouraged them to stay on their ministry journeys and described the kind of people to steer away from (Matthew 10). He left one city to go to another (Mark 1).
Jesus knew the importance of letting His yes be yes and His no be no (Matt. 5:37), and in every way, He perfectly carried healthy boundaries out. As His followers, we learn from this and strive to emulate Him.
Leaders should stay in the journey for the long haul—aware of our limitations, sensitive to our own needs, strong in our relationships, and healthy in our ministry life.
It’ll take prayer and determination to not force our own early exit from ministry by our unwillingness to set boundaries for everyone’s good.
And if all else fails, it may help to simply remember this: Jesus was limitless. And we’re not Him.
LISA WHITTLE (@LisaRWhittle) is the founder of Ministry Strong, a ministry for leaders to help equip to preach the gospel with integrity, prioritize family relationships, and learn proper soul care to serve Jesus with strength for the long haul. She’s also a speaker, has authored six books and hosts the “5 Word Prayers Daily” podcast.