Boundaries! This word has become increasingly popular as the Church has experienced the fallout from its leaders running themselves to the edge of a stressful, chaotic, and unhealthy life that exists without boundaries. We are taught that Christians sacrificially give of ourselves to positively impact the lives and conditions of others. After all, “God so loved the world that He gave . . . (John 3:16).” Or, “We must take up our cross and follow Jesus, even to death (a horrible, out of context paraphrase of Matthew 16:24). At the same time, we are told, “You can’t pour water from an empty pitcher.” Or, “Self-care is the most important care.”
I’ve heard these Scriptures and adages numerous times during my ministry tenure, but the realization of our scriptural truths and well-meaning statements are at times not enough to put boundaries in place that help us maintain healthy lives. Boundaries—invisible lines that guard the treasures that God has put in us—are essential for remaining physically and spiritually healthy (Cloud & Townsend, 2011). When boundaries are lacking, it weighs on us physically and spiritually. The appropriate placement of boundaries is a spiritual discipline that shows how we value and protect the gift of God inside of us.
A lack of boundaries impacts us physically and causes stress.
Stress can cause headaches, muscle pain, chest pain, fatigue, and sleep problems. It impacts us emotionally and can cause anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, irritability, and depression. Stress impacts our behavior and can cause unhealthy eating habits, anger outbursts, chemical dependency, bad exercise habits, and social withdrawal. It’s impact on us as individuals bleeds over and contributes to stress and dysfunction in our homes, with our spouses and children. In contrast, healthy boundaries enhance our physical well being, stabilizes our stress level which impacts our mood, encourages healthy living habits and familial relationships. Boundaries help make us our best self.
A lack of boundaries affects us spiritually.
Boundaries help to ensure that we maintain time for personal study. While we lead corporately, our relationship with Jesus Christ still needs personal nourishment. It is essential that we spend time in prayer and biblical study outside of our vocational or volunteer responsibilities. Studying only for work changes the object of our search. When we study only for work we are looking for what will minister to the people we serve. Prayer and biblical study, when the object is our relationship with Christ, puts us in search of what God is saying to us personally. This propels us to continually grow.
Weak boundaries put us in danger of positioning ourselves to act as messiah to others. This is a disservice to us and to the people we serve. If we always immediately respond to every phone call, text message, or email, it is easy for our congregation to become dependent on us instead of the God that loves them more than we ever could. This also places the burden on us to find a solution for every problem when in actuality that takes us outside the scope in which God has positioned us. God positions His leaders to help people see Him. It’s difficult to see God when we are standing in the way. Our boundaries give God space to work because it acknowledges our limitations.
Spiritual disciplines are habits we form that help to ensure we are growing in faith.
Spiritual disciplines help us ensure that our relationship with God does not become stagnant. We hear about the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, reading the Bible, and doing life with other Christians. Establishing healthy boundaries is a spiritual discipline that should be added to this list. Jesus Himself exercised healthy boundaries after moments of intense ministry or transformational experiences. He went alone into the wilderness after His baptism. He went away for rest after feeding the 5,000. Even in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus walked some of the way with Peter, James, and John and then went off for prayer time alone.
Healthy boundaries help us maintain physical well being and lower levels of stress in a vocation that is known to cause burnout within the first two to five years of pastoral ministry. Boundaries help us tap into a spiritual discipline that requires us to truly put our faith in God because we realize our own limitations and trust God to work past them.
 Mayo Staff Clinic. 2016. Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. Accessed December 20, 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987.