Murky Boundaries

I have it on good authority that a previous generation of pastoral leaders were advised often not to become friends with their congregations, to keep them at a (professional?) distance and maintain the relational boundaries – the pastor / congregant divide. So when ‘the pastor’ came to visit everyone was on their best behaviour as they sat in the ‘good room’ and drank tea together. I think we know such talk is utter nonsense now. In a world where authenticity is our greatest currency who wants to be a number on a church roll?

My generation heard another rather binary message. Maybe it wasn’t intended as so, but the essence of it was that you needed one day off / week where nothing of church entered your realm and when you took holidays you allowed no church business to be part of what you did. It was intended to allow clear boundaries between work and rest and to ensure recharge actually happened. Good in principle but maybe not so much in practice, especially if your church community are your friends and you want to go on holidays with some of them, or if you are able to live in such a way that life is not a desperate 6 day sprint followed by a brief window of collapse and exhaustion.

For the last 15 years or so we have allowed the boundaries in our lives to become increasingly blurred, to mix work and fun, rest and engagement and we haven’t come close to burn out or to disillusionment. My hunch is it’s partly a maturity/identity thing where we feel at ease in who we are and don’t feel a need to attend to every request the moment it comes in, but it probably a result of a more peaceful approach to life in general. Rarely do we have nothing to do and rarely are we bordering on exhaustion.

So as we trundle off for two weeks of holidays I know I will answer the phone to people, I will respond to emails and I will think about work both in its pastoral form and my business. But the boundary I have is that I do it when I choose to. I ignore what I don’t wish to deal with and I engage with that which I do.

This morning an inspiring email came in from one of our church community offering their service to help others.

‘What are your thoughts Andrew?’

I don’t use an autoresponder these days – because I generally like to respond – and I wrote back straight away. It was good – a great idea and one we can discuss more when I get home. That didn’t hurt – I wasn’t offended that he had emailed me while I was on leave. I enjoyed the energy the idea brought to me.

We’ve been thinking thru a new venture as a church community. It feels like a great idea that we are pursuing, but I don’t have the time to be the primary driver in it. Conversation with our friends while in holidays has helped me see what my role needs to be. It wasn’t hard to have those conversations. It’s just who we are and what we do and it would be weird not to talk about one aspect of our lives because it was holidays. And the outcome was clarity and peace – a win.

Perhaps you need the distinction of the ‘day off’ or the uninterrupted holiday. That’s fine – I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach to Christian leadership, but if you’ve only been sold the one binary model then maybe you should (intentionally) experiment with a different way – ‘intentionally’ because then you won’t feel guilty and see if there are other ways to live that work better for you.

I get the sense that frustration is inevitable when we try to make that which is fluid and complex into something solid, defined and clear, because it just won’t play out like that. So when a day off gets interrupted or a boundary breached we get gnarly rather than just rolling with it.

We are very much at home now in the murkiness of indistinct boundaries and a fluid work, family, play schedule. Occasionally we may just turn everything off and disconnect but now that’s the exception rather than the rule. It is a way of being that fits the life we have chosen and the rhythms we live by. But I wouldn’t want to make it a rule…

Then we’d be back to square one 

6 thoughts on “Murky Boundaries

  1. Wonderful approach Andrew, as long as ‘murky boundaries’ aren’t an excuse to allow yourself to feel obligated or indispensable. Like many reactions we have to the previous generations of ministers, our decision matrix is good as long as we don’t fall back into the bear traps our forebears were trying to avoid. Ie: we pursue friendships from among our communities because our view of church is in relationships and that’s good. As long as our friendships don’t drive us in a different direction to that we know God is calling. As I get older I realise a lot of those old ‘rules’ are indeed not helpful, but the principles that underpin them often are. As always your writings are a blessing to me mate, thanks.

  2. “As I get older I realise a lot of those old ‘rules’ are indeed not helpful, but the principles that underpin them often are”.

    That comment needs to be underscored.

  3. Yes I was told the same thing Hamo.
    But when you are travelling with a church community for 22 years it would be totally unrealistic and foolish not to form real and lasting friends.
    We holiday with a select group, and by ourselves as well.

  4. Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Even Jesus was not considered a prophet is his hometown.

    “We holiday with a select group” – that sounds like it should be handled wisely. that could easily lead to a perception of a ‘purple circle’ by congregants ‘not so lucky’.

  5. Only if you set up as ‘pastor’ and others in the first place I would suggest.

    We all have some friends better than others – if i happen to be a pastor then so be it.

    If I happen to be cultivating an elite inner circle then that is different entirely – not our gig

  6. While I agree it should be handled wisely, thats really the congregants problem. Pastors are not employed to be friends. Friendship may or may not happen.
    My holidays are… holidays. Not a church camp.

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