General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Boundaries and Healthy Congregational Work Environments

General Assembly 2008 Event 3018

Sponsored by the Professional Leadership Coordinating Council (PLCC)
Facilitator: Dr. Helen Bishop, Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship of Hendersonville, NC
Panelists: Rev. Jean Pupke, Patty Withers (CRE), Rev. Jason Shelton

Rev. Jean Pupke, minister at the First UU Church of Richmond, Virginia, read an inspirational message to begin the session. Rev. Jason Shelton, Associate Minister and Director of Music at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, lead the group in a soulful R&B rendition of "Love Will Guide Us."

Those gathered to hear the presentation consisted of religious educators, paid and unpaid administrators, music directors, and ministers. The majority were administrators from medium to large-sized churches.

Dr. Helen Bishop gave an overview of the issue of church size and how it relates to boundaries. In small churches where the minister may be part-time, everyone informally pitches in to do various tasks. As soon as a congregation is big enough to require giving someone a paycheck, the focus turns to a building where this employee works. As congregations move from the "pastoral" to the "program" model, churches need to define roles for staff and volunteers. Above 350 members, large churches move to several full-time employees and their boundary issues usually increase.

Roles and Structure

When Rev. Jean Popke began her ministry, she could see the congregation would be moving into large-sized category. New words must be used, to change small-size thinking. She spent three years watching Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) videos on breakthrough congregations with her church's leadership. By the time they had grown large, they'd seen enough examples in the videos to envision their new identity, and picked up tools to model their church after.

Patty Withers, Credentialed Religious Educator (CRE), First UU Church in Houston, Texas, has worked with many ministers who were good at modeling appropriate boundaries. She finds this is a good way to teach staff. There should also be a good job description for employees. Weekly staff meetings should include teambuilding, covenant-making, goal setting and accountability. Often, accountability takes the form of making sure people are not working more hours than they are supposed to. Patty found the biggest challenge in a large church is communication, given the number of people who need to know things.

Rev. Jason Shelton started at his church as a part-time music director. When he decided to pursue the ministry, he decreased his hours. After he was been ordained, he increased hours as Music Director, took on new tasks, and has become Associate Minister. Now there are issues about boundaries, as different people interpret what his role should be and form conflicting expectations. Shelton lamented that seminaries don't teach staff management techniques, so this is often a weak area for ministers. However, he made a covenant with his senior minister defining their roles between each other and the church, which they shared with the congregation through her leadership. This is a model approach to establishing boundaries and making them public.

Blurred Lines

The primary place where boundaries get crossed, said Dr. Bishop, is on Sunday morning. The member who becomes an employee can lose his or her church, in this sense, as the spiritual center becomes a place of work, the minister becomes the boss. In a "death of a thousand cuts," an administrator's work can be undermined by congregation members who draw on personal friendship or privilege of lay leadership position. Dr. Bishop emphasized the group that the proper way to address these issues is through a Committee on Ministries—one that goes beyond evaluating the effectiveness of the minister to all the church's officers and committees.

While problems will surely arise when members work at the church, there are certainly trade-offs in hiring non-members to work for the church. While you gain objectivity, you then have an outsider who doesn't know who's who or how things get done, but more importantly, may not embrace UU values or accept member lifestyles.

She advised all administrators to obtain contracts or letters of agreement, to protect themselves. Likewise, personnel committees can avoid conflict by defining employee and church roles clearly.


Shelton raised the issue of cell phones, which can make us "on-call 24/7." Defining when and where you are available—and when and where you are not—is an important boundary you can and should set. It's permissible to say "I'd like to talk to you about this, but now is not the appropriate time."

If people break the boundaries you have set, Bishop said, you need to hold them accountable and say, "I don't think this was an emergency." If your congregation wants you to be available, they should get you a cellphone and pay for your extended time.

Patty Withers' church did just that—they gave her a cellphone for use on Sunday mornings, since their facility is large and teachers often need to contact her during RE. However, she leaves that phone in the church at all other times. She advocates keeping distance between church and private family time.

Email is another area where boundaries are hard to keep up when people in her congregation send her over 100 emails in a single day. She would like to see a church communication policy on sending email, cc'ing and answering messages.

Bishop reinforced dispelling the feeling of needing to be on-call all the time. She asked the panel to share the spiritual practices they use to keep focused.

Withers lifts weights which, she points out, you can't do while using a cell phone.

Also she vacations where there is no cellphone access. Bishop meditates on a poem every morning. Shelton composes music for 30 minutes every day, something which he cannot do while distracted. Pupke keeps before her the moments of her highest resolve, starting the day with a recollection of the good service she seeks in life. "Everyone needs a spiritual practice, to remind you of your place in the universe," Bishop observed. Certainly, none of these pursuits are nurtured by multitasking on the phone and internet.

So how does one begin a conversation about boundaries, in a respectful manner? Talk with your Committee on Ministries, and let them help you. What about when a minister doesn't understand s/he needs to run the staff? This should be addressed in an evaluation of the minister.

The session closed with a reading from Henry David Thoreau about time spent alone in the quiet.

Reported by Toby Haber; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.