Good Boundaries Make Good Ministry

Electric fence with a warning sign

Ordained parish ministers serving congregations have a unique role and relationship with congregants that doesn't have analogies or parallels in other institutions.

They hold many roles: pastor, preacher and prophet, with pastor being primary. The role of pastor needs clear boundaries around issues that impact trust. The role also needs to pose limits on congregants' expectations of availability.

When the pastoral role is compromised, it is hard for the minister to be effective as a preacher or prophet.

It's helpful for congregational leaders to understand the boundaries of healthy so they can support their minister in keeping them.

The Role of Pastor

A minister needs to maintain a pastoral relationship with all of the members of the congregation. This has many facets, including:

  • Holding all of the congregants in the light of love.
  • Acknowledging every congregant's potential.
  • Staying in right relationship (i.e. being everyone's pastor) in times of conflict.

Healthy Ministerial Boundaries

Effective and authentic pastoral relationships depend on the trust and trustworthiness of the minister. Trust is built upon predictabilitiy, integrity, and healthy boundaries, including:

  • Ministers should not be friends with congregants, or play favorites with congregants. Even if a minister has good boundaries, socializing regularly with individuals or sub-groups can be seen as playing favorites. (This perception will often remain unmentioned until a conflict comes up.)
  • Ministers should not diminish, demean or shun congregants in ways that dismiss their basic humanity. But ministers are also human and may need to set boundaries when someone is being harmful toward the minister.
  • Ministers are human, and will find themselves in situations where they become enmeshed, entangled or triggered. Having a good support network of colleagues and mentors will help keep the minister grounded so they can be responsive rather than reactive.
  • Ministers need to avoid emotional entanglement/enmeshment with congregants. This is a nuanced boundary that can be hard to support by inexperienced or conflict-avoidant lay leaders. Often there is a congregant who demands a disproportionate amount of time and energy from the minister, and the minister needs to keep an extra-strong boundary in these cases. Numerous and lengthy emails, frequent calls and texts, and pressure for other kinds of attention are all markers of entanglement/enmeshment. It's important for congregational leaders to support their minister in setting boundaries in these cases.

Ministers have support and resources available from the UUA and the UUMA to keep their boundaries in good health.

The Role of Lay Leaders in Holding Healthy Boundaries

Healthy, shared ministry includes reinforcing healthy boundaries around the ministry. Often, a congregation has a group of lay leaders--e.g. a Committee on Ministry--that partners with the minister in good boundary setting. Much of this described aspirationally in the congregation's covenant, and in the disruptive behavoir policy when there are boundary violations or other harms occuring.

  • Don't try to be the "exception to the rule" about having the minister be your friend. This will make it easier for you to help the minister hold this boundary with others in the congregation.
  • Notice how well you and other leaders honor the minister's boundaries around communication (emails/calls/texts) during their days/hours off, and around their response times to non-urgent matters. Again, if you are not expecting to be an "exception to the rule" it is easier to hold with boundary with others.
  • If there is a congregant who is ignoring boundaries set by the minister, staff members, or other lay leaders, it is imperative that the rest of the lay leaders help hold the boundaries. If an initial conversation doesn't result in the honoring of stated boundaries, your Committee on Ministry and/or your Board should engage your disruptive behavior policy.

Congregational Leaders can always reach out to their Regional Staff when they need help holding good boundaries.

About the Author

UUA Congregational Life Staff Group

The regional Congregational Life staff are congregations' local connection to the UUA. All of the program Congregational Life staff have expertise in most aspects of congregational life and each also has a few program areas of expertise. See the...

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