The headlines are relentless. I wince every time I hear of a minister violating sexual or moral boundaries. I listen sadly as clergy describe unrealistic demands placed upon them by their congregation.
Over the years, I have seen the great harm inflicted on congregants and clergy alike by boundary violations.
As preparation for our offering something similar, I recently attended my first-ever “boundaries workshop.”
I knew that boundary violations have become a pressing issue in ministry settings.
I knew that clergy over-functioning and laity under-functioning (and vice versa) are a lethal mix.
I knew that a minister with a Messiah complex can be deadly.
I knew from personal experience how sick clergy can be.
I knew about laity who think they own the minister and his or her family.
I knew from experience what it feels like to be a victim of boundary violations.
I knew this topic is one that most of us would rather not address.
But I didn’t know.
I had not realized how pervasive this issue is for the 21st-century church.
I had not realized how reluctant we (I) have been to confront the congregational systems we have built that have enabled and even encouraged fuzzy boundaries.
I had grown insensitive to how vulnerable every minister is to a multitude of temptations.
I had not stopped to take in how many men and women, boys and girls have had their lives harmed by boundary violators.
I needed to be reminded that for all the good that clergy can do for the sake of the kingdom, an unhealthy minister has the capacity to inflict pain and harm that will carry its poison far into the future.
Now I know, and I can’t un-know what I know.
I’ve tried to capture my thoughts as I mull over the implications of clear and healthy boundaries for clergy and congregations alike.
- Boundaries are our friends. Just as clear rules make a game more enjoyable for all the participants, clear boundaries make congregational life richer and more Christ-like for all.
- The personal and internal issues that every minister deals with have significant impacts on the way he or she lives out their calling in the church.
- The personal and internal issues that every member of a church deals with will have significant impacts on the way each of us lives out our calling in our church.
- Every minister needs someone to hold him or her accountable. This person or persons should have a name and a regular appointment on the calendar of the minister.
- Every congregation should have a relationship with a licensed pastoral counselor to whom they refer congregants with personal issues.
- Every congregation needs to establish a professional code of conduct for their clergy.
- Clarity about a wide array of expectations between clergy and congregation is sadly lacking in most congregations. Such clarity is indispensible for healthy ministry.
- Personnel committees have two essential roles: advocacy and accountability. Their job is a sacred trust that requires great maturity, spiritual insight and emotional intelligence. They should meet regularly. Setting salaries is a minor task in their job description.
- Every church needs clear guidelines for how it is going to do the ministry it has been called to. These guidelines must be composed in broad enough terms to remain flexible as our contexts continue to shift and change.
- Regarding conviction #9, when rules rule, the Kingdom of God is stifled.
- Every minister and every volunteer who works with children and youth should undergo a thorough criminal background check and be required to attend an annual boundary awareness workshop/ review.
- All churches need clear policies regarding online and social media communications for clergy and laity.
- Sexual and moral violations are the most obvious, but boundary issues run much deeper and are more pervasive than we are prone to imagine.
- If you think you are above and beyond the need for clear boundaries, you probably have a problem.
Since having my consciousness raised regarding the urgency of this issue, I’ve come to a greater appreciation for how very difficult it is to be effective in ministry and maintain proper boundaries.
Some of us were raised with better clarity in this regard than others. No one, however, can afford to take this issue lightly or ignore his or her own vulnerabilities.
We must pay close attention to boundaries if we are going to be taken seriously in our community.
Every congregation and its clergy should covenant with one another to make healthy boundaries a high priority.
What that will look like will vary from place to place, but it must be addressed and it must become a high priority. Anything less dishonors the One we serve.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.