Often, colleagues get complaints about how available they are to the congregation, or how often they’re in the building, or how much of their lives they are willing to share, or how involved they will be in various problems. “She doesn’t care.”… “They’re never here.”… “He doesn’t like us.”
And these grumbles become complaints which become sticking points which, if badly managed, can become reasons your minister leaves/is pushed out.
Meanwhile, the colleague is doing exactly what they were trained to do: hold boundaries so they can best serve the entire congregation and remain healthy.
They are holding boundaries so they don’t burn out or cause harm to the congregation (and themselves).
The Reverend Sharon Wylie, minister at Chalice UU in Escondido, CA, shared a list of five tips for healthy boundaries (and has given me permission to share). It’s written for ministers, but I think it’s helpful for layfolk to understand why we do what we do. Here are her five tips and my commentary:
1. Avoid situations with congregants that feel like friendship and promote intimacy.
This can be hard on both sides, as ministry can be a lonely job, especially if you’re single or in a small town (or single in a small town). People who get it are thin on the ground, and often go to the congregation they serve. And… you may feel a connection with your minister and want more. Resist the urge, because a lonely minister (or an inexperienced minister) may accept your invitation and later realize it’s a problem.
2. You are the holder of the boundaries. Don’t expect congregants to know what is your day off and when you are on vacation.
This is a two-parter. First, we are all holders of our own boundaries - of personal space, of personal sharing, of time, of emotional labor. Your idea of your minister’s boundaries may not match, but they are the holder of their boundaries.
Regarding time off, please please please pay attention to when your minister says their day off is, or when they will be in or out of the office, or (gasp) when they go on vacation or study leave. Too many ministers overwork because they will answer your call (assuming it’s an emergency and getting mad when it isn’t), or look at your texts, or read your emails, and frankly that no longer because time off. Just… help them not have to tell you Every Single Time.
3. Prioritize your time.
They are one person. You are anywhere from 20 to over 1000. And you all have a lot to say and ask and share. Imagine if you got emails every week from every single person in the congregation you belong to… and imagine if every single email demanded an immediate response. You’d lose it.
This is what most of our ministers face every single day. It’s no wonder some of my colleagues have email inboxes with over 20,000 unread messages.
Your minister has a lot to attend to, and if they are going to have any chance to do anything other than be the executive director of a non-profit with not enough money (aka do ministry), you will have to wait for your non-urgent message to be attended to.
Consider these things when composing that email: If it’s just an interesting thought or article, say that in the subject line, and affirm that no response is required. If it does warrant discussion at some point, consider making an appointment instead. If it is indeed urgent, why are you sending an email?
4. If you are feeling anxious and upset about something, SLOW DOWN, stop emailing, and check in with yourself.
When things seem out of control, humans reach for things we can control. We get upset at the thing that isn’t the thing. But the truth is, small things can add up, and in congregations, there are a lot of small things that start as molehills and quickly become mountains.
This is a human problem, but it becomes exacerbated when it’s multiple people struggling for perspective and balance. Your minister is sometimes going to be upset at something that isn’t actually a big problem, because there’s an undercurrent of upset that this one thing (an unapproved announcement, a mistake on the calendar, a leftover pile of items from the tag sale) lands on top of everything else … and boom, we’re stressed, upset, maybe even expressing outsized emotions about it.
Consider the advice in this tip for you, too. As Wylie writes, “What’s going on with you? This is church; if you described your current problem to a non-churchy friend, would it sound ridiculous? Probably. This doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t need to be addressed, but it does mean you are too engaged. If you can, set it aside for now and come back to it a day or two later.”
5. Remember that the vast majority of people you are dealing with are volunteers at what they’re doing… people with messed up personal lives and screwed up values. Not only that, but they are under the impression that YOU—with all your weird imperfections and hang-ups and your enormous set of your own problems—are somehow important enough to listen to and take guidance from... The whole situation is bizarre, and you’re better at your job when you remember it.
We know that you come in with wounds - sometimes generations deep. You come in with questions, and problems, and still an earnestness to do this thing well. To get involved. To find meaning through worship, through relationships, through congregational leadership.
A normal person would run away, but ministers do feel a sense of call to get into the mix, to explore what it means to be human together doing good for other humans and considering our connection to not just each other and the earth but also to Mystery and That Which Holds All.
Don’t forget: your minister was once like you, a volunteer, a wreck, someone who found meaning and purpose at their home congregation. And at some point heard that voice still and small that said “go ahead, go deeply into debt for a professional degree, write a hundred essays about who you are for all the requirements, go through the gauntlet of fellowship and the search process, and now be in the front of the room with people who remind you a lot of you.”
And we’re still sometimes struggling, still wounded, still finding our own way. We forget sometimes that we have had the training to know more about religious traditions, and rites of passage, and ethics, and anti-oppression, and pastoral care, and worship, and self-differentiation - and that you haven’t.
We forget sometimes just how strange this all is, this church thing.
And we sometimes forget that none of us came into this congregation to be directors of non-profits with no money; we came because we needed something to help us heal and help us bend the moral arc toward justice. We all need to give each other a break.
And ….we are glad - and honored - to be in it with you. But things will be better on all sides if you remember to honor our boundaries, make space for us to be human, be kind to us and each other, and relax about the small stuff.
I’m reminded of a funny sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look (featuring David Mitchell and Olivia Coleman), where this was put on its head - the wife was mildly irritated about her husband’s affair, the gambling problem, the ticking biological clock, but what was really wrong was the fridge door was left open and the food spoiled (“Oh, the milk! So much milk! And I’ll never see that quiche again!”).
And this goes for your non-ordained religious professionals as well. Especially when we are only getting paid for half-time ministry.