Once again, my talkative upstairs neighbor accosted me. It was easier to let her inside and continue with what I was doing than to try to have a brief conversation in the hallway. I was cooking dinner and simultaneously nursing a baby. Our toddler was dropping raw eggs on the floor as fast as our dog would lick them up.

Even if she hadn’t been a member of our church and our landlord, I would have felt it was my duty to be nice in the name of Christ. We were missionaries, after all. Besides, I wouldn’t have known how to implement a healthy boundary to save my life. I was clueless in managing the weight of ministry, mothering, and church members’ expectations in an unfamiliar culture.

To get help, I turned to older and wiser women whose advice was plentiful but usually didn’t fit my context or culture. Like most people, I wanted something tried and true: some easy system to ensure adequate family time, Christ-following kids, a successful ministry, and a church that didn’t blow up because I had unwittingly offended someone by neglecting their needs.

Healthy boundaries are definitely needed in ministry. But each ministry family will need to establish their own boundaries depending on their stage in life and the kinds of demands placed on their time. Just remember that, like everything else we use to enhance ministry, boundaries are a tool, not a Savior.

What’s Your View on Boundaries?

For some people, boundaries scream “restrictive.” For others, they provide a sense of order and control. What are some uses of boundaries?

  • To draw lines that can’t be crossed.
  • To protect ourselves from getting hurt.
  • To protect the calling God has placed on our lives.
  • To justify our unwillingness to love difficult people.
  • To build healthy relationships.
  • To establish healthy limits.

How about you? Where or in what areas do you make rigid choices?

For example do you find yourself thinking or saying to others: This is our family time; no one can interrupt for any reason?

Where do you use rules to control your boundaries?

For example you might think or say to others: You said you would be home tonight so we could have time together. I cooked a special meal. I waited for you. Now I’ve got to get other things done.

Where do you neglect to keep boundaries?

Do you say or think to others: I was hoping to be home to put the kids to bed but this person is desperate, and it’s the only time they can meet.

Where do you refuse to use boundaries for your own good?

Do you say or think to others: I’m so busy that I don’t have time to exercise.

Gospel Explanation of Boundaries

Those of us with rigid boundaries (the law keepers) mistakenly think we will gain life by doing everything the right way. Those with loose boundaries (the lawbreakers) think we will gain life by not doing it the “right” way. For example, we may think, I may get my identity and my worth through my freedom to use or not use boundaries. By not keeping my prior commitment of being home to put the kids to bed, I’ll get my ego stroked by spending time with someone who shows they need me. 

The idea is not to have a legalistic versus a licentious answer. Instead, we need to realize we can use both strong or weak boundaries as ways to be in control, but both may reveal a tendency towards arrogance, exposing a desire to live life from our own constructs, and self-sufficiency. While we must set boundaries, our boundaries should serve others helping us love God and others. Our boundaries should never be used as a weapon to keep others at arm’s length nor as an idol. Tools are good to help us grow in grace, but when used wrongly as a weapon to keep others for example at arms length they are cruel masters. This is why we need the gospel both to expose our need for Jesus and to help point us to our need met fully in Christ alone, so we may use boundaries to help us love God and serve others  well with the grace of God.

It’s helpful in my mind and others have found it helpful when I explain boundaries to think of them as semi-permeable membranes meant for protection but also—in the right time—to be broken. Consider a baby in the womb. It needs the boundary of the membrane for its health. But at a particular time, the membrane needs to be broken, also for the health of the child.

What Usually Motivates Us in Setting Boundaries?

Most people struggle to set—and keep—boundaries. We should ask ourselves some questions meant to help us with self-examination and reflection. Consider the following four:

  • Should I volunteer for that activity?
  • Should I take on one more “good” task?
  • If I take on this task, will I feel frustrated, bitter, or resentful?
  • What is driving my desire to set (or not set) a boundary?

If we’re honest, perhaps e may have in the past or perhaps today have set boundaries based on our fears, unbelief, selfishness or desire for control. Well-placed boundaries can help protect what we value most, like family time or our limited energy.

Setting, Keeping and Breaking Boundaries

  • When you set a new boundary, explain it to the people it will impact. “Honey, I’ve signed up for a gym class, and I’ll need to leave the house by 7:00 a.m. If you need something from me before heading to work, can you let me know the night before?”
  • Be proactive and clarify over and over rather than being pushed along by others. At the same time, keep moving toward the other person. “My gym class starts tomorrow so I’ll be leaving the house at 7:00 a.m. Is there anything you’ll need from me tomorrow morning?” If at 6:55 the next morning your husband asks for help finding his shoes, you could respond in a kind tone, “I’ll give a quick glance around the living room as I walk out the door.”
  • The boundary may be due to a season of your life. It may be that you can give little, nothing, or a lot. Ask, “What am I able to offer? Am I able to offer something now?”

Consider areas where you may need to set or loosen a boundary. Ask yourself the following two questions, “What about family time, your marriage, caring for parishioners, or how many church events you attend or not attend?”

Like any new habit, start small in an area that doesn’t involve participation from others (aka your husband). For areas where you and your spouse don’t agree, cheer up. This reveals deeper heart issues for both of you. In other words, you and your spouse are way more sinful than you even know! And that my friend, IS good news. You need a Savior in Jesus who deeply loves you more than you can imagine! Run back to Jesus, confess your need to Him, and trust in the righteousness of Christ alone (1 John 1:9).

Apply Grace in Your Boundary Keeping or Breaking

Imagine you and your spouse agree that you’ll reserve Friday evenings for family time. If you’re only able to do this one or two Fridays the first month, encourage each other that you were at least able to start the practice.  Then begin again and continue to assess how you are doing at keeping an evening for family time. Open and honest communication is critical to keeping and forming new habits.I Thessalonians 5: 11 tells us, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.“ Consider asking each other about breaking a boundary. Apply grace to one another and make the goal a long-term one. Remember if you live by the law you will also die by the law. The idea of boundaries is to use them as a tool, not to hold each other ‘accountable’ to your boundaries for ultimate approval and worth for you, your spouse, or others. Instead, the idea is to live with one another in an understanding way, using boundaries to help your family while  being willing to give grace to each other just as the Father has given grace to you. When boundaries inevitably need to be modified or reconsidered then revist them utilizing open, honest, and gracious communication with one another.

Our Friday night family time worked great until new Christians in our church began getting married. My husband assumed I would be understanding because it was part of his job. At first, I was. We especially enjoyed this part of the pastorate. But our young teenage children didn’t. My husband eventually asked couples if they could hold the rehearsal dinner on Thursday evenings. This didn’t work for everyone so he told them he would need to get back in touch with them. Then the two of us would decide together which weddings he would or wouldn’t perform.

When we sense our own irritation about our boundaries being breached or disrespected, it is always an invitation to repentance. In these instances view this as an opportunity for further self-examination and reflection by asking yourself these three questions to begin with:

  • What is going on in my heart?
  • What is motivating me to set/break this boundary?
  • How does the gospel apply to this?

God is always inviting us to grace. Of course, this disrupts our lives and reveals our hearts. Remember, God is all about upending the idols of our heart and point us to the finished and sufficient work of Christ alone.

Concluding Remarks

Experience can build wisdom, especially when we apply the gospel in practical ways. If I had a do-over with my upstairs neighbor, I would explain that I wasn’t able to give our conversation my full attention while simultaneously fixing supper and watching small children. And because I now understand her culture, the next time she knocks on my door   before suppertime, I would call back to her (from inside my house without opening my door), reminding her I can’t talk when I’m fixing supper, and ask her to please stop by in the morning for coffee. I could have loved her much better if I had been firm while also pursuing her.

(Footnote) *Excerpts from Parakaleo’s training on boundaries developed in collaboration with Ruth Ann Batstone and Tami Resch were used for this blog. Please consider visiting Parakaleo for further resources.