By Elizabeth Grace Saunders
Working at a church naturally lends itself to murky boundaries. By design, there’s weekend work as well as certain activities that happen in the evenings. Due to the nature of this work, your likelihood of working — or feeling like you’re working—during every waking hour increases.
But it doesn’t need to be that way.
As a time management coach for more than 10 years, I’ve coached individuals around the world, including pastors. I’ve found that with the right strategies and God’s grace, it can be possible to set boundaries even in very time-pressed situations.
And in the words of Brad Powell, senior pastor at NorthRidge Church in Plymouth, Michigan, it’s essential you set boundaries because others won’t set them for you.
“The field of play and expectations for people in pastoral ministry are endless,” Powell said. “Teach every week with the quality, relevance and impact of the best speakers in the world; lead the organization as effectively as well-trained CEOs; be a shepherd who is always engaged in personal ministry to all of the people; be so driven by compassion that you visit everyone in the hospital; answer every email; address everyone’s concerns in a way that makes them happy; be always available. Simply put, it’s been hardest to just set boundaries because the expectations of people are for a pastor to have no boundaries.”
To help you in the quest to set boundaries, here are five scenarios where it can be extra tough — and what you can do to address them.
#1: Staff difficulties
You might go through periods where you have disunity on your team or where individuals don’t follow through on their work. As a leader, you do have a responsibility to address performance issues and to help manage conflict, but you can’t allow staff drama to consume your days.
To set boundaries, first pray about the situation and ask God to give you wisdom about what’s actually happening. Are your staff members having issues outside of work that could lead to this behavior? Are their spiritual influences at play? Are individuals in the right positions? Are you the best person to resolve these issues?
Once you have more clarity on what is happening, decide on the next steps. It could include meeting with the individuals and setting up an accountability practice. It could look like having someone on your staff gifted in mediation help with bridging some of the gaps. Or it could look like seeking outside counsel to help your staff work together more effectively.
The biggest thing to remember is that you are responsible for helping others take ownership of themselves and their part in situations — not for being available at all hours of the day or night to “fix” staff issues.
During the course of your ministry, you’ll have times where you have open positions — sometimes for a substantial period of time. The natural reaction is to jump in and fill those gaps. Sometimes that’s appropriate for a brief time, but it can lead to burnout in the long term if you or other members of your staff try to completely cover for open positions.
In addition to fervently praying for God to bring the right people as soon as possible, step back and take time to evaluate the most essential tasks associated with the open role. Then figure out how those responsibilities can be distributed throughout the current staff and volunteers. Or even consider bringing on temporary help in the interim. And if you do give current employees extra work, see if there is any way you can get support for them with their existing responsibilities or reduce some of their typical work for a time, such as lowering the frequency of certain programming, for example.
You are called to ensure the church properly serves the people God has given you, but you’re not responsible for doing everything yourself.
#3: Holiday season
Christmas and Easter offer incredible opportunities to reach people with the Gospel of Christ — but it can make your church staff feel overwhelmed.
Even in the midst of having to work extra hours, a way you can set boundaries is to keep the Sabbath holy. Set aside a day every week to step away from your church work to be with God, family and friends, or to simply do what you need to get done outside of your ministry.
Not only will setting this boundary bless you because you have a breather. But God specifically promises blessings to those who keep the Sabbath in Isaiah 58:13-14.
#4: Capital project
When you have a significant capital project in terms of a new building or expansion, it can end up feeling like another job on top of your current job. So to set boundaries, you need to be very strategic with your time investment.
Depending on the extent of the project, you might want to look at increasing the hours of a current staff member or bringing on a temporary staff member to help manage the details of the process. Coordination takes time, and that means it will take from the other ministry work you do or from your personal time. If you’re not willing to cut back in either area, bring in the help so you can delegate.
Also remember to keep your family and friends a priority in this process. Set aside time to invest in those relationships and, if at all possible, avoid rescheduling it. That might mean that a building meeting happens a day or two later. But when you look at this from a 50-year point of view, weeks or even months of delay on a new building can’t really compare to potentially permanent damage to your personal relationships due to lack of prioritizing them.
#5: Church growth
Setting boundaries during times of rapid church growth can feel sacrilegious in a way. God is blessing what we’re doing. There’s so much opportunity that we need to capitalize on. How could I possibly back down?
The answer is in the Bible. If Jesus, the only sinless man to ever have lived, only had a few years of public ministry on earth to accomplish all that was planned for Him and He set boundaries, then it’s all right for you to do so, too.
Jesus frequently went to quiet places, alone, to pray, even when the disciples probably would have preferred His presence and even when there were still people wanting His help.
At all times, but especially in times of church growth, it’s essential to protect time to invest in your personal relationship with God. Whether that looks like morning devotions or right before bed, setting aside the opportunity to seek God’s wisdom, receive His love, and to remember that there’s a God and you’re not Him is so imperative.
Here’s how Powell explains the importance of being aligned with God:
“Know your God-given calling. God gives different gifts to everyone and gives all the gifts to no one. So, though people’s expectations were for me to be all things to all people, I refused to live for their expectations. Rather, I communicated to them that I was committed to seeking to live God’s expectations by fully giving myself to the gifts and calling He’s given me. The two primary areas of my calling are teaching and leading. As such, I made it my responsibility to lead in such a way that, though I couldn’t meet everyone’s needs, I could create a structure that allowed for people with all of the necessary gifts to be aligned in such a way that people’s needs could be met. The key to this whole process is found in seeking to be a God pleaser, not a person pleaser.”
As a church leader, will there be times when you struggle to set boundaries and find your ministry work taking up more time than it should? Yes. But do you always need to live that way? No.
By relying on God and following these types of time management techniques, you can set boundaries even in difficult situations.