Boundaries for Pastors

The same member keeps calling the pastor over and over for financial help to pay their utility bills, buy food, or pay the rent. Another member consistently calls late at night to express “concern” about the “wrong direction he perceives the church to be going in. A member from another pastor’s church calls you to complain about her own pastor, your colleague. It has been brought to your attention by the church treasurer that one of your members is insisting on getting a tax receipt for a household appliance that he purchased for an elderly member, but you discover that he did not put the funds “into the church,” and instead purchased and delivered it himself without the knowledge or involvement of the church. Then there’s the couple who have several fights each week, call you up, and expect that you should be there to referee their “feature events” whenever called upon to do so. At what point do you say no?

Pastors are generally expected to be available, able, and willing to respond to every matter or request that comes their way all the time. Many pastors can testify to being harshly criticized by members for a delayed response to a member’s “crisis” or call, or for not being able to address a matter at all even after an otherwise stellar record of regular and consistent response in most situations. There are legitimate times when the pastor’s personal life situations may make him or her unable to deal with a member’s issues within the member’s time frame or not at all! There is a lot of stress, the feeling of being overwhelmed, because relatively few ministers have mastered the art and courage needed to say “no” even in situations where that decision is perfectly warranted.

I’ve heard fellow ministers (they tend to be from an earlier generation) say that we should be “all things to all people” like the Apostle Paul. Methinks there is some eisegesis going on here. Surely, Paul did not mean that any pastor is obligated to over-extend themself in order to “be all things” to anyone, and certainly not all the time. This is not physically possible or even practical. The translation of the mentioned text is not within the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, however, that pastoral ministry is made much more difficult and stressful owing to mistaken ideals and unrealistic expectations. It is permissible for the pastor to say no!

I had to learn to say no. “No” isn’t a favorite word with parishioners. It tends to elicit negative reactions and may even result in your character and ministerial calling being called into question! Some members believe that the pastor works for them, that they are supposed to respond in a time and manner consistent with their opinion of the minister’s role and responsibility. This issue highlights the need to better educate the church regarding how to relate to pastors and to temper their expectations of those who serve the church. In Exodus 18:19-24, Jethro gave Moses sage advice about how to lead and minister effectively and efficiently, while protecting his health and prolonging his life. The advice included teaching the people how to live harmoniously, as well as to appoint himself assistants from among the people. In other words, no one person can effectively pastor a church! Team leadership (if actually practiced) is one way to gently say “no.” Enlisting the assistance and skills of qualified others does take some of the load of ministry off the pastor’s shoulders.

Church members inadvertently expect too much of their pastor. Unreasonable expectations and even unfair demands are oftentimes made. The pastor must understand their own human and professional limitations and establish boundaries. Carefully choosing pastoral assistants (local elders) is a critical aspect of implementing boundaries. However, one has to be careful not to implement ministry boundaries, per the pastoral function, if some qualified person has not been put in place to cover the needs that the pastor cannot or is unable to provide. For example, if the male pastor has concerns about dealing with women issues or a particular female, it would probably work better if there was a female elder on the leadership team who could fill that need.

I had to come to the realization one day that I did not need to be the one who gets the calls about people in need of financial assistance for their utility bill, rent, or food. Even in a smaller church with limited leadership personnel, it is imperative that the pastor carefully evaluates the impact that servicing so many calls is having on his or her overall ministry, personal time, and family time. Is there someone else who can effectively deal with these matters? Does it have to be you the pastor? Should you put a small benevolence committee in place to handle these requests?

Many pastors are afflicted by the messiah mentality, where the feeling is that “I am the one who has to…” This is not true, and it is not good for the pastor or the church in the long term. Pastoral burnout is a real problem that seems to be getting more widespread as the church becomes less of a service-oriented institution and more like a fussy consumer. Burnout is often the effect of not saying no, when warranted. Pastors are not super humans, contrary to popular belief. We are mere humans. In his work Margin, Richard Swenson addresses the vital subject of “overloading” quite well:

We are not infinite. The day does not have more than twenty-four hours. We do not have an inexhaustible source of human energy. We cannot keep running on empty. Limits are real, and despite what some might think, limits are not even an enemy. Overloading is the enemy.*

Maybe the following suggestions can help pastors who feel overwhelmed, and who feel a bit awkward to say no:

1.     Remember Jethro’s wise counsel to Moses, regarding overwork. It is not good for the pastor or his family. In fact, it is not good for those who are being ministered to, as they are placed at a disadvantage of receiving less than efficient service.

2.     Surround yourself with adequate, qualified assistance. God never called us to pastor the church all by ourselves.

3.     Develop a healthy relationship with the vital word, “no” and teach parishioners its value. One definite no-no (not a mere no) is the deacon bringing all the problems of the physical plant to my attention just before I mount the platform with the worship team to begin service! Yes, I had to pull a faithful deacon to the side years ago and instruct him regarding the negative impact of his weekly practice upon my state of mind as I readied myself to preach (I nipped it after about the fourth time).

4.     Study well the difference between a member’s “emergency” and what is truly urgent. Failure on the part of another to plan well does not constitute an emergency on your part.

5.     Invest quality time, resources, and training in your pastoral staff (that is what I call my team of elders). Do like Jesus. Teach them what to do, empower them to do it, and allow them to do it. Remember, you can’t do it alone!

6.     Focus more on being efficient than on being liked (and thank God if the saints still like you regardless). No matter how much you try (and suffer burnout as a result), somebody will not like you anyhow or be satisfied that you gave your life trying to please them.

7.     Develop more prayerful dependence on God for guidance in all things pertaining to the ministry. We do have a tendency (without necessarily realizing it) to rely on our gifts, praise from members, and personal sense of competence as the ministry years drag on.

8.     Find an accountability partner who will be honest but not abusively critical as you endeavor to grow in your understanding and submission to Jethro’s wise counsel.

9.     Take a weekly day off and publicize it by placing it in the church bulletin. Remember, you will be tested by that member who feels that pastors don’t work except on the Sabbath. Do not give in to their tyranny. Your day off is a relaxing way of saying no.

10.  Pray and meditate upon Scripture about how to handle specific challenges that particular members or situations pose. The Holy Spirit will guide you to a godly solution.

My prayer is that we pastors will remember that the work is the Lord’s and His alone. Maybe it’s not a bad idea after all, to work smart rather than feeling so driven to please and work so hard.

Dr. Everton A. Ennis is founder and president of CLASS Act Seminars, a consulting and training service that assists pastors and congregations in matters of conflict ministry, leadership development training, and church growth strategies. He is also a Registered Neutral/Licensed Mediator (by the Georgia Commission on Dispute Resolution and the Administrative Office of the Courts/Judicial Council of Georgia), as well as a Notary Public. He has traveled across the USA, and to the Bahamas and Canada as a keynote speaker and presenter at various church leadership and church growth events. Visit his website at ClassActSeminars.com

* Richard A. Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives (Colorado Springs, CO. NavPress, 2004),56.