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Leadership: Why You Need to Set Boundaries

If “good fences make good neighbors,” what are you doing with an unmended wall? Find out how you can re-establish your personal boundaries.


“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.”

In this excerpt from “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, the poet’s neighbor insists on rebuilding the fence that has fallen into disarray over the winter. Why? the poet asks. The neighbor replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

How can you ensure that you’re a good neighbor to those in your ministry? By having good boundaries.

Out of Bounds

Do you have a boundary problem? Check off the questions below that you’ve actually asked yourself.

  • Will I ever get a day off?
  • Do these expenses come out of my pocket or the church’s budget?
  • Why am I waking up in the night worrying about my job?
  • Do I really look as tired as people say?
  • Why do I always bring work home with me?
  • Why do I have so much vacation time left at the end of the year?
  • When was the last time I enjoyed my hobby?
  • Am I eating so much because I’m hungry or because I’m trying to take my mind off my work?
  • Does everyone have the recurring nightmare of a cell phone chasing them?
  • How in the world am I going to write curriculum and recruit volunteers at the same time?

If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions, you probably have a boundary problem. You need to re-establish your boundaries.

In Bounds

Personally, I believe the two boundaries—or values—that I’ve listed below are general universals for everyone in ministry.

There’s nothing inside or outside of ministry that’s worth selling out your family. In the midst of all the ministry demands and expectations, never forget that your family is your first ministry. If the wheels are falling off your family, it’s only a matter of time before the wheels fall off everything else. You have to set this boundary.

There’s nothing inside or outside of ministry that’s worth losing your health over. Unhealthy time commitments and unrealistic expectations will, over time, make you nuts. All the medication in the world can’t balance overcommitment or lunar expectations. You have to set this boundary.

What other boundaries should you define for yourself? Since all of us have different capacities, skills, talents, and knowledge for leading children’s ministry, then logically, the detailed topography of your boundaries will be different from anyone else’s. Yet there are four very important questions you need to answer to determine your boundaries.

1. What kind of person are you?

Do you like working with people, or would you rather work with things? What are your signature strengths?

Recently, I led my children’s ministry staff through the Gallup organization’s StrengthFinder assessment (www.gallup.com) and the book Now, Discover Your Strengths by Buckingham and Clifton. This process revealed what made each of us on the team tick—and what ticked us off. It helped us understand and appreciate each person’s personal, specific boundaries.

2. What kind of energy reserves do you have?

How much sleep do you need to function? Do you work in quick shots, getting a lot done in a short time, or are you a marathoner who takes more time to process and consider all possible outcomes? Some people have unbelievable stamina when working on a task; others need to rest in the process. Do you exercise? Do you eat properly? To determine your energy boundaries, you must listen to your body. It’ll tell you when you need recharging. If you don’t listen to your body, it’ll break. A few signs that you may need recharging are fatigue, irritability, depression, or lack of motivation.

3. What kind of budget is right for your ministry?

It takes money to do ministry, pay staff, purchase curriculum, laminate posters, provide snacks, copy VBS invitations, do background checks…so who’s paying for all this?

If you carry the financial burden for the children’s ministry, it’ll only be a matter of time before you feel that others are taking advantage of your heart for kids and your personal time and financial resources. It’s okay to contribute your money to the church for children’s ministry, but be sure the church stands behind your leadership with a budget. A budget says the church is with you and accepts responsibility for the financial expenditures it takes to operate a quality ministry for children.

4. What kind of expectations inspire or drain you?

We can’t have a discussion about boundaries without also talking about expectations. As a children’s ministry leader, you have four sources of expectations: your boss, children’s parents, yourself, and God. If at any time these four sources of expectations oppose one another, it’ll create undue stress, worry, and tremendous displeasure.

Several years ago, I read Unlocking Your Sixth Suitcase by Jay Carty. One of the important principles I took away from that book was the idea of the 60/40 rule, which is: You must connect with and enjoy at least 60 percent of your job and its expectations. If you view more than 40 percent of your job as a downer with draining expectations, you probably won’t make it.

Actually, the key to success in any leadership position is the proper match of reachable expectations with one’s capacities. Once again, remember that God made each of us with different capacities.

I think it’s funny when someone says to me, “I can’t understand how you lead a large children’s ministry, travel extensively, teach about children’s ministry, write books, and still have a life.” All I can say is, “That’s what I enjoy doing.” I’m inspired by that particular subset of expectations. On the other hand, I’m mystified by the person who can take a resource room, organize it, and keep it stocked with all the supplies. What might inspire me may drain you.

Redrawing Your Boundaries

There are three key things you can do to keep your boundaries in line or to redraw them.

1. Speak to a trusted mentor.

Talk to someone completely objective who isn’t connected to your ministry. If you don’t have such a person, get busy and find someone; you need someone to be a gatekeeper in your life.

2. Talk to your supervisor.

After talking with your mentor and specifically identifying what the boundary issues are, talk to your supervisor. You may be surprised to find that your supervisor is already aware of your boundary weaknesses.

3. Do the math.

If there’s a lack of resolution, determine if there’s still 60 percent of your job that you love or if the percentages have tipped your position to an unbearable proposition. If so, you need to leave for your sanity, the good of your family, and ultimately the good of the church.

Darrell Fraley is a children’s minister and author in Portland, Oregon.

Boundaries and Burnout

What can you do to help teachers establish boundaries to prevent burnout?

1. Encourage teachers to get help from family members and friends.

Others can help prepare activities, sort and cut out resource kit items, gather teaching pictures, organize supplies, wash toys, and do numerous other tasks to make teaching more manageable.

2. Give teachers a break.

Suggest other tasks a burned-out teacher can do to take a break from interacting with children directly in the classroom, for example, coordinating the preschool security system, organizing the resource room, creating bulletin boards, or fixing and serving snacks.

3. Derail the guilt trip.

Don’t be afraid to let a burned-out teacher go to part-time teaching or take a break for a year to get recharged. If the situation is handled well, the teacher may return the next year with a wonderfully renewed spirit.

4. Know what’s going on in teachers’ lives.

A teacher who cares for aging parents, deals with a troubled teenager at home, has a shaky marriage, recently experienced a miscarriage or death in the family, or has health or financial problems may simply need a short break.

5. Guard each teacher’s time.

It’s easy to depend on the same trained people, but you should avoid overusing anyone. Don’t ask regular Sunday morning teachers to also work on Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, or at other times. Keep them fresh by tending their boundaries for them.

Deena Williams Newman
Rockledge, Florida

For more great ideas like this in every issue, subscribe today to Children’s Ministry Magazine!


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