By Rev. Arlene Christopherson, Ass’t to the Bishop/Dir. of Connectional Ministries
Every summer, newly appointed and assigned pastors in the Northern Illinois Conference receive Boundary and Ethics training. Every four years all those under appointment or assigned are required to take a “refresher course” in professional ethics and boundaries. This fall, all our appointed and assigned clergy will participate in mandatory boundary and ethics training.
This work comes out of a deep commitment to our Wesleyan value of “Do No Harm, Do Good and Stay in Love with God”. Professionals in business, medicine, law and many helping professions are held to a high standard in their interactions with clients, patients, and customers. In some states, the violation of professional boundaries and ethics is a criminal offense. Clergy likewise are entrusted with the most vulnerable among us – including children, older adults and people in distress.
We know from research and experience that the best equipped and trained clergy can still cross ethical or sexual boundaries if not trained and self-aware of their own needs and the power of their position as well as the impact of their actions. Boundary training is more than the don’ts of ministry, although a few simple rules are important. Boundaries are also about self-care, balance in our life and work, awareness of our own vulnerabilities and clarity in our role as pastoral caregivers. Boundaries are about caring for ourselves physically and spiritually so we can be the best leaders possible in our ministry settings.
This year our boundary trainer will be Dr. Becky Posey Williams, Senior Director of Sexual Ethics and Advocacy for The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Dr. Williams says “Healthy boundaries sustain all of our relationships and bring joy to ministry. Understanding boundaries in the multiple ministry roles is crucial for healthy and safe faith communities. This workshop will encourage the awareness of power and vulnerability in ministerial relationships, explore dual relationships and the challenges they present, as well as the importance and necessity of self-care in establishing healthy boundaries. “
It’s something we do not often consider as we turn to our pastor for leadership, counseling, teaching, church administration and support. Pastors are people too. Pastors have families and personal responsibilities. Pastors have good days and bad days. Pastors have demands we cannot see and may never know about. Pastors are asked to walk alongside us in times of deep distress and high emotion, work that can deplete anyone’s reserves. All this reminds us that an effective pastor needs time to stay engaged spiritually, physically healthy, and emotionally grounded.
Boundaries work best when we know what they are and respect the roles and responsibilities of others. We place much expectation on our clergy to set healthy boundaries for ministry, but living out those boundaries takes a partnership between clergy and laity. No one can be all things to all people.
Our churches are filled with dynamic, effective, spirited laity. We are at our best when we enhance the skills and talents of lay and clergy, one with the other. This is a boundary that leads to deep discipleship and the health of our churches. Healthy people, building healthy churches that in turn develop healthy new disciples.
Boundaries have value.