By Bill Gaultiere
We talk with pastors, leaders, missionaries, counselors, parents, and other caregivers who are struggling to be “cheerful givers” (2 Corinthians 9:7). In their helping of others, they’ve become tired, stressed, or burned out. Problems with setting boundaries are a main reason why many pastors, missionaries, and leaders experience overwhelming ministry stress and eventually burnout.
Most people are surprised when I show them examples from the Bible of Jesus setting boundaries and practicing personal soul care. It’s no wonder we overdo it in ministry, get worn out, and even burnout! Jesus had far more stress, far more pressure, and far more responsibility than any of us and yet he remained relaxed, joyful, and generous with people. He models and mediates for us living in God’s rhythms of grace.
Before we consider the Scriptures on Jesus’ way of life, let’s make sure that we understand what our boundaries are and their importance to us and our relationship with the Lord.
Why Setting Boundaries is Important
Personal boundaries are what define your identity. They’re like the property lines around a home. This is my property and that is not my property. This is me – what I value, am good at, believe, need, or feel – and that is not me.
To know yourself and be secure that you are loved is essential to all relationships and activities. The better your boundaries of self-awareness and self-definition are the greater your capacity to offer empathy and love to others. Good boundaries help you to care for others because you have a stable foundation to operate from and are not distracted or depleted by personal insecurities or blind spots. (That’s why it’s not selfish or unloving to have boundaries and take care of yourself.)
As I share in my book Your Best Life In Jesus’ Easy Yoke, it’s especially important for pastors, ministry leaders, missionaries, and other caregivers to learn to set limits for their own soul care. First of all, because they have needs to be loved and respected as much as anyone else! Secondly, because a ministry leader with weak (poorly defined or insecure) boundaries will eventually become so stressed or emotionally depleted as to be ineffective or inappropriate in helping others. (Boundary problems are why pastors and ministry leaders fall.)
Problems Setting Boundaries
Tired caregivers often have trouble saying no and avoid speaking the truth in love. They are more readily drawn into trying to rescue other people and without realizing it may end up enabling selfish or irresponsible behavior in the people they’re trying to help. They may get so enmeshed with the people they care for, trying to continue to please them and walking on eggshells for fear of upsetting them, that they lose themselves. They lose track of what they need and what’s important to them or what God has called them to do. At some point they may realize that they’re not being their true, God created and God redeemed self.
Usually, people who minister to others as pastors or counselors are sensitive-hearted and prone to take on other people’s problems. If they don’t have clear personal boundaries and limits they get weighed down and walked on. Eventually, they start having problems with anger, resentment, stress overload, or burn out. They just can’t continue being so helpful and caring all the time!
I Thought it Wasn’t Nice to Say No
In the early years of my ministry as a counselor and pastor, like many Christian leaders, I had the problem of feeling guilty if I set boundaries. I thought I had to say yes to what people felt they needed from me. I tried to please people and make them happy – I never wanted anyone to be disappointed or upset with me. To me, it seemed selfish or not nice to say no to people with hurts and needs.
Finally, I realized that I was not experiencing Jesus’ words, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The problem was me! I was not a cheerful giver. I was giving out of compulsion and emptiness and wasn’t experiencing the grace of God abounding to me so that I could become a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7–9). I wasn’t looking to God enough but was relying on myself to do more to help other people.
My pressured, enmeshed, and selfless way of helping others was causing me to be more and more anxious, depressed, and angry.
Setting Boundaries in Jesus’ Way (Why He didn’t Burnout!)
One of the things that helped turn me around before I totally burned out was to look prayerfully at the life of Jesus. I studied the gospels carefully and learned some things that surprised me because I hadn’t been taught them in church. I saw Jesus setting boundaries repeatedly.
I share the full results of this study into the confident and peace-filled life of Jesus that he offers to us in my book Your Best Life In Jesus’ Easy Yoke. Here are a few thoughts:
I discovered that in his humanity Jesus had limitations that he accepted in a relaxed way. Like being in a human body that needed nourishment and rest and could only be in one place at a time. Like there only being 24-hours in a day. (Unlike the ambitious, overworking leaders I’ve talked with, Jesus didn’t try to accomplish twenty-six hours of activity in a 24-hour day.)
Jesus had personal needs that he put a priority on – sometimes even over the needs of other people – and he did so without feeling guilty. Primarily his personal soul care had to do with separating himself from people to be alone with God, who he called “Abba” (Papa). Jesus lived in a rhythm of life that not only kept him free from burn out, but far beyond that, it kept him full of God, full of grace and truth, and therefore ready and able to be compassionate and generous in his response to people, their needs, interruptions, and crisis situations.
Unlike many other servants of the Lord, Jesus did not live on the defensive, overextending himself and getting more and more tired and then finally taking a break. Instead, Jesus lived on the offensive in dealing with temptation and Satan. He was proactive in that he consistently invested in his intimacy with Abba and this gave him energy and focus. Because he lived this way he was never in danger of burnout.
These understandings about Jesus’ way of life helped me to trust that it was right (not only healthy, but also holy) for me to learn how to say no to people, speak the truth in love, and live within my personal limitations.
A Bible Study on Examples of Jesus Setting Boundaries
In outline form, I’d like to share with you some of the key points of my Bible study on Jesus Setting Boundaries. This is the same outline I’ve used in many classes I’ve taught to pastors, church counselors, and other ministry leaders on setting limits and learning to be joyful givers. I encourage you to look up the Scriptures and study their contexts and other related passages from the Bible. Meditate and pray. Ask Jesus to teach you to live your life in the way that he would if he were you.
Jesus Accepted His Personal Limits (Part of His Incarnation)
- Meeting His Personal Needs. He ate healthy foods, got the sleep he needed and even took naps, took time to relax, and did a lot of walking (Matthew 26:18, 20; Mark 1:16, 3:23, 4:38; Luke 7:36; John 10:40, 12:2).
- Receiving Support from Friends. He sought the company of friends (Matthew 26:36–38).
- Unhurried Pace of Life. He was never in a hurry, except to go to Jerusalem and embrace his cross (John 11:6; Mark 10:32).
- Abandoning Outcomes to God. Jesus was tempted to become paralyzed with fear about the cross. Satan and his demons, along with many people who hated him, were trying to kill him. Would he make it to the cross to die for us, to be “lifted up” publicly so as it draws people to God? He let go. He chose not to force things, but to trust the Father’s will. To the Father, he abandoned the outcomes of his sufferings and trials to come, as he always did (Mark 14:32–42).
Read the full article and Bill Gaultiere’s extensive Bible study on Jesus’ boundary setting here.
You can find more resources to help strengthen your ministry and relationship with Jesus at Soul Shepherding’s website. We also have trained Spiritual Directors to help you explore ways to better set boundaries in your life and ministry and avoid the burnout that is described in this article. Soul Shepherding is here to support you.
This article is submitted by David Rimoldi of Soul Shepherding. Soul Shepherding is a Missio Nexus member. Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.