Playing outside the lines?

Keeping the demands of ministry inbounds

Ron Aguilera is associate pastor of the New Market Seventh-day Adventist Church, New Market, Virginia.

We all have limits and boundaries. Some are physical, others are emotional. Physical boundaries are easier to identify than those that are emotional, which are often quite vague and unconscious.

Ministers have a need to define them both, or burnout may be the result. In fact, one of the major causes for emotional struggle in ministry is unclear boundaries. "In a culture where whirl is king, we must understand our emotional limits," says Richard Foster.1 Further, along with physical and emotional limits we also have mental boundaries. These may be even more difficult to identify than where our emotional limits lie.

This talk about limits may cause some well-intentioned people to respond by nobly quoting passages such as Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (NKJV).

If such a use of Paul's words was justifiable in the literal sense implied by such claims, it may also be possible to breathe under water, fly like an eagle, or go four months without food! Clearly we cannot read more into Paul's statement than he meant. Even in the application of such a promise there are limits. The truth is, of course, that we simply cannot live our lives without natural boundaries. Indeed the physical, emotional, and mental limits that are ours have been set by Christ Himself.

Drawing the lines

Who, in fact, applies the boundaries in the daily life of the pastor? The work itself? The pastor's family? God? Those we serve? A pastor seems especially vulnerable to bending to the demands of the people. This vulnerability is not as strong in other lines of work. For example, when a patient goes to a doctor, the doctor has far more control over when he or she sees the patient, and the amount of time spent with the patient than the pastor has in the case of the parishioner.

This article invites the pastor to take much more initiative in the boundary setting that goes on in his or her daily life. In initiating this, here are some leading questions, along with some loaded ones: Do you make yourself available at appropriate times, or do you allow others to interfere with family, personal, or devotional time? (Would you run to solve a problem if someone passed you a note in the middle of your sermon?) Are you someone who is so subject to the desire to be liked or to prove yourself as a person and a minister that you are constantly violating crucial boundaries until they are virtually nonexistent in your ministry? If so, you are in dire need of the boundaries we are speaking about.

Imagine attempting to play volleyball without the guidance of the designated dimensions for volleyball court lines. To play the game with any ultimate enjoyment or effectiveness, we must know where the lines are or what the rules of the game are. This reality applies to almost any sport. You must know where the lines are in order to play effectively.

The challenges

Ministry has never been easy. But today ministry is more difficult than it ever has been, for a number of reasons:

  • We live in a post-Christian and postmodern world. The concern to know the truth or adhere to specific values has been eroded. People believe truth is relative and have abandoned the idea of absolute or definitive truth.
  • Consumerism rules! Feeling has largely replaced thought or reason. People just want to feel good. We may feel that we are missionaries in a foreign culture. This makes ministry difficult.
  • Seen through the eyes of much of contemporary culture, Christian ministry appears foolish. Paul spoke of the foolishness of preaching, but more and more we may speak of the foolishness of ministry. We do not have the respect that used to be a part of Christian ministry. The things that matter most to us mean little to many others. People believe that ministers are out of touch with real life and are unable to deal effectively with the issues of today.
  • There is a serious lack of trust. The calling and credibility of the minister has been tarnished by some high-pro file clergy who have been less than honest, moral, or caring.
  • Then there is the bottomless pit of need that the pastor encounters daily. The numbers of people in need, personality issues to be dealt with, problem solving, preaching and teaching to be done. It all seems beyond us sometimes.
  • Today church members express a wide array of varying opinions. Often these opinions end in serious conflicts into which the pastor is drawn and be neath which he or she may be buried. Managing conflict in which the pastor is all-too-often personally involved has become a way of life in many churches.

People have many more options than they used to have. The vast array of entertainment and career and family alternatives vie for people's time and attention, and often the church seems to be left to last.

All these factors and many more have filled the task of ministry with challenges that stretch pastors beyond the boundaries of ordinary ability, sometimes leaving them gasping for their professional, emotional, and spiritual breath.

What can the pastor do in the face of these challenges? How can we bring pastoring back within healthy parameters? Here are ten strategies that have worked for me and have been helpful in bringing me back to playing within the lines.

Plan of action

1. Focus on spiritual formation. Spend time in worship, prayer, meditation, and with spiritual friends. Ask, What shapes me? Let God give you what you need each day. It is not what hap pens around us that matters nearly so much as what happens in us.

2. Have roots of detachment. Be able to step back from the chaos. Develop a hobby. Play a sport or exercise. Spend time with your family. Do not allow your calendar to be consumed by ministry. Schedule family, social, and recreational appointments as well.

3. Watch what you eat. We need to move away from the philosophy that says, "If I like it, I'll eat it; if it feels good, I'll do it; if it tastes good, I'll drink it." Eating well brings us to the point of feeling better.

4. Speak positive words. Keep a positive attitude. Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you are right!" Attitude is a choice. Choose to live positively no matter the challenges. And concentration camp survivor Victor Frankel said, "Every thing can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's way."

5. Get addicted to being good to yourself. On the surface, this may seem contradictory to our calling. It is not. We must give ourselves permission to enjoy the life God has given us. We may reward ourselves after completing a difficult task. We must also be good to our families and reward them for their patience and support.

6. Make time for an occasional retreat alone. It can last a few hours, a whole day, or even a week. Make time for meditation, reflection, study, or planning. We must allow God to refresh and transform us. We may also ask God to help us to become what He intended us to be as individuals. The pressures of ministry have a way of consuming healthy individuality. "Now, with God's help, I shall become myself."2

7. Take God, the gospel, and others seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. Remember God's grace and live in it. Failure is not permanent. Limitations are guidelines, not stop signs. We need not live constantly in a survival mode. We can live with the mind-set of Paul in Acts 20:22-24, "I don't have to survive."

8. Have someone hold you accountable. A spouse's job is to set limits and care for the health of their spouse. Find a friend or colleague, someone to confide in and to learn from. Allow them to ask the difficult questions that will keep you inside the lines spiritually, vocationally, morally, and ethically.

9. Have a dream and set goals to accomplish the dream. Develop a personal mission statement. This gives one direction, a clear purpose, something worth while to strive for every day. "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Tim. 4:16,NIV).

10. Develop a plan for growth. Be a continual learner. A person's mind, once stretched by new ideas, never regains its original dimension. We must continue to grow so our ministry will grow. We cannot give what we don't have.


These ten things have helped me to find my boundaries, to play within the lines, to attain a more balanced lifestyle, and to have a more effective ministry. "Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership."3

We all live our lives and make our decisions based on priorities. For those committed to vocational excellence, one goal stands alone: the work we were called to, the work of the church. But that work may only be done properly when the time we devote to it is in balance with the rest of life. Balance is necessary and attainable, but only with effort.

When we play the game of life and ministry within the lines, we find it much easier and more enjoyable.

1 Richard J. Foster, Freedom of Simplicity
ity (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), 91.

2 John Ortberg, The Life You've Always
(Zondervan , 1997), 13.

3 Henry Cloud and John Townsend,
Boundaries (Zondervan, 1992), 29.

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Ron Aguilera is associate pastor of the New Market Seventh-day Adventist Church, New Market, Virginia.

November 1999

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