Three steps to setting healthy relationship boundaries. Or: How far from the cliff?

How do you go about setting healthy relationship boundaries with the opposite sex that allow for ministry to happen but protect against a moral fall?

Dan Serns, B.A., is ministerial secretary of the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Vancouver, Washington, United States.

Centuries ago a king was interviewing potential carriage drivers for his special carriage. His question to each candidate was: “If you were driving me in my carriage on a mountain road, how close could you come to the cliff without going over?” Candidate #1 said, “Ten feet,” Candidate #2 said, “Five feet,” and Candidate #3 said, “I would stay as far away from the cliff as possible.” Candidate #3, of course, got the job.

The question: How do you go about setting healthy relationship boundaries with the opposite sex that allow for ministry to happen but protect against a moral fall?

Recognize the danger

“So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Cor. 10:12, NIV). All of us are more susceptible to moral failure than we think.

I had been a pastor only a few months when the phone rang and a woman said to me: “I desperately need to talk with a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Can I meet you at your church in thirty minutes?”

In most cases I would have said, “Sure” and hopped in the car. But I had just finished reading an interview with Chuck Swindoll1 where he talked about the importance of boundaries for spiritual leaders. He said we often want to respond to needs and, as a result, we don’t use good judgment. He mentioned that sometimes when he was talking with women they would say “You seem distant,” to which he would reply, “If you would like to feel closer to someone, we have ladies who are spiritual leaders in our church that we can arrange for you to talk with.”

Back to the phone conversation. “Just a minute,” I said. “Let me see if my wife can come with me so we can meet at the church.”

“O—K,” was the reply.

My wife and I drove to the church. She sat on the back pew in the sanctuary reading, while I sat on the front pew with the attractive lady and listened to her story. Raised in an Adventist home, but feeling rejected, she had run away during her teen years. Later she returned, but as soon as her dad met her at the door he said, “You’ve been smoking again, haven’t you?” She turned around and never came back.

Now in her late twenties, she had a daughter who was enrolled in a local Christian school, and she wanted her to have a better life. “The only way I can keep her there is to be a strip dancer at a night club,” she told me.

How glad I was that I had made sure my wife was with me!

I did a lot of listening, then shared with her that God had a better plan for her life, and He would serve as Father of her daughter if she would accept His leadership in her life and home. Hesitant at first, she finally decided she needed a new start. We explored options, then had prayer. She left with hope and purpose; that was the first and last time I ever saw her.

I had no plans that day of being unfaithful to my wife, but if I had not read the interview with Chuck Swindoll I might have set myself up for some serious misunderstanding and potential failures down the road.

Set clear and wide boundaries

As pastors we want to be available to everyone when they need us. Yet there are crucial relationship boundaries that we must insist on. Any of us who have been in ministry for a few years have at least one friend (and maybe a dozen) who is no longer in ministry because of fuzzy relationship boundaries. Insisting on these boundaries may seem unreasonable at times, yet this could mean the difference between whether we remain employed or shut that door for the rest of our lives. Healthy boundaries will not hinder our ministries but rather enhance and multiply them.

Some of the clearest boundaries I have ever seen were put together by Saddleback Community Church in southern California. Called Saddleback Staff Standards, they are listed as ten “Thou Shalt Nots” below. (See more at ?id=6&artid=206&expand=1.)

1. Thou shalt not go to lunch alone with the opposite sex.2

2. Thou shalt not have the opposite sex pick you up or drive you places when it is just the two of you.

3. Thou shalt not kiss any attender of the opposite sex or show affection that could be questioned.

4. Thou shalt not visit the opposite sex alone at home.

5. Thou shalt not counsel the opposite sex alone at the office, and thou shalt not counsel the opposite sex more than once without that person’s mate. Refer them.

6. Thou shalt not discuss detailed sexual problems with the opposite sex in counseling. Refer them.

7. Thou shalt not discuss your marriage problems with an attender of the opposite sex.

8. Thou shalt be careful in answering emails, instant messages, chatrooms, cards, or letters from the opposite sex.

9. Thou shalt make your secretary your protective ally.

10. Thou shalt pray for the integrity of other staff members.

I have adopted them as my own personal relationship boundaries. They are a very practical, specific expression of this counsel: “When one who claims to be teaching the truth is inclined to be much in the company of young or even married women, when he familiarly lays his hand upon them, or is often conversing with them in a familiar manner, be afraid of him; the pure principles of truth are not in wrought in his soul. Such are not in Christ, and Christ is not abiding in them. They need a thorough conversion before God can accept their labors. . . .

“This is a subject to which we must give heed. We must guard against the sins of this degenerate age. We must stand aloof from everything that savors of undue familiarity. God condemns it.” 3

Discuss these issues with your church and school boards and leaders

I recommend you make copies of the Saddleback Staff Standards above and talk these over with your church, school staff, and board members. Let them know that you have adopted them for yourself, and that you encourage every church and school leader to do the same. You might find a few who think that one or more of the standards are unreasonable. But if the discussion saved even one person’s marriage and/or ministry, it would be well worth the time. In addition, this discussion allows church leaders to know your boundaries and assists you to live within them. It helps the church body follow this inspired counsel: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Eph. 5:3, NIV).

“Do not see how close you can walk upon the brink of a precipice, and be safe. Avoid the first approach to danger. The soul’s interests cannot be trifled with. Your capital is your character. Cherish it as you would a golden treasure. Moral purity, self-respect, a strong power of resistance, must be firmly and constantly cherished. There should not be one departure from reserve; one act of familiarity, one indiscretion, may jeopardize the soul, in opening the door to temptation, and the power of resistance becomes weakened.”4

As God’s last-day ministers, we’ve been given clear, pointed counsel that can save our homes, families, reputations, and ministries. Let’s recognize the danger, set clear boundaries for ourselves, and encourage our leadership teams to do the same. In short, drive the carriage as far as you can from the precipice.

1 A well-known protestant minister.

2 The first three do not apply to unmarried staff.

3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacifi c Press® Publishing Association, 1948), 5:593; emphasis supplied.

4 ———, Medical Ministry (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 1963), 143. Emphasis supplied.



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Dan Serns, B.A., is ministerial secretary of the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Vancouver, Washington, United States.

September 2006

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