In ministry, we talk a lot about having healthy boundaries. We try to maintain a “non-anxious” presence in the midst of grief, despair, conflict, and crises of all sorts. Therapists and other professionals are aware of boundaries too, a clear bright line that they should never cross. Boundaries are more complex for clergy, however. We counsel congregants, holding some of their most intimate secrets in the strictest of confidence. But we also work and socialize with them. We go to meetings and potlucks together. We play, we laugh, and we strategize for justice. They find out about our personal lives because we live and work among them, Sexual relationships with those we serve are (now at least, thank God) strictly forbidden. If that line is crossed it does so much damage, not only to the vulnerable congregant whose trust has been betrayed, but also to the community as a whole. It can take generations to recover, and even then recovery may not be possible, particularly if the secret is kept and the impact remains unexamined.
But there are less serious boundary violations. We are also counseled not to make friends with congregants, but to always hold solid the space and stance of being their minister. How I have interpreted that is to never lean on a congregant emotionally, to share with them only the parts of my life that are under reasonably well emotional control. We don’t want them worried about taking care of us. While it is fine to accept meals or physical help when the need arises, and being friendly is always good, if we are falling apart emotionally, we need to get our support from somewhere else, from family, friends, colleagues, or therapists. The relationship between minister and congregant is never one of equality, and ministry can be very lonely work as a result.
I am retired now and that changes things some, but it is still complicated. I am now a member of a church, and although I have never served as a minister there, I was an active lay leader before attending seminary and they are the congregation that ordained me. While I am now free to make friends and to share my private life and emotional stresses with other congregation members, I will always need to remember that as ordained clergy, my voice can carry more weight, especially in any discussion about church issues. It is a voice that must be used with care, and always in support of the current ministry of the church. I really do know how hard the job of a minister is, and to undermine another minister for any petty reason or simple disagreement, would feel like a serious sin to me. Only serious misconduct would compel me to speak out in protest, and then I would first approach the colleague directly, and then through collegial and/or denominational channels. We have just gotten a talented new minister at our church, and I expect him do the work very well indeed. I will definitely cheer him on, but I also know there are still boundaries I need to observe in my church community. I am still not and never will be, “just another member.”
All of which makes me, among other reasons, still value so much the other parts of my life where I can just be me, where I can vent, question, and let “my hair down” in ways I have not been able to do in years in a setting larger than my family and closest friends and colleagues. My medical weight loss group is such a place. We meet once a week in person and connect on Facebook in between. I am so grateful to them. They are in fact, another family circle, one of love, compassion and trust. I can let at least some of my boundaries bounce away on their own when I am with them. Huzzah!