Ministry has a tendency to make you feel like you are always “on.” Have you ever felt that way before? Maybe it was the call or text on your day off, the late night email you felt you needed to respond to because it was from a parent or elder, or when you got stopped in a supermarket because you “work” at a church.
The reality we are faced with is that without healthy boundaries, we will run into burn out. If you do not have appropriate boundaries in place you can guarantee that eventually you will become frustrated, bitter, and ready to walk away. Feelings of being overwhelmed, always on call, and like there is no one who is safe for you is a hard place to be, so I want to offer some ways to set healthy boundaries to safeguard you, your family, and your ministry.
1. Set clear expectations. This goes for both your supervisor and your ministry context. Whenever you step into a new ministry position ask for clear parameters like these:
- How many hours am I required to work?
- How many hours do you want me in the office?
- Do you offer comp time for retreats and trips?
- How do you handle holidays?
- How are after-hours calls handled?
These are just a few questions that will allow you to better take care of yourself and know what is expected of you. But I would say that you shouldn’t just ask questions but also set the tone for how you handle your time off. I have shared this with my supervisor and those on my team so they know. Here are some of the expectations that I shared when I started and continue to advocate for:
- Friday nights are date nights. That means I don’t work on Friday evenings unless my wife and I talk about it. We will go to football games in the fall and meet with people when necessary, but I’m those instances we always have date night on a different evening. My staff and volunteers, students, and my direct report know this and they all honor it because we continue to talk about it.
- I always advocate for using your paid time off. It is part of your salary, so make sure you use it. Let your supervisor know well in advance, but use your time off and advocate for it.
- I would also say it is important to advocate for time to go off site to study and refresh. This isn’t time to necessarily do “work” but instead to make sure you are getting filled and refreshed.
2. Seek friends who don’t require you to wear your “pastor’s hat.” One of my favorite things about where I work right now is I have begun to build some really good friendships. One in particular stands out because it is someone close to my age who has served in ministry before. We were grabbing breakfast one day and he looked at me and said, “Nick, you don’t need to wear your pastor’s hat around me. I am a safe person, and we can just be good friends. If you need to put it on, that’s okay but you don’t have to.”
Man, what an amazing moment! I was blown away because all the weight and expectations were gone. But here’s the thing: I would never have thought to ask someone to let me do that before that conversation. Looking back now I would encourage everyone to find a friend like this. Find someone you don’t have to worry about having all the right answers with, to be able to be yourself around, and someone who will be able to offer sound and practical advice.
Also, as a quick aside, let me say don’t make this your spouse. You should already be sharing life with your spouse, but I am advocating for another person, a friend, someone with whom you can build a solid relationship. This isn’t supplementing or replacing your spouse, but instead giving you another outlet and friendship to help you in life.
3. Keep your days off as days off. God doesn’t require everyone else to take a sabbath and ministry leaders and volunteers to not have a time of refreshment with Him. A sabbath is a command to all of us. And I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure when God gives us a command we need to follow it… yes, even ministry leaders. So honor your days off. Try to stay off the phone and computer as it relates to work. Focus on your family, friends, yourself, and your relationship with God. Protect this fiercely and if they are getting overrun, speak up about it and ask your supervisor for advice and help.
4. Decompress. Find out how you best release and refresh. This has changed for me over the years. At some points when I was single it was going out with friends, or ordering a pizza and watching the newest war movie. As weird as it sounds now, my ways to decompress are cooking, reading an adventure novel, cleaning, or making candles. It helps me to focus, clear my thoughts, and accomplish something.
This will look different for each of us, but you should identify what it is in your life and then utilize it. Also, if you are married make sure to bring your spouse into this conversation. They need to know that you aren’t just retreating or disengaging but that this is how you find refreshment and restoration. Work together as a team to honor this.
5. Communicate. Let your supervisor and those close to you know where you are at. If you are struggling with various aspects of your job, if you are feeling overwhelmed, if you are feeling defeated, talk to someone. It is okay to share where you are at, and honestly it needs to be a consistent aspect of your life. Talk to people, tell them how you are doing, explain what is hard, share what has been really good. The more this becomes a part of our culture and lives, the more free and cared-for you will feel.
Now I know there are some in ministry who cannot go to their supervisor for fear of reprisal or being fired. I get it, I have been in those circumstances myself. If you cannot go to your supervisor, go to a mentor or close friend; even better if they are close because perhaps you can bring them with you to a meeting with your supervisor to share what has been going on.
When I first started out as a pastor, my mentor came along to my interviews and asked the hard questions and set the expectations the church should have for me. I will never forget how it felt to be advocated for and supported. That is what you need in your close friends and confidantes. Bring them in, share what is happening, bare your soul, and let them love and care for you.
6. Get a mentor. I have already mentioned a mentor here and previously, but this cannot be undervalued or ignored. We all need people who are pouring into us and pushing us to be better leaders and Christ followers. If you do not have a mentor, seek one out. If you have one make sure you are honestly connecting with and sharing your life with them. Seek advice, encouragement, direction, and the hard but necessary answers from them.