While in the thick of it in ministry, it’s not always easy to see just how busy or involved we get in other people’s lives. The needs of people become overwhelming, and we are just carried along with the rush of it all. When you start feeling homesick or burned out, that’s a sure sign to step back and take stock of what’s happening in your life. Sometimes our longing for home is because we have failed to set boundaries for ourselves and others.
Jesus purposely stayed away
We know the verses about how Jesus pulled away from the crowds, spent time alone in prayer, and avoided going into Jerusalem due to crowds. This verse in John gives a glimpse of how the Master managed his ministry:
After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life.John 7:1 NIV
Jesus knew how to put margin or space between himself and those who wanted to follow him and others who wanted to kill him. Some pressed against him, searching for miracles of healing or provision. The religious leaders sought him in order to question him or trap him. In his three brief years of ministry, the Lord shows us that boundaries are still necessary.
The people we serve need boundaries
When we try to do everything for those we serve and at any time they need it, we are creating dependents, not disciples. Making disciples means modeling the walk while giving them the tools to walk for themselves and disciple others. Providing boundaries in relationships also means that there are things I cannot do for them because I don’t have time, or the ability, or because it’s not my focus in this relationship. Without setting boundaries, we unintentionally become enablers of poor habits and dependency.
Setting boundaries is not easy
Because we are called to make disciples and reach the nations for Christ, cross-cultural workers have a built-in desire to meet needs. This is not a bad thing, but we must realize it is something we must control. Jesus was obviously perfectly (no pun intended) able to heal, feed, and save everyone, but he didn’t. In most cases, he waited until the person exhibited the faith required. There was a part the person played in the healing or act of salvation. Jesus limited himself in order to give the receiver of his gift ownership in the act or miracle, and thus taught them great things about what it costs to follow him as Savior.
How to set boundaries
The best way to begin to set boundaries in relationship to those you serve is to learn about the boundaries they have in their culture. Ask questions about how they say no or maintain a healthy distance in relationships. Some cultures are much more engaged than others, but there will still be some boundaries and cultural cues in each.
Time is one of our most difficult areas in setting boundaries because we want to listen and give people the time they need to share and grow. While that’s understandable, it’s not doable long-term, because our ears get tired (especially when listening in another language), our bodies get tired, and there are only so many hours in each day. Sometimes we must end a visit in order to have a language lesson, get to church, or spend time with our family. Letting a person know how much time you have for them in any one setting reminds you both that there is a boundary to which we must adhere.
We need boundaries to protect our spouses, children, and selves. When our children started acting out or having issues, it was because we had failed to provide a time set apart just for them. We answered our door, no matter the hour, and it made them feel like they didn’t matter. The same can happen with a spouse if we don’t set apart time to be alone as a couple. When I say no to a national visitor, I’m saying yes to my family, and sometimes that is just the way it has to be to find balance in life and ministry.
I mentioned the boundaries that need to be set to protect ourselves. When a man wants to interact with me as a woman, red flags go up in my mind. I have become very cautious over the years about being alone with a person of the opposite sex. Satan loves to cause trouble and hinder our witness when we fail to set boundaries between ourselves and others. I am very comfortable setting boundaries with men in order to maintain my integrity and witness as a woman. The boundary may be between us and the opposite sex, but more often than not it’s a boundary we place on ourselves.
How do you set boundaries in your life and ministry? What happens when boundaries are crossed? Thankfully, the Lord sometimes uses the homesickness or burnout we feel to help us check our boundaries and put back into place those we’ve let fall to the side, so we can press on in integrity and purpose to his glory.
Grace and Peace
To find out more about boundaries in ministry, check out my latest book Not in Kansas Anymore: Finding Home in Cross-Cultural Service. It’s available in e-book and paperback formats.