Boundaries or brick walls?

My husband and I had visited a church a few times, and invited the pastor and his wife over for a meal after having some pleasant post-service chat with them both. We told them we were looking forward to learning more about the church as well as enjoying a relaxing evening of conversation.

It was fun to swap child-rearing and ministry adventure stories with them. We’d travelled some similar roads, and we shared a lot of laughter through the evening. But as the evening was drawing to a close, the pastor’s mood shifted. He cleared his throat a bit, and said something to the effect of, “Well, you know from your own ministry experiences how dangerous it can be to develop friendships with those in your congregation. We’ve learned the wisdom of keeping a distance from those in our church.”

At the time, I didn’t think much about it. We ended up becoming a part of the small congregation. But as the months wore on, I found myself wondering why we really couldn’t seem to develop any friendships with the people there. The church was full of pleasant enough people who had little capacity or interest in developing relationships beyond the shallow pleasantries of safe Sunday morning chat.

For months, I wondered if the lack of relational connection at the church was because there was something wrong with me. “Maybe I’m too __(fill in the blank with your choice of a negative character trait)”, I’d tell myself. I’d beat myself up because I assumed it was my own unhealed hurts that were driving people away.

And then I started hearing the same complaint from a few others. One woman told me, “I’ve been attending here for several years, and I don’t really know anyone here. I don’t know who I’d call or even ask for prayer if I had a problem.” The church was full of lonely, isolated people who’d bought into the culture of self-preservation created by the church’s leader. I reflected back on the pastor’s comments at our one and only meal shared with him, and I realized that unhealed hurts from this pastor’s past negative ministry/relational experiences had shaped the emotional life of the church.

I understand the necessity and wisdom of leaders having thoughtfully-crafted boundaries. But those boundaries must be formed by prayerful decision, not wall-building reaction to wounds of the past. The church had tried various community-shaping small groups and efforts over the years, but these initiatives bore little fruit. As the pastor stood unengaged, outside and above these efforts, the congregation reflected his ambivalence. Though he was leading them to do these relational programs, what he was really teaching them was that they needed to protect themselves from one another.

Leaders, how do you balance the need for boundaries with the need to build meaningful relationships?
Congregation members, how does the culture of your church encourage meaningful relationships?

Note: I’ve had to add a “moderate comments” feature to this blog because I was getting weird autospam comments in Korean and Japanese on here. But please do leave your thoughts – I’d love to hear from you!

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6 thoughts on “Boundaries or brick walls?”

  1. We lived like that for years, not being able to forge deep relationships. I knew some women from Bible study, but as a couple and family, we were so lonely. At a time medical crisis, a couple of members were so supportive. But I still wrestle with sadness when I think of those years. I love the friends we have, but wonder if this dynamic is why relationships were so hard.

  2. Hey Marie – it's definitely something to consider.

  3. Hi! thanks for your post. I was actually thinking about the exact same thing today. I have yet to learn how to build meaningful relationships in ministry, and it has been hard. I tried building meaningful relationships with people in our church only to face some rejection. I would not worry about it but as the wife of a worship pastor, I dread the possibility of these things happening again and again in ministry. It was painful, but has been a good opportunity to think about this. One thing i don't want to be is become bitter and like you said, build a brick wall no one can come through. Need much wisdom… Thanks again!

  4. I'm glad to hear you're wrestling with this topic, Kanade. Your desire to protect yourself from future hurt is certainly understandable. We all do it!

    It takes a lot of courage to choose not to build a brick wall as a result of those self-protective impulses. Your willingness to stay open can impact your congregation more than you could ever imagine.

  5. The very best book I can think of is Peter Scazzero's wonderful "Emotionally Healthy Church", published by Zondervan:

    The book offers a wise, sensitive look at the spiritual dynamics of healthy church leaders.

    His follow-up title, "Emotionally Healthy Spirituality", is also a solid book that has been helpful to many looking to understand the connection between their emotional and spiritual lives.

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