Boundary Training that Moves Beyond Sexual-Misconduct Problems

In the context of Christian ministry, boundary training is often presented as training to prevent sexual misconduct. In my denomination for example, all new pastors take a Relationships with Integrity seminar, with a refresher course every six years. Given the seriousness of professional sexual misconduct and abuse, such training is essential.

At the same time, good boundaries can be more than a negative restriction to prevent sexual misconduct. Viewed more positively, good boundaries can also function to release excellence in ministry and to promote the health and vitality of a congregation or other Christian organization. When we say no to crossing a boundary, we are released to say yes in other areas. This broad and more positive approach is what I most appreciate about Saying No to Say Yes: Everyday Boundaries and Pastoral Excellence by David C. Olsen and Nancy G. Devor (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

This book concerns a different type of boundary training that moves beyond sexual-misconduct problems.

The lack of professional boundaries among clergy whose misconduct has been splashed across national newspapers has inflicted horrific pain on the individuals affected and betrayed far too many congregations.

But most clergy don’t engage in the notorious violations reported in the daily news. Though we may not realize it, we likely face more mundane boundary challenges every day, from being called to attend an emergency sickbed during our child’s music performance to the unspoken expectation that we attend every committee meeting. We may be worn down by the demands of ministry, disconnected from the source of energy that inspired our call and that nurtures our gifts. . . . This book discusses the ordinary boundary problems that are robbing too many clergy and congregations from life-giving ministry. (vii)

While individuals are responsible to set appropriate boundaries, there are also systemic factors.

. . . the reality is we are all embedded in networks of relationships that define and sustain us. . . . Holding clear boundaries and practicing self-care in a healthy congregation is hard work, but to do so in a congregational system that is chronically anxious about its future, is experiencing and worried about declining finances, and wants to bring back the glory years of the last generation is an even greater challenge. Setting boundaries as anxiety ratchets up in a congregation becomes increasingly difficult. In this regard, issues of the system become a large contributing factor in boundary problems. (12-13)

This book draws on Murray Bowen’s systems theory to understand the church and other Christian organizations as emotional systems.

For example, just as a family develops certain patterns from one generation to the next, so churches and other Christian organizations develop patterns of behaviour and communication that are transmitted from one generation to the next.

When joining a new system, a new minister [or other employee] has an opportunity to ask non-threatening questions about his or her predecessors and what their leadership style was, simple questions like: “Could you tell me what you most valued in the last minister?” “What were the criticisms?” “How would you describe the leadership styles of the last three ministers?” “What are the controversial issues in this congregation?” Questions designed to learn the congregation’s history are a place to start an important task of the first year or two of a new call: discerning as much as possible about the congregation’s communication patterns, history of over-functioning and under-functioning between clergy and lay, projection and scapegoating of the pastor, and so on. (57)

Successful boundaries are a team effort.

Personnel committees (which have different names, depending on your denominational context) can be a wonderful resource to clergy [and other employees] in helping them set and maintain boundaries. First, the committee must understand how important boundaries are for the sake of congregational vitality and work carefully with their minister to help set and support those boundaries. If such a committee does not exist in your congregation, ask for a model from your denominational office or from trusted clergy colleagues. If this type of committee does not exist in your congregation, make it a priority to start one. Second, very practical strategies can be implemented such as regular meetings so that some members of the congregation begin to understand the need for clergy to take care of themselves and also help monitor that self-care is taking place. Committees can provide a coach for their minister, they can encourage sabbaticals and continuing education, and they can make sure there is money for both. They can help interpret to the larger congregation why such boundaries are essential. (105-6)

This book is full of practical examples, questions for reflection, encouragement and tips to organize a clergy or other ministry group, and a workshop outline for boundary-awareness training. Highly recommended for pastors and other ministry workers, churches and other Christian organizations, including denominational leaders responsible for boundary training.

Where do you long for more depth?
What do you need to change–internally, externally–
to have room for the “yes” you are longing to practice? (84)


for more encouragement and resources on doing ministry better,
sign up for free updates

Author: April Yamasaki

I currently serve as resident author with a liturgical worship community, write online and in print publications, and often speak in churches and other settings. Publications include On the Way with Jesus, Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. Websites: and

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks for this review, April. This book looks like it could be a helpful addition to our church library.

    1. This is a great book for church libraries, Mary. If you have a newsletter or other way of sharing book reviews, it would also be helpful to have someone from your personnel committee (or other group responsible for pastoral support) to share a review. Please also feel free to share the link to this article.

Please enter your comment below:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.