Monday, February 9, 2015

Holy Boundaries

An article I read recently had this line: I put enough of myself on the altar.

Yes. Yes I do. And yes we do, those of us in this call of ordained ministry. We are present to people in joy and in grief, in celebration and sorrow. We listen to their concerns and ideas and complaints. We are part of these communities of faith.

And yet we aren't. To respond and serve in the call to ordained ministry, we have to be aware of these holy things called boundaries. Boundaries are the lines between people that create safe space for interactions. They govern what we share about ourselves, how we behave and expect others to behave, and even what contact is and is not appropriate. They are connected to the relationship (boundaries between a married/partnered couple will be different from boundaries between co-workers) and often will change through the course of relationships. Good boundaries are often flexible with appropriate fixed points.

Good clergy (and anyone in helping professions) have good boundaries. There are some clear lines of which most of us are made aware of in safe church training - but the fact that we have to have safe church training tells me not everyone gets that having an affair with a member of one's church is a sign of a bad boundary. Emotional boundaries are challenging things, developed and modified over years and even decades. How much we share with our congregation about our personal lives, how much we don't share, what is private to our own lives and personal friends and what is offered for public consumption in our churches. Not an easy task. And they do change over time, which may be easy, but is often challenging.

Physical boundaries are as challenging. To hug or not to hug? Handshake at the church door only? Most clergy I know are actually fairly astute regarding the basics of physical boundaries. After being in a church for a while, we negotiate those boundaries.

But what happens when boundary violations repeatedly occur? What happens when someone in our circle of contacts repeatedly dismisses our boundaries, feeling entitled to breech lines of safe and respectful relationship?

I don't think this is a clergy-only or church-only issue. I think we are part of a larger problem in our culture where we feel entitled to take what we want. Period. The dark side of a consumer culture that says my needs must be met by others, no matter what. No really doesn't mean no; it just means I haven't worn you down enough yet. Which is completely wrong and abusive. It has no place in an ethical culture, nor does it have a place in a Christian culture. And yet it's pervasive.

When we encounter a boundary, a line someone has placed requesting certain behavior, do we honor it? Do we honor it - not necessarily understand or even agree with it - but do we honor it? Do we, in the language of faith, love our neighbor by recognizing they have requested a behavior of us?

Or do we argue with it, tell the person the boundary is unacceptable, silly, or continue to ask, "Why?" hoping to find a way to demean the boundary and get our way?

Loving our neighbor recognizes we do not know his/her entire story. If a friend has stated she is not comfortable around alcohol, she has given me a boundary. So when I invite her to a dinner party, no alcohol will be served. Whether or not she shares why she is uncomfortable is her decision. When a friend says he is uncomfortable with a hug, I am called in love to honor that boundary. I don't have to understand it fully. Maybe he's suffering from a shoulder injury or maybe he's not comfortable with physical affection. Regardless, my honoring his boundary is simply saying, "Yes. I hear you and I will behave appropriately."

As a friend says to me quite frequently when I feel compelled to explain a decision that is counter to what I've deemed expected of me (which is another blog post), "Those who really love you don't need an explanation, and those who are using you won't believe anything that goes counter to what they want."

Because when we argue with a boundary, we communicate to the other that their limits are not meeting our needs, and we demand our needs be met no matter how uncomfortable or violative those actions may feel in the other. When we disregard or demean a request for safe space and respectable interaction, we have become consumers in a relationship, and being a consumer is using the other, which is rarely a loving thing to do.

Boundaries are holy things that allow us to be in loving relationships with each other. They teach us to recognize our own limits and comfort levels and how to communicate those limits to others.  They guide us in safe interactions with others. They also remind us that others cannot meet all of our needs - and my experience is most boundary violations come not from people being jerks, but from people using others to salve their own painful wounds. Boundaries are ways to build and at times rebuild trust. My experience is that people who repeatedly ignore boundaries rarely treat others' souls with care and love.

Yes, we all put enough of ourselves on the altar, but we are not called to sacrifice our boundaries of safety and respect in relationships.

 




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