What are fences for?

There may be a number of ways to answer that question. Fences keep things in. They also keep things out. They provide protection, security, and definition.

If you’re a parent with young children and you want them to be able to play out in the backyard, you probably have a fence for purposes of protection. Your fence lets people on the outside know that they’re supposed to stay out and not cross over the line. It tells everyone where the boundaries are. And because you can see it, your fence makes those boundaries absolutely clear.

Fences come in all sizes and materials. Brick, stone, rock, wood, metal, barbed-wire, chain-link, and even strategically planted trees can establish boundaries. Nowadays we even have invisible fences. Probably the greatest fence of them all is the Great Wall of China. It’s some 5,500 miles long and 9 feet wide. Now that’s a boundary! But whatever its size, and whatever it happens to be made of, a fence always offers protection, ensures safety, and communicates boundaries.

People have fences as well. For instance, certain individuals have very definite “space boundaries.” In effect, they go around telling others, “Don’t get too close to me, you’re in my space!” Some of these fences you can clearly see and hear – they don’t need to be verbally announced – but others are not so obvious.

Emotional boundaries can be very important, of course. There are also physical lines we should never cross. These are what we might call healthy boundaries. “Scheduling boundaries” – the kind of boundaries that enable you to stay in control of your time – might also be included in that category. But boundaries of this kind aren’t always easy to establish and maintain. That’s especially true when you’re a public figure (pastor, politician, celebrity, athlete).

When you’re a public figure, people tend to assume that you’re available to them whenever and wherever, whether day or night. As pastors, none of us needs to be lectured on this subject. When we were called by God into the ministry, one of the things we knew (at least I hope so) was that, for the most part, our time would no longer be all about us. Instead, it would be about serving others in crisis. Unfortunately, if we are married and have a family, this impacts them as well. Our spouses and children often bear the brunt of the tension that hectic and unpredictable scheduling introduces into our lives.

In this sense, our job is like few others. True, doctors, detectives, and firemen are on call, but even they get to be on a rotating schedule. Many of us don’t have that luxury. We live with this pressure all of the time. We are in the “people business.” But in the meantime, there are administrative tasks that have to be accomplished every day as well. Balancing these two can be difficult.

So, how do we establish boundaries that don’t appear to be selfish? How do we put up fences that don’t look like walls of isolation – healthy boundaries which are in fact walls of protection? Here are a few suggestions:

Admit that you need to set boundaries

You cannot be all things to all people. You’re just not that good.

Prioritise your family above your church

That means putting them first, right behind God Himself. They need you to be present and available. When you live this out consistently, your marriage and family life will thrive. If you do not, then problems will eventually show up on the home front. Remember the words of Paul on this subject: “He (a pastor) must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (I Timothy 3:4-5).

Healthy boundaries are a great thing to model to others in your own congregation. If you are always available to others at the drop of a hat, this is a sign of weakness, not strength. By setting boundaries with others in your schedule you are showing them that they can and should do the same thing. Think about it for a moment: nearly all churches have members who show up every time the doors are open, but is this really healthy? Of course not.

You need personal and physical space to think, pray, and seek the Lord

So when you are setting boundaries, don’t forget to block out some time with God. Schedule that time as you would schedule an appointment with your Board Chairman. That’s one appointment you would never cancel, right? And yet spending time with God is far more important. Don’t you think?

So much for building boundaries into your schedule. Now what about your phone? When I first went into full-time ministry we had desktop computers with amber screens and keyboard templates letting us know what “Shift-F7” was supposed to do. There were no mobile phones. Pagers and beepers were just hitting the market. Today, all of that has changed. Nowadays, it seems that everyone has access to the pastor all the time through the use of a smartphone.

I admit that I struggle with putting away my phone when I get home from church. My wife and I have had several serious discussions about this, and I still struggle. She found herself becoming resentful when my eyes were focused way too much and too often on my phone and not enough on her beautiful face. She wanted me to be fully present with her, but instead I was constantly distracted by my mistress – a mistress named iPhone. Believe you me, it was a messy breakup. I’d love to be able to tell you I’ve won that battle forever, but it’s a work in progress.

What about you? Have you set those boundaries yet? Have you received the stare from your wife or your kids when you are on your phone? It’s not pretty, is it? Discuss together how to set appropriate boundaries when you’re at home, when you’re on a date, and even when you’re out running errands. I’m not saying that you can’t look at your phone during those times. You just need to come to an agreement as to when you can and should. We cannot dodge the need to be accessible to the people God has entrusted to our shepherding care, but boundaries are necessary.

Jesus modelled boundaries several times during His public ministry. I have never sensed that Jesus was ever in a hurry or not fully present. As leaders, husbands, dads and pastors, let’s learn how to be like Him. We can do this by practicing healthy boundaries in relationships and with our schedules and with our devices.

Kevin Conklin

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