Today our church hosted a boundary training event. Often these events are totally geared toward clergy. In our judicatory clergy are required to attend one of these every 3 years but today most of the attendees were Christian education folk.

The leader used a video series. All of the people on the tape were religious leaders. As is the normal custom, we watch the video segment and then break into groups. I was supposed to lead the pastor’s group and a psychologist lead the group for the teachers.

The one pastor who attended was a colleague, a person who has impeccable ethics, so our conversation about boundaries and ethics in between the video segments was at a high level.

After a while I noticed that voices started getting fairly loud in the other room. The conversation seemed to continue forever. Usually, people are not that ‘out there’ to share at any deep level in these events. Maybe it is just ministers who are so guarded. But it was obvious to me that something was going on ‘over there.’

Finally (because the leader never came and got us), I walked over into the Christian Ed. Group. The leader came over and explained that they have ditched the rest of the program format and continued the conversation.

I was pleased (because most of the teachers were from our church) that there was so much investment in this topic. Beyond the present environment where litigation has threatened more than one church and the newspaper rarely is without some story on the violation of children, these people seemed concerned that the church be a safe place.

I learned later that what some of the teachers wanted was specific guidelines. When a young child asks to go the the bathroom there should there be more than one adult present? Should doors be left open? What about hugging?

These are all legitimate questions. And, policies should deal with some of these. But what this event was supposed to try and deal with was the one area we each have control over, ourselves. It is our own stuff that often leads to poor choices about boundaries. It doesn’t matter if it is inappropriate affection, gifts that should be declined, or power that can be abused in a variety of areas, we can only control ourselves (we hope).

There have been two guiding principles that I’ve used to measure my own behavior, checking my ethics. The first is based upon some advice from a seminary professor of 50 years ago. He purportedly said: “Boys (they were boys then), when you go visit widow Smith, make sure the window shade is up and the curtains are open.” I think what he meant to imply was that your actions should be transparent. Anyone observing shouldn’t have questions.

The other principle is this: If I (or I determine that another) cannot achieve emotional distance, then physical distance is needed. I am presuming that this principle is self explanatory. I’ve left meetings where something triggered such a strong emotional response in me that I knew I was on the verge of doing or saying something I’d regret. That is a time out like I used to give my kids. On other occasions, my pastoral antennae (you might refer to it as women’s intuition if you are a woman), has warned me that ‘this is not a good situation.’ I’ve learned to trust this sense.

The problem is that these guidelines are not nice neat rules. Do this. Don’t do that. And so much of ministry is relational. We cannot live in a bubble like other professionals can. Still, these kinds of relationships are dependent upon respect for others. This is something I am responsible for, in every relationship I have and because this is about the church, where we expect to be loved and safe, maintaining healthy boundaries is essential.

If there isn’t this kind of personal awareness no amount of rules will be helpful.wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

~Robert Frost, “The Mending Wall”