Saving Christmas by setting boundaries

By Luke Campbell

“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” (Psalm 34:8)

Pastoral ministry is intensely rewarding but can also be highly demanding work. In the process of exercising the unique call that God has placed on your life, you have – and will – experience pressure and stress along with myriad blessings.

Such pressures may push against your emotional and temporal boundaries, sometimes asking more than what you are willing to give. Your deepest desire is most likely to point people towards Jesus, yet sometimes you may feel like you are a performer whose every move is scrutinized, every boundary pushed. Parishioners call you in the evenings. Meetings abound. You feel pressure to captivate with an immaculate sermon. There is no such thing as a 40-hour work week.

And that’s just during the regular season.

A blue Christmas

The Christmas season often compounds those issues. The broader community, who attends one or two times a year, pops in on Christmas Eve expecting much. You are invited to just one more evening event, however genuinely friendly the invite may be. Maybe there are service projects – shoes boxes, hampers, and the like. Depending on the size of your church and your role, you may just juggle these as an overseer, or you may be directly involved; either way, stress has a way of building at the end of the year.

If you aren’t careful with your boundaries, the Christmas season can become a whirlwind, spinning you until you realize that it’s January and you didn’t quite get the time for yourself – or your family – that you wanted. That you needed. Pastoral burnout is a major issue within our churches. Unfortunately, pastors are poor at setting boundaries – because people are poor at setting boundaries.

Taking care of yourself

Matthew 22:39 tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves. It does not suggest that we must first learn to love ourselves before we can love others. The author simply assumes that you do, in fact, naturally love yourself and care for yourself accordingly. Many have never been taught, or they simply neglect the basics of what it means to love oneself during a ministry of ongoing giving, especially where boundaries are concerned.

So, Matthew 22:39 can serve as a reminder to care for oneself in order to continue in effective ministry. God does not desire to see his shepherds burned out. Stretched? Yes. Challenged? Certainly. Those bring growth. Burnout not so much – although we know that God can use even the hardest of crashes as a crucible.

Here are some suggestions to consider this Christmas.

1. Making a list

What are your seasonal boundaries – evenings or events that you carve into your calendar that stand resolute? If something comes up that threatens them, do they remain unshaken? Find out what the non-negotiables are, the things that are supremely life-giving and energizing – traditions, events, evenings – and defend them.

Ask your spouse, too, or whoever it is in your life that will be desiring time with you that you desire to invest in, for their feedback – children, parents, friends, and so on. They will notice if you prioritize others over them; likewise, they will notice when you bring them into the process. The simple act of bringing them into the discussion demonstrates your heart for them.

2. Checking it twice

You’ll know a boundary has been crossed because you will feel it. There will be frustration towards the person who requested something. You will look at your schedule and feel disgruntled, victimized. You’ll be defensive. You’ll be exhausted.

Use all of these feelings as information. If you were walking through your house barefoot and stepped on a broken ornament, your body would tell you by way of pain. You would stop, sit, and look at the source of the discomfort – and then do what was necessary to tend to it, heal it. You would walk with a slight limp for a time so as to not put too much weight on the cut. Basically, you would do what was in your best interest, just as Matthew 22:39 assumes.

Treat boundaries the same way. When you feel emotional discomfort, or distress, see it as a pain signal. Stop. Sit. Look at the source of the pain, take steps to ensure you tend to it. Then take care when walking barefoot around the Christmas tree.

3. Parting gifts

But let’s say this Christmas season has already gotten away from you. Maybe things are set in motion that cannot be changed. I would encourage you to reflect on this, and continue to reflect on this throughout the season after Christmas. Where did you feel a boundary crossed? Was there something you said yes to that you wish you hadn’t? How did it affect you, and perhaps your family? There may also be value to reflect on this, as appropriate, with your family. What would they like to see change? Take ownership of the boundaries you didn’t defend, and be prepared for next year.

Finally, if you find yourself struggling to say no, ask yourself: What is it about saying no that I find so uncomfortable? Is it because I hate disappointing people? Don’t like being seen as incompetent, not good enough? Feel like it is a godly sacrifice, a cross I must bear? Spend some time reflecting on the reasons why you make the choices that you shouldn’t, or don’t make the choices that you should. The answer to that question is at the root of all of those decisions – and you may discover that some of these reasons are not actually healthy or even biblically true.

Silent night

It is my hope and my prayer that you will find rest this Christmas season, whoever it is you are spending time with, and whatever it is that you are doing. Remember: Jesus came to earth as a baby to save the world – and that does, in fact, include pastors. Don’t get so entangled in your work that you miss the gift of grace to you. Take time for yourself and those around you – to rest, breathe and marvel at the wonder of the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)


Luke Campbell is a counsellor with Focus on the Family Canada and a lifelong PK.

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