6 principles that aid in boundary setting for ministry spouses

By Jenn Hall

On fair-weather weekends, you can often find me on two wheels, riding with a small group of enthusiastic cycling friends. We follow the rules of the road, of course, and use hand signals to indicate what we are about to do, not only to the vehicles on the road, but also to one another. While approaching the intersection, whoever is in the front will indicate whether it’s safe to continue or not as a whole group. If it is, they will yell out, “Clear!” and we’ll go through the intersection together. If it’s not safe, he or she will motion that they are stopping and the whole group will stop and wait until it is.

On one Sunday, when one of my cycling friends (let’s call her Lily) was riding with a family member (how about we call him Bruce), he continued through an intersection. Following closely behind, Lily also entered the intersection but almost got hit by a truck.

Everyday boundaries

We encounter many boundaries in our day-to-day life. Stop signs, neighbours’ fences, doors and walls, evening and morning, etc. We generally wouldn’t think to blast right through these. These boundaries serve very good purposes and keep us safe, in good relationship with our neighbours, and make known the difference between a rec room and a garage.

Some boundaries are more nebulous and can require some wisdom to navigate. Spouses, kids, bosses, deadlines, events and household tasks vie for your time, just to mention a few. It can easily feel like you are pulled from all directions and have little time to fill your own cup.

Advice from ministry spouses

To aid you in navigating boundaries, I offer you the following six principles derived from conversations with co-workers at Focus on the Family Canada who are wives of ministers (or minister closely with wives of ministers). Emily, Linet, Pauline, Aileen, Merrie, Shari and Vicki – your passion for this topic is evident and your collective wisdom is greatly appreciated.

1. Know who you’re working for

When the church hired your spouse, did they also hand you a job description? Did they make formal requests for you to run a certain ministry, lead a small group or something else? If you answered no to these questions, you are not an employee of the church. How you choose to become involved is up to you. Having said that, you may have to navigate some unexpressed expectations of the church. First and foremost, you are a child of God and your “job” is to follow him and respond to his leading. The church will adjust (perhaps slowly) as you seek his will.

2. Know who you are

I have three bicycles. I know that’s a little much, but most of the time I ride a road bike, with skinny tires. It makes for a sleek, Sunday afternoon ride. I suppose I could take this bike on the occasional mountain trail I ride; however, the boulders and roots I’d encounter would make it an adventurous ride I’d rather not be a part of. I’d likely end up with a flat tire, several scratches and a desire to never repeat that ride again. No doubt, you are a capable of many things, but you weren’t created to thrive in every situation. God has given you specific gifts and abilities and a purpose or calling that is unique to you. (If you would like to explore your calling, check out Ken Costa’s book Find Your Why or listen to his Focus on the Family Broadcast mentioned at the end of this article.)

3. Don’t be afraid to say no

When faced with a request for your time, energy or otherwise, ask yourself if you have the capacity. Can I take this task on and work at it with all my heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters (Colossians 3:23)? Do I have the energy, time and/or focus? How about your family? Do they have the capacity? If you say yes, how will it impact them?

When we say no, many of us feel compelled to give a list of reasons. Dr. Henry Cloud reminds us, “No is a complete sentence.” You don’t have an obligation to give a reason. Having said that, how do you feel when you say no? Dr. Cloud mentions that one of the best tests of your own psychological health is to monitor your internal response when you say no. Do you feel guilty? Do you feel the need to justify your answer? If you experience a negative internal response, you may wish to have a good conversation with yourself or, perhaps, with another significant person in your life.

4. Recognize the original boundary maker

There are many instances of God drawing boundaries in Scripture:

“It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.” (Psalm 74:17)

“The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may freely eat; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

And one of my favourites: “Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’” (Mark 1:35-38)

Perhaps, you’ve had that experience that “everyone is looking for you.” Please recognize Jesus said no when he withdrew from the crowd. His purpose was to reach many, so he moved on.

5. Prioritize!

After applying the first few principles, there may still be a plethora of good and godly things you can do. If your plate remains full, please prioritize – for the sake of your health and for the sake of those around you. Linet from our Constituent Response team suggests: “People will always have an opinion of you either way, so might as well exercise wisdom so that you and your family do not burnout and you can confidently run the race that is set before you.”

6. Listen

There are times when God calls us to do or be something that is out of our comfort zone – something that may normally be ruled out by the above questions. God uses us when we are weak. I bought my third bike last fall when I considered riding to work some days. I wanted to avoid paying the almost $2 price per litre at the gas pump and get some exercise. The only thing is that it’s too long of a ride for a workday, so I opted for the extra boost of an electric bicycle. The Holy Spirit is always with us but is particularly needed during those times when your task is more than you can handle.

Exercising caution

Let’s return to Lily. Crossing a boundary at the wrong time could easily have cost Lily her life. Thankfully, both Lily and the truck driver reacted quickly and there was not a scratch to be found – on Lily, her bike or the truck.

Sometimes, we might be encouraged by well-meaning others to cross a boundary that’s not safe for us. They probably aren’t life-threatening but can be life-depleting. For example, starting a new ministry when we’re stretched thin could rob us of our joy. Or looking after the neighbours’ kids when your own need your full attention might cause some strain in your relationships. To be sure, these are good things to do but they might not be the right thing for you to do (or possibly the right time).

Our God, however, is the perfect guide. He will always direct you well. He’ll always have your best in mind. When we listen closely, he will tell us when it’s safe to continue – whether we are outfitted with the gear and experience we need to proceed. He’ll also inform us when we ought to turn right or left or even stop. He might even urge us to turn around. Ponder Solomon’s wisdom as you face opportunities to choose appropriate boundaries:

“Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he’s the one who will keep you on track.” (Proverbs 3:5-6 as paraphrased in The Message)


Suggested resources


The Minister’s Wife by Karen Stiller

Boundaries for Leaders by Dr. Henry Cloud

Boundaries in Marriage by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend

Sacred Privilege by Kay Warren

Know Your Why by Ken Costa


Finding God’s Purpose for Your Life” with Ken Costa


“No.” Is A Complete Sentence: How to Use & Stick to It by Dr. Henry Cloud | Cloud Townsend Resources


Jenn Hall is a counsellor at Focus on the Family Canada and a proud owner of three bicycles which know their purposes.

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