Healthy boundaries in the body of Christ
Missional congregations sometimes are less than welcoming to people with mental illness or other disabilities out of fear that needy people will overwhelm their caring capacities. Setting healthy boundaries is one strategy that enables us to persist in sharing Christ's love through difficult circumstances.
Author Verna Birkey compares a personal boundary to "a fence around my property that helps me know where my responsibilities begin and end.” Other writers suggest that boundaries within caregiving relationships equip us with persistence, resilience, and a refusal to let ourselves be harmed.
Relationships that last are marked by give and take. If one person does all the giving and the other endlessly takes, the imbalance will eventually destroy the relationship. Boundaries keep us from reaching such a crisis. If I am unable to set boundaries for myself, boundaries you supply can benefit us both when they allow our relationship to survive and grow.
Healthy boundaries involve…
• Realism about my own abilities and shortcomings. When I am exhausted or resentful, I am of little use to anyone.
• A realistic view of the other, one that provides opportunities and expectations that fit the other person's abilities and gifts.
• Controlling only what I do, not what another does. We may spell out expectations, but we also need a plan ready if/when expectations are not met. This plan must involve only actions we can control, only those we are willing to implement.
• Letting go of what I cannot control. Letting go is possible when we trust that God is in control, so we do not have to be. As we release control, we often need to let go of worry about what other people think about our actions.
• Modeling self-care and respect for others that we hope to encourage in those we care for.
• Sharing enough information with those who need to know. Responding to needs of a person with mental illness can be more coordinated when a designated support circle hears from those who know the person best and shares the same information. Such sharing naturally depends on obtaining the person's permission. The team approach allows those setting limits to draw on the wisdom of others as they place a boundary. Those outside the circle can relax and trust that care is being provided.
• Acknowledging when we cause hurt. Hurt may be unavoidable in certain situations. Anticipating this, we might say, “We want to care for you and be your brothers and sisters, but we can’t do it perfectly; we are going to fail. I’m sorry.”
• Adjusting to changing circumstances. If looser limits are not working, we may need to think about moving a boundary to a more restrictive place. Signs of growth may allow us to relax boundaries that are no longer needed. Mounting resentment is a red flag that warns of the need for tighter boundaries to maintain a positive relationship.
Healthy boundaries involve hard work for people motivated by caring and empathy. Ironically, however, we often expend much energy as we avoid setting boundaries. Taking on responsibilities that do not belong to us and trying to control what we cannot are draining. These are often misguided efforts to protect others from hurt feelings or natural consequences. They keep us stuck, repeating the same responses, that get us nowhere. When this happens, it is a clear signal to reevaluate where our responsibilities begin and end, and to change our actions accordingly.
Finally, for the strength and insight to set and live within boundaries, we depend on the Source of all strength, God’s all-sufficient grace. When our boundaries are well cared for, we are able to protect the well-being of each person in a relationship. Boundaries allow us choices in life and provide us with guidance. Our boundaries help us make adjustments and prevent extreme events that damage or sever relationships. In these ways our boundaries are strategies that help us welcome those in Christ's body whom Christ himself has invited.
Healthy Boundaries in the Body of Christ, original unabridged version of this article by Christine Guth. PDF format.
Verna Birkey, Women Connecting with Women, Enumclaw, Wash.: Winepress Publishing, 1998.
Kathleen Greider, Much Madness is Divinest Sense: Wisdom in Memoirs of Soul Suffering. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007.
Veronica Ray, Setting Boundaries, Center City, Minn.: Hazelden, 1989.
Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life. Zondervan, 1992.