Now that the heat sparked from the light shed on Vice President Mike Pence’s personal rules of not attending cocktail parties without his wife and of not dining alone with women has dwindled, let’s take a few moments to reflect more evenly on the practice of personal rules and boundaries in opposite-sex professional relationships in the pastoral context. I do not presume to speak to fields other than pastoral ministry and Christian leadership, nor do I presume to offer a rule for all people. Rather, I want to help pastors and Christian leaders understand some of the framework for developing their own rules. While the issue of professional boundaries is not limited to opposite-sex relationships, this article most clearly addresses that context.
Let me start with a story. When I was about 10 years old, a neighbor paid to have a small parcel of land surveyed in order to build on it. Little did I know that land surveys cost more money than I could earn in an afternoon of grass cutting; all I knew was that those little sticks poking out of the ground at various points hampered playing football in the open lot next to my home. So, up the stakes came, removed from the field of play before each game. We did our best to put the stakes back in the right spots, but who could really tell if we did? And who cared? We had a sense of where the property started and stopped.
There are different stakeholders when it comes to boundaries. My friends and I had a stake in not being impaled by inconvenient objects when running, diving, and jumping as we pursued professional football dreams. Being impaled could hurt your draft status! The property owner had a stake in having clear markers of the land that belonged to him. To put it playfully, we both had stakes in the stakes. The same is true in boundaries in professional relationships between opposite sexes in Christian leadership and pastoral ministry. The boundaries that are set up have implications for different people. Different parties have different stakes in the stakes. Thus, boundaries are not—and cannot—be individual constructs. They are formed in relationship and these relationships will often plant stakes that are in tension with each other. Without being aware of the stakeholders, we do a disservice to a few people that we ought to be honoring. In ministry settings, I’ve identified four stakeholders—four people who ought to help determine where the boundaries get drawn. These are four people with stakes in the stakes.
The pastor/leader has a stake in the stakes.
Whether a woman or man, the leader is a stakeholder in professional boundaries. She or he has an internal compass, a sense of right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, wise and foolish. Their stake is set by their own tradition, foibles, weaknesses, experiences, narratives, and opinions. A person in spiritual leadership cannot disregard their own sense of propriety or conviction when creating boundaries with the opposite sex, so they must consider their own self when setting boundaries. Recognize, then, that you have a stake in your boundaries.
The spouse of the pastor/leader has a stake in the stakes.
No less than the conviction of the pastor/leader, the conviction of the spouse must be considered. In Christ, there is mutual submission between wives and husbands so the convictions of the spouse matter. The pastor/leader must factor how his or her spouse feels—not just thinks, but feels—in setting boundaries in professional relationships. In unhealthy relationships, one spouse, either the one setting boundaries or the one sharing their own convictions, can call all the shots, always using their veto. Of course, this is not the goal of healthy relationships. Rather than mutual submission, this is a kind of domination. Instead, mutually submissive relationships will seek to factor both convictions in pursuit of practical wisdom in boundaries in professional relationships. Recognize that your spouse has a stake in your boundaries.
The professional colleague has a stake in the stakes.
This stakeholder is becoming more and more visible. And they must remain a prominent stakeholder because their interests matter. The boundaries that the leader draws have real implications for the people they impact. Boundaries are useful only inasmuch as they mark someone or something “in” and someone or something “out.” The leader/pastor’s boundaries will do just the same. And they will not always do so fairly. When men in leadership only meet alone with men, then key decisions are skewed with a set of values that might not represent both sexes. If the pastor/leader has a rule not to meet with the opposite sex privately, but is not aware that private meetings with the same sex will inevitably develop deeper professional friendships, trust, and confidence than their other friendships, then there will be professional injustice. Some will get more opportunities simply by virtue of their gender and the boundaries of the leader. Of course, while less often considered, unhealthy relationships can develop between members of the same sex, too. Unhealthy relationships may include same-sex attraction, codependency, and groupthink. Appropriate boundaries will not simply focus on sexual issues, but any interaction that may keep the colleague from thriving for accidental reasons. Recognize that the professional colleague has a stake in your boundaries.
The church/organization has a stake in the stakes.
Finally, the church or organization that the pastor/leader serves is a stakeholder. The pastor/leader’s boundaries will have implications for the church and the church/organization also has boundaries. Sometimes these boundaries are written; sometimes they are not. When they are written and approved by a formal board as policy, then there can be clarity. More common, however, is an unwritten boundary that many people know about and that remains unshared until it is crossed. Moreover, people know why it is a boundary. Sometimes boundaries exist to keep sinful, wrong, and inappropriate things from happening. Sometimes boundaries exist because sinful, wrong, and inappropriate things have happened. Organizations do not always craft and publish boundaries in the fallout from these breakdowns. Pastors/leaders will do well to discover what stakes their church/organization has already laid down and to see how their own stakes line up. The church and organization has a stake in your boundaries.
So, how do these stakeholders influence crafting appropriate boundaries? Obviously, there will be tension in the boundaries that each stakeholder would draw. If each stakeholder was allowed to put down stakes, some might have a nice, square boundary with four pegs, trusting a person will know when to step outside the boundaries without issue. Some would have thirty stakes, weaving in and out at various angles to accommodate the various contingencies that could arise. The complexity of life demands the complexity of the boundary. Yet, tension is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be a good thing. It can help us get outside our own considerations, to be stretched, and to have collective wisdom. With the various stakeholders in mind, here are some internal and external actions that could help develop working, consistent, and wise boundaries in professional relationships.
Take periodic surveys.
Every day provides new twists in traditions, new experiences to be assimilated, outside opinions to be considered, and growth (or regression) in the weaknesses and strengths in the leader. Thus, the stakes of this stakeholder will be changing. The boundaries that made sense at one point in time will not make sense at others. Leaders and pastors should take periodic review of their own personal boundaries because their personal stakes might be changing. The same is true of the pastor or leader’s spouse. Spouses are not static. They grow in wisdom, maturity, grace, and insight. Sometimes general rules of relationships shift over time and the practice stops matching the policy, whether written or unwritten. In other words, stakes do not make boundaries; they mark boundaries. Take periodic surveys to see if your stakes are still marking the boundaries that need to be marked or if they need to be changed and re-aligned.
Think creatively inside the box.
Once your stakes are understood, think creatively inside the box. For example, if you have a boundary not to meet with a person alone, can you invite along their spouse? Several times in my own pastoral ministry, I would invite a married couple to my house (or out to a restaurant) to recruit them both to a team or project. I would often have one of the couple in mind, but would try to recruit them both. Sometimes the person I had targeted would respond; sometimes the other person would respond. Sometimes they both did. Technology provides many ways of communicating, influencing, and engaging in professional relationships without surpassing boundaries. However, technology obviously provides a new context for crafting boundaries. And people use technology differently. Some people use their cell phone for all forms of communication—social media, texting, email, etc. Others use it for less tasks. While technology provides ways of remaining inside boundaries, technology also provides a new land that requires surveying and consulting the four stakeholders listed above.
Move stakes with sensitivity.
When Jesus re-drew covenantal boundaries, it cost him his life. To set aside enmity between Jews and Greeks, Jesus was lifted up on the cross. To be one in Christ required the cross. Moving stakes is serious business. Especially when it comes to spousal and church values, work at understanding the full rationale for why the stakes exist in the first place. What might not be a sensible boundary marker to you that needs to be plucked up and re-established likely stems from a narrative that remains untold.
Set boundaries in light of barriers.
It is naïve simply to say, “Jesus met the woman at the well” as though this settles professional relationships. What is not naïve, however, is to consider all our boundaries in light of the cross; to recognize that any barrier that Jesus tore down by his death on the cross may influence any boundary we consider staking. Jesus’ death tore down status barriers, gender barriers, ethnic barriers, so we must set conscious boundaries in light of Christ’s work and consider what unconscious boundaries within which we might be operating.
Whatever your opinion of Vice President Pence’s boundaries, the scrutiny he faced is something pastors and leaders might face. Rarely will your boundaries be so widely scrutinized, but with various stakeholders, scrutinized they will be. Stakeholders will not always agree or appreciate boundaries, even when their opinions have been sought and considered. So, be ready to have your stakes yanked up and tossed aside while people might run football routes across the boundary. But the stakes are much higher in your life and ministry than they were in my football game. You might need to plant the stake again and again, keeping confidence with the stakeholders who really matter. So, what other stakeholders have you discerned in this situation? What other advice would you give in the midst of finding, setting, and moving stakes?