Search PNC News for stories of people and churches in our UCC Conference:

Boundary training reminds pastors of their health

mike denton

Conference Comments by Conference Minister Mike Denton

Every three years, clergy in the Pacific Northwest Conference are required to take Boundary Training.   It’s essentially a refresher course about pastoral ethics; stewardship of the power of the pastoral role and what makes healthy church relationships.  I am due this year and this is the fourth or fifth time I’ve taken it now.  Every time it rolls around, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a piece in me that groans a little.  This is so much a part of my work anyway, I think.  Do I really need to do this?  Isn’t this just common sense, anyway?

Then, every single blooming time, sometime in the midst of the reading or conversations or instruction I have had a realization of the importance of this class.  It usually begins with an unspoken “Oops.”  I am reminded of something I forgot.  Maybe something I might have seen as efficient, at the time, might have actually been manipulative in some way.  I start to wonder if something I’d been advocating for was getting support not necessarily because others thought it was a good idea but because of how my power in that situation was perceived.  I, again, realize I do not have a healthy boundary between my time away from work and my time working.

That last one is one of the hardest for pastors.  In the midst of this boundary class, I started thinking of Ron, the moderator at the first church I served after I was ordained.  One day, right before worship, he asked for an emergency meeting with me because, as I remember, he said I had violated the conditions of my call agreement.  Needless to say, I wasn’t all that present for the next 90 minutes as I wracked my brain trying to figure what the heck he could be talking about.

After worship, we sat down in my office.

“What’s going on Ron?”

“Pastor, you have been here a little more than a year and you have not taken your month of vacation time, yet.”

I smiled and relaxed, and then he got angry with me.

“You don’t understand how serious this is.  This is not something we put in the contract just for you.  This is for us, too.  We need and deserve a well-rested pastor, and you’re not providing that to us.  I need to know your vacation plans by the end of the week.  Am I clear?”

“Yes.  Thank you.”





to take time

for sleep,


family and



“We’ll talk in a week.”  He got up and walked out. I sat there a little stunned.  He taught me one of the most important lessons about boundaries, one I need to be reminded of more often than I’d like to admit.

I just finished Tavis Smiley’s book, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year.  Although its clearly emphasized in the book, the title leaves out that his full title was actually the The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.  During the last year of his life, he was clearly exhausted, anxious and depressed.  The book celebrates his courage and calling without over sentimentalizing or excusing the bad decisions he made in the midst of his exhaustion, anxiety and depression.  It’s a book worth reading both as a piece of history and as a cautionary tale.  He is a hero to many—he’s definitely one of mine—but not every part of his life can be seen as a model of vocational integrity we should model our own lives after.

No one makes their best decisions when they’re exhausted.  No one.  Although not every bad decision has to do with exhaustion, the worst clergy boundary decisions I’ve seen, especially the ones that we end up having to deal with through the formal process of the clergy Fitness Review, have been rooted in a series of bad decisions that almost always had some strong correlation to exhaustion and overwork.  When pastors don’t take the time they need to make sure that they have the rest and time away from work they need, they begin to turn to those they serve to somehow fulfill that need. 

The line—the boundary—between the role of the pastor and the person who is a pastor dissolves.   That’s when things start to fall apart.  Yes, the congregation has a role in helping with this, too—as in the example of the church moderator—but the reason pastors are required to take Boundary Training is because it really does start with our own clarity about what healthy boundaries are.  In our ordination vows, we promise to keep healthy boundaries.  We really do have a unique responsibility to make sure that what seems like common sense becomes common practice.

One of the things Boundary Training has reminded me is that it’s time to take a look at my calendar and figure out how to take those last two weeks of vacation time I promised you I would take, as well as what to do about some of those upcoming days where work and my days off seem like they’re going to overlap.  I need to take a look at my day-to-day schedule and make sure that time for sleep, exercise, family and social relationships is not sacrificed on the altar.  Maybe some of you need to do the same.  

Maybe some of you who are church moderators need to sit down with your pastors and have a serious conversation about some particular requirements of their call agreement…


Copyright October 2014 © Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ Conference News


Share this article on your favorite social media Bookmark and Share