Monday, September 23, 2013

I Did Not Intend That

In the center of the campus where I attended seminary was a large grass quad bounded on four sides by the main academic buildings.  We called it the “Josephus Bowl” after the first century Jewish historian Josephus.  Students were constantly cutting across this grassy area as they moved from one building to another.  One day signs appeared on the edges of the Josephus Bowl saying, “Please walk on the grass, but don’t make a path.”  We were invited to walk on the grass but to do so responsibly, mindful of how we were impacting the community in which we lived and studied.  It was a simple request.

Sometimes, however, things are not so simple.  Suppose you were walking across the grass enjoying the beauty of the day and, for some reason, you looked behind you and see with horror that you have, indeed, been making path.  You didn’t intend to make a path, but you did so, nonetheless.  It is too late to repair the unintended damage.  (I often mused over whether this could be considered sin; for it was only in retrospect that one realized that one had done damage.)

How can we as church leaders avoid doing unintended damage that we must then try to repair?  Boundary Training is about avoiding unintended damage.  We all know that gross violations of professional ministerial boundaries—such as assault, infidelity, or embezzlement—are devastating to pastors and parishioners.  We have clear rules about these things, and common sense can guide us.   A majority of problems, however, arise not from these gross violations but from the crossing of more subtle boundaries.  It is here that we make those “unintentional paths in the grass.”  The violation of these less obvious boundaries can place at risk our relationship with parishioners and, at a minimum, create discomfort and confusion.  Often, church conflicts grow out of boundaries not being honored by clergy and parishioners alike.

Boundary Training involves gaining an awareness of the enormous power differential between pastors and their parishioners.  It also helps us clarify whose needs are being met in the clergy/congregant relationship, which helps ministers separate out their own needs and be intentional about where they get those needs met.  Boundary training helps us have a keener sense of how our behavior makes others feel.  It helps ministers avoid doing unintentional harm to themselves and others.  It is harder to make simple rules about these softer, more subtle boundary issues.  That is why church leaders need training. 

Jerrod and I are going to attend a boundary training workshop in Albany on November 7th.  If you are interested in attending with us, please use the following link to register.  If you cannot attend this training, the Region will make more training opportunities available within the coming year.

Our goal is that none of us look back and see that we made an unintentional path in the grass.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister