Put Down the Coffee Table

Setting Healthier Boundaries in Ministry

I am a perfectionist, a planner, and an overachiever. A classic Enneagram 1.

So imagine my surprise nearly three years ago when I found myself overwhelmed in ministry. I was consistently stressed out and anxious, and it seemed I couldn’t keep my head above water. It felt like I was never meeting anyone’s expectations—including my own. I was working at a church I loved, and I was living out my call, yet I was not happy. These feelings were so pressing that I sought the counsel of a therapist for the first time in my life.

After describing my work situation to her and my constant feelings of unmet expectations, my therapist said these simple, but life-changing words:

“It sounds like you need to set better boundaries.”

She went on to give an example that has stuck with me ever since. My therapist, who was about 32 weeks pregnant at the time, pointed to the large, solid oak coffee table sitting in between us. “What if someone walked in here and told me to pick up this coffee table and lift it over my head? What would I say?” I laughed and replied, “You would say, ‘no way!’ Of course, you can’t pick up that table! It’s huge, heavy, and you’re super pregnant!” 

She said, “Exactly! Those unspoken expectations others have put on you—and those subconscious expectations you have burdened yourself with—are like this coffee table. They are huge, unwieldy, and too heavy for you to pick up. Put down the coffee table. Say ‘no’ to some things. It’s time to set better boundaries.”

As youth ministers, we’ve probably all heard this truth in one form or another over the years. But what does it actually look like for us to set healthy boundaries in practical, everyday ways?

While I certainly don’t have it all figured out, here are a few practices I’ve learned that have helped me set better boundaries in youth ministry:

Protect your day off.

What day of the week is your “Sabbath day”? Your day to rest, recharge, and renew? For me, it’s Fridays, and I protect this day at all costs. I don’t schedule any meetings or take any calls. I relax, read, catch up on my sleep or my favorite tv shows. Of course, occasionally, ministry happens, and a youth event occurs on a Friday, but usually, it’s my day to do nothing at all. WARNING: People will try to cross this boundary constantly and ask for your time on your day off, but this one has to be non-negotiable for you to stay healthy.

Establish your preferred method of communication.

In our overly-connected digital age, we can easily get bombarded from every point of contact: text messages, emails, phone calls, and direct messages from various social media outlets. I communicate to parents and co-workers that my preferred form of communication is email, and then I work really hard to follow up with all emails within 1 workday. I don’t typically give out my cell phone number to students or parents and instead have my work number set up to ring to an app on my phone. It’s been a lifesaver not being “instantly accessible” from every direction as I keep a healthy boundary on my communication.

Stay in your lane!

When I first heard this phrase, I hated it! What if I want my lane to be the whole highway?! But eventually, I came to see the beauty of it: I have a lot less stress if I focus on my own job and role and not on those things that don’t fall under my area of responsibility. This practical boundary has helped me prioritize what is actually a part of my job and let go of other pieces I don’t need to control. It has also allowed me to say “no” more easily when I am asked to do things that fall outside of my areas of responsibility.

Don’t forget to eat.

My body has this weird way of reminding me to eat: I get low-blood sugar-induced migraines if I skip a meal. On the positive side, this has helped me set better boundaries around taking my lunch and dinner breaks, even in the midst of a busy day of ministry.

Take PTO before you need it.

As a notorious workaholic, it took me a long time to embrace the beauty of a “mental health day.” But now, when I start to feel myself becoming burned out or overwhelmed, I go ahead and preemptively take an afternoon or morning off. Alternatively, if I am about to head into a busy season of ministry, I go ahead and schedule PTO while I still can!

When you are clear about your boundaries to yourself and others, you can then say “no” to anything that might get in the way of those healthy boundaries.

Remember, it is ok to put down that coffee table.

Shannon Greene
Shannon Greene

Shannon is the Confirmation Director at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. She is passionate about youth spiritual formation and curriculum development. Originally ordained in the Church of the Nazarene, she is now a Local Licensed Pastor in the United Methodist Church. She lives in Kansas City with her husband Randy and their dog Oscar. She enjoys writing (when she can find the time!). You can follow her blog at shannonegreene.com.

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