Boundaries in Pastoral Care


We’ve all been there. Working in a church, or serving on the leadership, you come into contact with all kinds of people, experiencing all of the things life throws at them. One of the fantastic thing about churches is the continuity we have with people for years, often decades, throughout their life. We are there. And they come to us for support, often when the other places they might hope to find it are not open to them, or able to offer them what they need.

If you are lucky, your church may have someone, or even a team of people, who are able to offer some kind of formal help. Increasing numbers of churches are linked to organisations or teams who can offer Christian counselling, or even to general practice surgeries.  But what if you are not? What if you is pretty much all you have to offer someone in need? You may have heard mention of ‘boundaries’ in things you have read about counselling or formal therapy - but what really are boundaries, and how do they apply to someone working in the much grey-er area of pastoral care?

What are ‘boundaries’?


Boundaries describe the limits of the kind of care you offer a person. They may surround practical things like when and for how long you meet, or when and how someone will be able to contact you.   They may also make clear how important factors like confidentiality will work within this relationship - ie when, why and how you might need to share things they discuss with you with someone else, for example your senior pastor/minister.

However boundaries also have another important role: they explain and make clear how this relationship will work. Boundaries - whether stated explicitly, or just maintained implicitly (ie without referring to them), clarify the nature of the relationship. 

Let me explain that last one in a bit more detail. When we form friendships, we all automatically and gradually start to offer indications of the boundaries of that friendship. Therefore when I met a new lady at a coffee morning last week, found out she came from a town very close to mine in England, and got chatting with her, before we parted company I asked if I could take her number. That immediately gives her an important piece of information about my take on the friendship - I would like to at some point take it beyond this first meeting by contacting her. And when I asked for her number I also said ‘you should come over for coffee sometime’ - making it clear what kind of contact I would be making. Throughout friendships we give this kind of information, whether consciously and deliberately (‘Do call me if I can help with anything’) or through the way we act (for example by letting someone know we are generally in on Monday mornings if they ever want to drop by for coffee). 

In therapeutic settings (eg counselling, medicine etc), the nature of the relationship is not friendship. Professional boundaries therefore help both parties understand this, as well as clarifying practical details of how the relationship will work. Setting clear boundaries therefore includes explaining that it is not a friendship, and helping the client understand something of the nature of the relationship those two people will develop. 

Why are boundaries important?

The main importance of boundaries is that they set up and manage the expectations that both parties have of the relationship. In a friendship scenario this is managed between the two of you and any awkwardness (we’ve all had those moments when someone clearly wants to be a closer friend than perhaps you had in mind!) is managed one way or another. However in a therapeutic relationship we recognise that the people we support are very vulnerable. They may struggle with issues like trust, and may have been let down or rejected many times before. In addition to this we are asking them to share themselves with us - potentially to make themselves more vulnerable. Good boundaries make the relationship a safe and predictable place where they can do this. They ensure that an individual isn’t expecting something that you ay be unable to give - that they do not, for example, think that they can contact you any time of any day and you will always be able to talk to them or get back to them straight away. Good boundaries protect people qwho may be very vulnerable to what they perceive to be rejection by making clear what our limits are.

As well as this, boundaries have further benefits for the people we support. In counselling or therapy, the process can be very painful, raising or examining very difficult emotions or experiences from past or present lives. Good boundaries enable someone to keep their time in therapy very clear from the rest of their life. This is not a friend who they may run into in the supermarket,and have to say hello to. This is a safe space separate from the rest of their life where they can step out of their life and examine the most difficult parts of it. Then at the end of each session they can put those things away again until the next time they enter that space. These kind of clear boundaries are particularly essential when the things someone needs to work through are very traumatic or emotionally triggering.

A third important aspect to clear boundaries is to protect expectations that otherwise there may be perceived to be on the person we are supporting. People in distress are often at their limit in what they can do and take on. A supportive relationship shouldn’t expect anything of them - it is very rightly one way - unlike a friendship which asks more balance. Your counsellor/doctor/psychologist is not a friend - this is not someone who’s birthday you need to remember! The nature of this boundary takes the pressure off the person you are supporting and allows them to relax into a relationship which is, uniquely, totally one way to care for and be interested in them alone.

A final, often overlooked aspect of boundaries however is not for the person we are supporting - it is for US!  Boundaries protect US - and ultimately make sure we are able to keep on caring, and offering the best kind of support. Boundaries keep us sane, make sure we have space in our lives where we are not disturbed by work calls or people in need. They protect our families, ensuring we have a safe space which isn’t invaded by our work, and they help us keep balance, making sure we recharge our batteries and avoid the all too present risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. 

What about church leaders?

So, having considered this, how do we approach these boundaries as church leaders? In some senses our boundaries are not quite as clear as those working in professional therapeutic roles. We do not have an office where people come once a week, and it isn’t true that they will not see us apart from that planned contact. We will see them at church on Sundays, in some church meetings, might find ourselves sat opposite them at the next harvest supper/fundraiser quiz night/vision evening. We are certainly likely to see them in passing in the coffee time, not to mention other social occasions. Many of us also do not have the luxury of totally clear ‘non-work’ lives - you may well have to use the same phone for work as you do for your social/family life. Many ministers live next to their church and find people frequently turn up on their doorstep seeking help. 

Another area we cannot control as much as normal is that of what is called ‘self disclosure’. Most therapeutic relationships strongly discourage this (ie telling someone about yourself, sharing your own experiences etc) apart from in very careful circumstances. However as leaders not only will the people we are supporting know us and a lot of our life story, but they also will probably know our spouses, kids, friends … 

So does this ‘grey’ quality to some of our boundaries mean that we shouldn’t be offering support to people? No, it doesn’t - and there is a real strength in these ‘grey’ areas (for more check out an archive article of mine ‘working in the grey areas’). But it emphatically doesn’t mean that we don’t need to pay attention to boundaries. In fact it means we have to be even more careful and deliberate about them.

How to set good boundaries for pastoral care

Good boundaries for pastoral care acknowledge the grey areas, but set clear expectations for both sides. Here’s some things you should think about:

When and how someone can contact you.

Be clear. What phone number? Email or text? What times of day? Also think about being clear about when you will respond. ‘Not straight away’ is a good answer to this! Make clear you may not always have access to messages etc and it may be a few days before you can respond. Also make clear when you have family times/days off etc and would ask them to hold on and contact you the next day. 


What to do in a crisis. 

Some people you support will be literally on the edge. For these people it is essential to think about what they do in a crisis and who they call (especially if it isn’t able to be you!). DO you have a church office number that is manned by volunteers? Or a ‘crisis phone’ held by whoever is on duty that day/evening? If not then make sure they are aware of other ‘out of hours’ crisis options. If they are in contact with the local mental health team they will have a crisis number if not, make sure they know about other options like the samaritans, or premier lifeline

What you (and the church) can and importantly can’t offer them.

It is really important that we are realistic - we do have limits. You may want to push the limits in terms of how you care for people but as long as you are human you will never be able to escape them entirely. Even Jesus sometimes walked away from need because he and/or the disciples needed to eat (Mark 6:31), pray (eg Luke 5:16, 6:12), rest (Luke 8:23) or just process their own emotions (Matthew 14:13). Do not make the mistake of thinking you will not have the same limits. Be clear about what you can offer - most likely it will not be treatment or therapy, just support, consistency, the space to talk, and prayer. Be clear when you can offer it, and what you can offer when. Sunday services are classically a really bad time for pastoral care as they are so busy and public. Mostly all we can offer then is prayer. However, if someone is in need we can arrange another time in the week to meet with them where there is the space and time they will need. Be clear about when this is. 

When they will see you.

We need to be clear about this - when we arrange time specifically for them to talk, think and/or to pray with them we must be clear. Always cover where you will meet (some meetings are very well suited to the local coffee shop. Others are not. Check first!). Always make clear when you will meet - start and finish times! You do not want them just to be getting into the flow of things after 45 minutes when you had another appointment booked in! Be clear! Learn how to gently reinforce this - ten minutes before the end of your time warn them (‘we need to finish soon - is there anything else you particularly wanted to talk about today?’). And do be wise - 5 minutes before you have to go is not the time to ask a particularly triggering question or to unlock a really painful memory. Remember they have to go back to their lives, so make sure they leave you in an appropriate state for this. 

What will happen/how to react when they run into you/encounter you in other circumstances.

This is so important in our ‘grey’ world. I always warn people they will see me in church and we chat about how we will both react. Some prefer to ignore me, which is fine - I warn them that sometimes people assume if they know someone knows me, that they have some kind of issue they are working through, so those who are really private prefer not to be saying hello on Sundays, which is fine by me. More usual though is that we agree to say a brief ‘hi’ and leave it at that. Its important that I know not to use Sunday mornings as a time to check up on them or arrange our next meeting if this might not be appropriate for them. Similarly it is important they know that if my kids are with me in particular, it isn’t appropriate for them to come and start talking about their innermost world. 


A side comment on this issue: we can make things easier for ourselves, and also try to make the support space as separate as possible for people we care for. WE can’t be as separate as profesional clinicians but we can do our best. Where possible I always try to link someone with a pastoral carer who is outside of their normal social group - say from a different service/area of town/who doesn’t serve on the same team as them etc. Where possible this can be a good thing to aim for. 


How to save things up to share with you at the most appropriate time.

We should always work on this with people we support and never feel guilty about it. It is a good emotional skill for them to learn to ‘hold’ things until the next time we see them. This may be particularly hard for some who have never learned this skill before though, especially if they do see you at other events/services in the week. Think about perhaps getting them a book they can write their thoughts in, and then share with you when you meet. Getting them out of their head onto the paper often helps. Or arrange that they can email you - but that you will most usually not reply, but talk about their emails when you meet in person. So they feel they have passed on the information, but you stick to the boundary of the meeting. Again the key is discussing and managing expectations so that you are both on the same page here.  

Any expectations or requirements you have of them.

This is a good final check, and a good thing to think about. It may be that these are simple, usual things like speaking/addressing you and members of the team appropriately, making sure they turn up on time to appointments and cancel any they can’t make in good time etc. However you may have other things you would like then to stick to - for example not talking to lots of other people about what is going on for them (some people who struggle with boundaries ‘over’ share, and can then encounter all kinds of problems when they have told too many people too much). Think about what these are and be proactive - better to set a boundary before there is a problem than try to reinstate it after the event!


Contract or no contract?


In professional circumstances standard boundaries will be set out clearly in a written ‘contract’ that both sides will sign. It may sound over formal but it really helps to make sure everyone knows where they are, and it ensures people realise that you really do mean the things you say!  Contracts needn’t be handled in a way that makes them scary - they can be explained in a really relaxed way, and generally people respond really well to them.

Church leaders/pastoral carers may be less used to using contracts, or find they are not standard practice. I would encourage thinking about how you can use them - or at least how you can set out agreements in writing. Perhaps think about discussing them first then emailing a summary, or having a standard explanation sheet about pastoral care which sets them out. Explaining the more ‘grey’ nature of church boundaries should help people understand why they are important. Be particularly careful about this if the person you are supporting has a very complex or traumatic history, or is experiencing lots of problems, or exhibiting any challenging behaviours. In these cases boundaries are doubly important and written, more formal agreements are much more likely to be successful.

What do you do when someone pushes the boundaries?

A final thought - what when it doesn’t work. You did everything right and then they turn up outside your house at 3 am?! 

Sometimes people we are supporting will push the boundaries. When that happens in an acute situation all we can do is manage the situation. But it is really important we follow up and gently but firmly reinforce the boundaries and why they are important. Ultimately if someone continues to break them, we may be unable to help them. 

Sometimes we may need to rethink a boundary because someone is unable to stick to it. Say we arrange to see them once a fortnight but they are too distressed. It is better that we arrange a planned meeting ponce a week (possibly even involving someone else from our team) than that we set them up to fail each fortnight. So do be open to planned changes to the plan, and willing to discuss the boundaries with the person you are supporting if they are finding them hard. 

Want to read more?

Check out this info sheet from BACP about boundaries in counselling or the ACC pages about pastoral care

See also our draft pastoral care policy and a list of other articles about pastoral care

Kate Middleton, 13/06/2014
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