When we purchased our home nearly twenty years ago, I remember how the property survey was a major part of the process. Even though we had a general sense of where our property started and and ended, the bank, insurance, and title companies wanted to make sure they knew precisely where the boundary lines fell. Looking back, I am grateful to know exactly where my responsibility as a homeowner begins and ends.
When it comes to setting boundaries in our neighboring relationships, it safe to say that the lines are not always so clear. We want to be good neighbors. We want to be good Christians who lay down our lives for others. We want to live out Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. But, how do we do this without letting it take over our lives or more importantly, the specific work Jesus has given us to do?
Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon do a great job of walking us through the delicate art of setting appropriate boundaries and living them out in chapter 9 of The Art of Neighboring. In this chapter, they paint a picture of why boundaries are so important, yet so difficult to put into practice.
I believe the challenges of setting boundaries and sticking to them can be even more magnified when living and pastoring in a small town. Generally speaking, small towns have an inherent value for going above and beyond to help out a neighbor. We look out for each other. When there’s a need, the whole town rises to help. Because of the interconnectedness of family systems and relationships in small towns, it’s easy to get caught up in coming to the rescue any time there’s a need.
Setting healthy boundaries starts with being able to distinguish between being responsible to someone and being responsible forsomeone. Being responsible to people is healthy while being responsible for people is unhealthy. The authors write:
“There is a vital difference between responsibility to and responsibility for someone. We are responsible to love, to encourage, to bless, to pray, and to help. But we are not responsible for outcomes, for consequences, for emotions, for reactions, for feelings, or for someone else’s choices.”
As a recovering people-pleasing small town pastor, I have a tough time with boundaries. Saying “no” is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I want to solve everyone’s problem. I want to make everyone happy. When I set boundaries and try to stick to them, it sometimes feels cold and uncaring. Challenging, heart-breaking needs come across my desk with regularity and I have to frequently pray for wisdom to discern the difference between to and for.
It reassures me to know that Jesus set boundaries with people. The Gospels are full of stories where Jesus said yes to people, so it’s easy to miss how he also drew the line and said no to others. We know that everyone he prayed for was healed, but the Bible doesn’t say that he prayed for everyone. Saying yes to some meant saying no to others. Luke 5.15-16 tells of great crowds coming to Jesus for healing. Verse 16 says, “But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer”. Even with immense need all around him, Jesus found it necessary to draw boundary lines.
In the Vineyard, John 5.19 is one of our guiding verses that helps us discern our boundaries. As a small town Vineyard pastor, I try to hold fast to what Jesus modeled by asking “What’s the Father doing?”. I’m increasingly aware of needs throughout our small community. Broken relationships. Physical ailments. Financial hardship. Seeking the Father’s heart for my role in extending the Kingdom to the vast needs all around me is vital for my ability to do this for the long haul. Having wisdom to see our local Vineyard’s role in helping is essential too because our resources are limited. If we tried to meet every need outside of what the Lord has put on our plate, we would not last long.
Setting boundaries and living them out truly is an art. Asking for God’s wisdom to define where our lines of responsibility begin and end is essential to fully walk out what he’s given us to do. Relying on God’s grace to meet the needs of those beyond our boundaries is necessary for us to function in the calling he has on our lives. It’s easier said than done, but vital for life.
About the author
Jimm Wood is a pastor and musician living in Paxton, Illinois; a small town of 4600 people. In 2010, God told him to leave the bright lights and excitement of being a mega-church worship pastor to launch the Paxton Vineyard Church – a multi-site campus – with his wife DeDe. Since then, he’s been on a journey of discovering the Kingdom is big in small towns. Jimm and DeDe have four teenage children, two cats and a dog. Follow Jimm on Twitter @thejimm