Blog post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
Today I took part in Boundary Training for ministers in the presbytery. The training is required every three years for all Teaching Elders and Commissioned Pastors. We covered several topics including dating, touching, friendship, and intimacy between pastor and parishioner. We also talked about social media, and the challenges of pastoral identity on the internet. Around the question of friendship, we talked about the difference between being friendly and being a friend. We shared stories of accepting and rejecting gifts and discussed the separation policy regarding once a pastor leaves a congregation.
A big takeaway from the meeting is that boundaries can be fluid, elusive, and highly contextual. While one church may have a brief passing of the peace where no one barely moves or touches, another church walks around hugging everyone for an extended time.
This is why creating policy for congregations and ministers is difficult. We often write policy as a response to a negative activity. For example, we have a stringent separation policy after a pastor leaves a congregation because in the past a pastor abused the relationship with former parishioners. The temptation is to use the worst case as the norm. In Boundary Training, the pastors and leaders reflected on a more nuanced approach. They desired a policy that is sensitive to context. We should think less about absolutes and more about ways to be flexible and have boundaries more fluid and permeable. The church should be less about “thou shalt not” and more about “I bring to you a new commandment, love one another.”
Of course, it is difficult to live in a more flexible community. I imagine people will want to be firm or fluid depending upon their need and advantage. As humans we may want the strictest application for others, and the more open interpretation for ourselves. As your leader, It is easy to apply stiff policy from above. But reality is that we are all doing the best we can as we stumble through our life of faith together.
The Bible says that God loves us. But God’s love is unique to each of us, and the Triune God loves us as we each need to be loved, and not all in the same way. Perhaps this is a way to get at the question of rules and policy. Create the framework but recognize the application may not be the same in every situation.
Rev. Craig M. Howard