Pastors’ Emotional Health and Well-being: Healthy Boundaries

Blog September 27, 2023

Nothing can excuse the minister for neglecting the inner circle for the larger circle outside. The spiritual welfare of his family comes first. In the day of final reckoning God will inquire what he did to win to Christ those whom he took the responsibility of bringing into the world. Great good done for others cannot cancel the debt that he owes to God to care for his own children. (White, The Adventist Home, 1952, p. 353)

This week’s blog deals with pastors’ emotional health and is drawn from the book Mending Ministers on Their Wellness Journey,[1] which is based on recent research on Adventist pastors’ health in the North American Division.[2]

Mending Ministers states the example of instructions given to passengers on an airplane that if the oxygen masks are released, they should adjust their own masks before helping others. This is the essence of self-care. We have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. This is crucial for pastors who have not only themselves and their families, but whole congregations of others to care for. One of the most vital and equally neglected aspects of self-care for pastors is creating healthy boundaries around themselves and their families.

Boundaries are the deliberate, healthy spaces between us and other people. They allow us to let people know what is okay and what is not, what we will tolerate and what we will not. Boundaries keep us safe. In the 2021 Drumm & Činčala study, researchers found that creating and maintaining healthy boundaries was crucial for alleviating pastoral stress. Boundaries protect healthy relationships, especially with the people we care for the most.

However, many pastors have problems establishing family boundaries because doing so can make them feel guilty that they are being unfaithful to God’s expectations.

And I have to admit . . . I didn’t know how to take care of myself, and I’m still struggling with that. I mean, I believe pastors, we need to learn how to protect ourselves . . . [and not] feel guilty. For example, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t want to answer the phone call right now.” Or, “I need to take that day off.” But if I was doing it, I would feel guilty, like I was not being faithful to my calling.[3]

Family Boundary Concerns

Pastors tend to have greater challenges with setting personal and family boundaries than those in other helping professions. For pastors, boundaries between their home and their church can become permeable. Church members may feel that they should have access to their pastor at all times, and because being a pastor is a calling, not just a job, pastors feel pressure to be available even when they are spending valuable time at home and with their families (Hileman, 2008).[4]

Pastors may feel that it is selfish to prioritize their family, but, like the oxygen in the plane, pastors have to prioritize their families’ well-being and their own before they are even able to care for their congregations’ well-being. “Healthy boundaries make for healthy souls. Unhealthy boundaries make for unhealthy souls.”[5]

After their relationship with God, it is with their families that pastors find strength and the motivation to carry on.

One way to protect time with family is to schedule family time in the calendar.

At the same time, pastors need to set time limits for regular church office work. Of course, a good pastor will always be available to respond to a real emergency, but it is necessary to define in advance what constitutes an emergency.

Mending Ministers provides information on a few things pastors can do to help maintain healthy boundaries between family and work.[6]

  • Learn to say No: “no” is a complete sentence and does not need an apology or explanation.
  • Communicate what you want (and don’t want): clear communication is vital in setting boundaries.
  • Set up an “if . . . then” expectation and follow through: know ahead of time what your expectations are and what to expect if they are violated.

It can be hard work to create and maintain healthy boundaries, and some people may misunderstand and feel slighted or even neglected when pastors take time off from work to concentrate on themselves and their families, but pastors need to ensure their own health in order to care for their church family in a better way.

Created in collaboration with the Institute of Church Ministry.

Published by ASTR on 09-27-23

[1] Ivan Williams, Petr Činčala, and René Drumm, eds., Mending Ministers on Their Wellness Journey (Lincoln, NE: AdventSource, 2022).

[2] R. Drumm and P. Činčala, SDA Pastor Health Qualitative Study Report: What Can

and Must Be Done to Save the Health of Adventist Pastors. Unpublished Report to the North

American Division of Seventh-day Adventists Ministerial Department (2021b)

[3] Drumm and Činčala, What Can and Must Be Done, pg. 21

[4] L. Hileman, L., “The Unique Needs of Protestant Clergy Families: Implications for Marriage and Family Counseling,” Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10:2 (2008): 119–144.

[5] Williams, Činčala, and Drumm, Mending Ministers, pg. 114.

[6] Williams, Činčala, and Drumm, Mending Ministers, pgs. 97–98.