As a pastor, you know how important your emotional vitality is to ministry. The pastoral vocation is unique in nature compared to all other helping professions. Ministry is not a 9-5 job; insisting on “normal hours” will lead only to frustration for you and those you lead, further exacerbating stress in your life. However, there are practical measures you can take to help protect your emotional and mental health. Even Jesus saw the wisdom of establishing personal boundaries with people (Matt. 14:22-23). Take 5 minutes to consider the following suggestions of how you can establish and maintain boundaries to protect your own emotional health and sense of well-being.
Establishing Healthy Boundaries
1. Establish mutual work expectations with your board. A significant source of stress for some pastors is differing assumptions from the congregation about work expectations. Your board might assume you are available 365 days a year. You might assume the board expects you to take personal time for your family. But assumptions can be dangerous! Determining together with your leaders (and your spouse if you are married) your work expectations will help everyone be on the same page: e.g. typical hours, vacation, holidays, sabbaticals. Have you ever discussed work expectations with your board? What do you think is their perception of what a typical workweek is like for you? How can you help clarify and communicate these expectations?
2. Plan and take vacation. Many pastors never take their allotted vacation. They often feel the church will fall apart unless they are on call 24/7/365. How easy it is to forget about our own needs for fun, rest, and time with loved ones. How easy to neglect the needs of our own marriages and family relationships. Have you alreadyscheduled your vacation time? Did you take vacation last year? If not, why not? Have you discussed vacation needs with your spouse and children? Or are you prone to an unhealthy habit of thinking you do not need time off?
3. Schedule regular time alone. Someone once pointed out that the day planner (in whatever form) is the most authoritative resource you can have— if it is in your schedule, no one will question you. In advance, schedule time alone with God, spouse, and children. Block off days for extended personal retreats (spiritual or professional). If you don’t, then someone will fill that vacuum for you. Claim that time. Do you schedule personal time in advance? Or do you unintentionally allow others to fill your schedule? What prevents you from scheduling personal time for your own interests and relationships?
4. Realize not everything is a crisis. Depending on your temperament – or your sense of being needed — you might be prone to over-estimating how much you are needed in any given situation. Be honest with yourself. Reflect carefully about how serious a situation really is before committing your time. Not all requests for your assistance are true crises. Are you quick to commit inordinate time to less serious situations? Do you treat all situations as crises? How well do you know your own tendency to be needed?
5. Set limits on counseling. It is natural to want to solve the emotional and relational problems of people. As pastors, we have compassion for those who are hurting. However, pastors are primarily called to provide spiritual guidance and are not licensed counselors. Consider limiting pastoral counseling to 3-5 sessions. Have a list of qualified counselors to refer to if the issue is not resolved quickly. Do you have a predetermined limit on the number of counseling sessions you permit? Do you know how to refer to a qualified counselor? Do you have a list of qualified counselors for referral?
Adapted from the following sources:
James T. Draper, n.d. “Four Ways to Set Boundaries in Ministry,” retrieved from
LifeWay.com for more articles on self-care in ministry.)
Barney Self, n.d. “Six Principles for Boundaries in Pastoral Ministry,” retrieved from
Ronald D. Sisk. 2005. The Competent Pastor: Skills and Self-Knowledge for Serving
Well. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute. (Sisk has wise practical advice for working
with your lay leaders regarding work expectations, plus much more.)
Howard W. Stone 2001. Strategies for Brief Pastoral Counseling. Minneapolis, MN: