Setting Ministry Boundaries for Longevity, Health, and Effectiveness in Small Churches

Learn about 3 types of healthy boundaries in ministry that aren’t just about keeping things out – but also keeping things in.

Can you answer “yes” to any of the following questions:

  • Have you ever felt overwhelmed by ministry? 
  • Too busy to have a hobby, read a bedtime story to your kids, or have a conversation that doesn’t involve ministry?
  • Are you at church every time the doors are open but can’t remember the last time you heard from God?
  • Feeling burned out, exhausted and running on fumes?
  • No time for a day off or a vacation because ministry fills your every waking moment?

A life of ministry doesn't need to lead to exhaustion

Ministry is life and life is ministry, right? But is that really healthy? Of course we are called to a life of ministry, and we are to commit every moment of our lives to glorifying God. But does that mean that the actual work of the ministry, the daily tasks, the big events, the planning and problem-solving, should be allowed to consume every part of our life? Not if we want our ministry, our relationships, and our own sanity to survive!

Having healthy boundaries as a person in ministry is crucial for our personal longevity as well as the overall health and effectiveness of our ministry (not to mention the well-being of our family)

Often we see boundaries as negative, something meant to keep things out. We cringe at the thought of neglecting people or missing opportunities by putting up boundaries. But what if we looked at things differently? 

What if boundaries were seen as not just for keeping things out, but for keeping things in as well.

Ministry boundaries are like river banks

A river is powerful and beneficial when it stays in its place, providing life and beauty to everything it touches. But when a river escapes its boundaries, it becomes a destructive force that often proves deadly to anything in its path. 

The same can be true of ministry. A ministry that overruns our life can lead to pride, burnout, and even the destruction of our family & faith. While our lives should always be filled with actions that glorify God, we must put boundaries around the task of ministry in order to be healthy physically, mentally and spiritually. 

So whether you have a ministry and a job – or ministry is your job – here are three areas where we need to set healthy boundaries in ministry:

1) Set Physical Boundaries

Ministry can be all-consuming, especially in a small church. With fewer people on staff to serve, leaders in small churches often cover a variety of ministries at the same time. I used to envy my friends in larger churches who have staff meetings and tech teams to handle all the jobs, but that is not where God has called us. 

Instead our “staff meeting” is a brief discussion between my husband and I over breakfast, and the “tech team” is our teenage daughter. With so much riding on the shoulders of small church leaders, it’s easy for ministry to overflow our lives. 

Here are a few physical boundaries to keep ministry in its place:

Build margin into your schedule

Margins are empty spots that hold space for anything extra. If every moment of every day of every week of every month is completely filled to the brim, where do we put the unexpected things that inevitably come? Ministry is both planned and unplanned, and we need to have designated space for both. 

Build margins into your physical schedule for urgent meetings, unexpected counseling sessions, funerals and hospital visits. 

For us, that means scheduling planned meetings near ministry times (before or after church) so that we have other nights free for the unplanned. It also means getting to church events extra early so we have time to get our hearts and minds ready for ministry as well as to troubleshoot any issues that arise before the event/activity.

Be intentional when saying “Yes"

Someone once said that every YES you give to something is a NO to something else. Whenever I say YES to that ministry task, I am saying NO to something else I could be doing. That’s not always a problem. 

I can say YES to a meeting to pray over VBS but I have to say NO to folding laundry … not a problem. But if I say YES to yet another ministry meeting which makes me have to say NO to dinner with my family, and it becomes a regular occurence, then we have a problem. 

We need to recognize that NO is an acceptable answer, even in ministry, because God has called us to other important things as well. He does not expect us to build our ministry on the back of our family. 

Our schedule, our intentional YES and NO, must reflect godly priorities.

2) Set Mental Boundaries

Not only can ministry consume our schedules, it can consume our minds. 

We can easily spend all our time thinking about ministry, brainstorming creative ideas and troubleshooting issues before they happen. Our minds are filled with lesson plans and study outlines, and we can be consumed with thoughts of ministry planning. 

Here are some ways to create healthy mental boundaries in order for ministry to stay fresh and powerful:

Get a hobby

If all we ever think about is ministry, our ideas will soon become stale and one-dimensional. Hobbies help us have a life outside of ministry and give us a chance to be a person outside of our role. 

My pastor husband and I often joke that “pastors are people, too!” It’s easy for anyone in ministry leadership to get so caught up in doing this good work that all we ever think about, read, and experience is ministry related. But we are created to be PEOPLE who DO ministry not just MINISTRY PEOPLE. 

Go for a hike, learn a new skill, read a book unrelated to ministry, or do a creative project for something outside of the church. A hobby will help us become more relatable to others, provide connections with lost people, and make us more interesting people.

Deliberately DON'T

Don’t think about ministry, do ministry, talk about ministry for a specific and pre-determined time. 

My husband and I set aside every Friday as our “Kick Church to the Curb” Day. We silence our phones, do something fun, and basically, get out of ministry mode for a whole day. It’s not because we don’t love our church – we do! We eat, sleep and breathe ministry for six days every week, but we take Fridays to think and talk about other things. 

On Fridays, we talk about our dreams & feelings, plans for future home renovations, the latest YouTube video or blog we have seen … sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s lighthearted, but we deliberately don’t talk or think about ministry as much as possible. This mental break allows us to build a relationship that will last beyond our ministry. It also allows us to experience rest each week so we can come back to our ministry refreshed and ready to take on whatever comes.

(One big note: We communicate this boundary clearly to our church, and they do a great job helping us maintain our mental health. They save their phone calls and visits for other days of the week. Of course, there are always emergencies, and we maintain a flexible attitude when our Friday has to be interrupted. But we make sure that these interruptions are the exception and not the norm.)

3) Set Spiritual Boundaries

Ministry not only can consume our physical and mental lives, but it can also overrun our spiritual life. While all true ministry is spiritual, not all spiritual things should be ministry. When Jesus was involved in His ministry here on earth, He often took time to maintain His relationship with the Father outside of His active ministry. 

Here’s a few tips for how to do the same:

Set aside time for spiritual growth

Be sure your time with God impacts you personally before it affects your ministry. 

Too often we spend lots of time studying the Bible for our next lesson and forget to spend time in the Word for ourselves. Our ministry must flow from our relationship with God, which means we must have a thriving personal relationship with God outside of the work of the ministry.

Serve AND sit in equal amounts

I cringe to even suggest that people sit rather than serve. Studies say that 20% of people in churches are doing 80% of the work. As a leader in ministry I spend much of my time trying to convince people to stop sitting and start serving! (This happens in ministries of all sizes, I’m sure, but in small churches it’s a lot more obvious!) 

But we’re not talking to the whole church, we’re talking to you – a leader in ministry. You’re already serving! Now you need to learn to sit, too. 

Remember Mary & Martha?

Martha was EXCELLENT at serving, but Mary was commended for sitting. Sitting and serving are valuable in the kingdom of God, and both are needed. 

So evaluate: how often do you serve and how often do you sit? Not passively sitting, but actively sitting at the feet of Jesus seeking to learn and grow and be near Him. 

  • If you’re leading the Bible study every single week, find a Bible study to be part of- even if it is done virtually or on your own. 
  • If you lead worship every Sunday, make time during the week for personal worship- even if it’s done while washing supper dishes. 
  • If you keep the nursery during every service, ask God to bring someone else to rotate with you, so you can be fed, too, or (gasp) let the little children stay in the service. (They will bring life into the room and maybe even prompt more people to volunteer to serve in the nursery.) 

Martha wasn’t wrong for serving, she was wrong for valuing serving over sitting at Jesus’ feet. Let’s make sure we’re not doing the same.

Ask the hard questions

  • Would you be reading your Bible if you weren’t leading a study? 
  • Would you be praying regularly if you weren’t at a prayer meeting? 
  • Would you be at church if you weren’t serving there? 

If you have to answer NO to these questions, then it’s time to reevaluate your spiritual boundaries. 

During a time of ministry transition I was experiencing severe burnout. We had moved to a new church, and I was determined to make a good impression by jumping into all the ministries and trying to manage everything in my own strength. But I was empty and had nothing left to give. 

God called me to be still

God took that opportunity to call me to be still for a season: to let go of all of my ministries (they had become a status symbol and a source of pride for me) and to simply rest in His presence. 

I spent an entire year attending church, soaking in worship and digging into His Word without any formal audience or responsibilities. During that time God healed my hurts, restored my joy and opened my heart to His presence once again. I was able to return to ministry refreshed and filled with His power. I had been trying to serve from an empty vessel and it was exhausting. 

Now I continually monitor my spiritual life, asking the hard questions, to make sure I’m serving from an overflow of God in my life.

Enjoy the Beauty of Ministry with Boundaries

Ministry is powerful, and often all-consuming. Healthy boundaries keep that power focused on God while allowing us (& our families) to enjoy the beauty of being in ministry. We must protect our priorities, guard our minds, and leave room for God to grow us personally so that our ministry can be lasting and life-giving. What other boundaries do you put in place to maintain a healthy ministry?

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Stephanie Shouse

Stephanie Shouse

Stephanie grew up in North Carolina, got a degree in Bible Teaching from Columbia International University, and currently works as a chaplain in rural Illinois. She and her pastor husband, Jeff, have been in ministry together for almost 25 years, serving in small churches in New Orleans, Appalachia, Kentucky, and Illinois. They can usually be found hanging out with their grown daughters or road-tripping in their Jeep. Click on Stephanie's photo to find her blog: The Not-So-Perfect Pastor's Wife.