Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
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Robert Frost might have had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek when he penned in his poem Mending Wall that good fences make good neighbors. As he writes, he would love to say to his neighbor “why do good fences make good neighbors.”
Ah, but he doesn’t say that. And then as he and his neighbor walk the line to repair winter damage to the stone wall that divides one plot of land from the other, he evenbgives the final word to his neighbor who simply repeats: “Good fences make good neighbors.
I thought of that line this week when I spent two days online with colleagues in ministry doing our boundary training.
As Frost begins his poem, something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Boundaries and borders and walls can often be cast to represent a separation between friends or allies or neighbors. In a world where we are in desperate need of new ways of coming together across fiercely defended positions that create new ways of dividing us, boundaries could be seen as counter-productive – even unchristian.
But in the context of ministry, they are essential. They help maintain the long term health of the congregation and preserve the integrity of the pastoral role in the relationship between minister and congregant.
The first time I presided at a funeral, I learned how important these boundaries are. The 23 year old widow whose husband died in a tragic farm accident was so wracked with grief that I had to show up at the hospital to help her say goodbye to her beloved without knowing who it was I was coming to console. She could not stop crying long enough to tell the nurse anything, including her name. When the two weeks after the funeral she met me outside my office and took my face in her hands and looked me square in the eyes and said “ I could never had gotten through this without you” I knew it wasn’t a friend she needed, it was a pastor.
The blurring of the lines between being one’s pastor and being one’s friend ends up compromising so much in the life and health of the church. This is so critical that every minister in the denomination must return every three or four or five years and relearn what we know about maintaining good boundaries. Having spent more than two decades working with committees on ministry who, among other matters, examine the fitness of the leaders they authorize for ministry, I have witnessed first-hand the wrecked lives of those who became victims of their pastor’s misconduct. Failing to maintain the boundaries that foster integrity and health in our working relationships causes irreparable harm to congregants and congregations – often taking decades and generations to overcome and rebuild trust.
I used to remind the committees on ministry that I worked with that when they test the fitness of a candidate for authorized ministry, their first consideration should be “do no harm.” Is this a person whom you believe, once authorized for ministry, is fully differentiated and self-aware and is one you believe will do no harm? Pastors are called into ministry to build up the body of Christ. They are trained and prepared to act in ways that preserve the spiritual health and well-being of the Church. In this instance, good fences make good pastors. Boundaries that place clear limitations on our actions and behaviors are not burdens but gifts there to preserve the health and vitality of the church. I give God thanks for boundaries. While something there is that doesn’t love a wall, more importantly something there is that yet builds one when needed. May those walls of safe haven help us all inhabit safe spaces as we work to establish and maintain healthy boundaries on this, our journey Into the Mystic.
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