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Boundaries to Prevent Pastoral Abuse

Boundaries to Prevent Pastoral Abuse

Growing a healthy church body 

By Naomi Boonstra

I recently read the novel “The Devil All the Time” by Donald Ray Pollock, which depicts intense bouts of unhealthy boundaries within the church. It made me sickeningly aware of the power that a spiritual leader can have over others. In the book, one pastor impregnates a young girl who is driven to suicide when she realizes she can’t tell anyone what happened. Another pastor feels so falsely empowered by God that he kills his wife, believing that he’ll be able to raise her from the dead. He obviously cannot. 

In my own life, there have been spiritual leaders who feel falsely empowered. I’ve watched male pastors groom their female church members through inappropriately conducted one-on-one counseling, and I’ve been pushed into things I’m not comfortable with by people with slightly higher spiritual positions than me. In any profession, there are people who get into it for the wrong reasons. 

The responsibility for creating an atmosphere of respect and healthy boundaries always falls on the person in the position of power. In a church setting, this is most often the pastor. 

Caption: Moses from the popular 50s movie, “The Ten Commandments”, establishing boundaries with his people (I.e. The Red Sea and not the Red Sea…). Photo by 

Establishing boundaries in pastoral ministry isn’t only beneficial for protecting the congregation, but for protecting the pastor as well, assuming that they harbor no malintent for their congregation. A church family does not want the pastor involved in the intimate details of their personal lives, and a pastor needs privacy and rest. The first reason that a pastor should establish healthy boundaries with her congregation is for their own wellbeing. A person in ministry is, before anything else they’ve committed to, a human being with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of their own. There’s a certain pressure in any giving-oriented position to give all of one’s energy, and that just isn’t possible. 

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He demonstrated healthy delegation. He, like us and like pastors, had personal needs. He needed to be able to eat, sleep, drink, and pray in peace in order to continue pouring into others. He made it clear to His disciples when He called them into ministry that they would be playing an active role. He told them up front that they would be fishers of men, not that they would just be witnessing His fishing (Matthew 4:19). The disciples were never to be tag-alongs, and neither should any member of a congregation, particularly the pastoral staff, if the pastor can help it. As Jethro taught Moses, it’s never good to be overworked (Exodus 18:1-27). There are boundaries for what a pastor can and cannot do for their congregation. 

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Boundaries are also important for the sake of the people in the congregation. Abuse within the church (and outside of it) happens when the perpetrator is not practicing proper boundaries. If this person holds a position of authority within their circle, there’s even more danger for abuse. It falls on the pastor to establish good boundaries with their church members, but if they don’t, the Bible gives us clear council on what to do. The church boards and conferences surrounding a pastor are typically very clear that pastors are to be removed from their position if abuse occurs. We’re told to drive out anyone who causes this sort of harm and that this is the only way abuse will stop (Proverbs 22:10). 

Self-disclosure is discouraged in any therapeutic relationships, but in pastoral ministry, it’s somewhat unavoidable. The congregation knows their pastor’s spouse, kids, friends, and life story. It’s very easy to build emotional dependence on someone whose job is to care for you. It’s important, for this reason, for a pastor to have designated times that they can meet with people, especially alone. 

Caption: A community-based campaign against abuse in the church. Photo by 

Churches are ultimately safer for both the pastor and the congregation when healthy boundaries are laid down from the beginning. If there’s been a breach in personal boundaries with a spiritual leader, the only way to reconcile it is to purge them of their position. It can be terrifying to speak up, but there are resources to do it anonymously. Bucket Brigade Against Abuse is one such resource within Adventism. Reports are filed anonymously and held until the victim chooses what further action they’d like to take.

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