Boundaries in Relationships

April 6, 2011
Penny Maxwell
Penny Maxwell

By Penny Maxwell

One of the nearest and dearest things to my heart is healthy relationships. My husband Troy and I were not raised with a healthy perspective of relationships, and the church culture we both grew up in did not foster them either. It has taken time and attention to choose the path of health in that area, but it has been and continues to be well worth it.

We have by no means mastered healthy relationships and still flub up quite often. One thing I can tell you, despite all of our flub-ups, is that we are committed to them. God is all about healthy relationships, and because of that, even though relationships can be painful, we strive to walk them out as healthily as possible.

When I look back through our years of ministry and the mistakes we made (and as I alluded before, there are plenty of them), I noticed a common thread that has taken some time to identify and correct: There were times my husband and I thought we were being loving, but we weren’t. Times we thought we were building someone up, and we weren’t. Times we thought we were being longsuffering, and we weren’t. You see, there is a difference between caring for someone and carrying someone.

Let me give you an example: When someone comes to you for help, make sure that you don’t want health for them more than they want it for themselves. I have found that it’s easier for some people to talk about a problem than to actually aggressively attack it.

Let’s say someone is having serious marital issues. You give them the name of a counselor, you give them some great marriage CDs and books, and you tell them about a great marriage life group offered at church. After that, it is their responsibility to take the next steps. If they come back later and want me to pray with them or process with them, I ask a few simple questions: “Did you sign up for the life group? Did you read the materials I gave you? Did you call the counselor?” If they haven’t taken any steps to help themselves, and if the answer is a plethora of excuses, that tells me something about their hunger level for change. I will not meet with them again. It’s not cruel; it’s called setting healthy boundaries. After all, there are other people who need help and are serious about changing.

Another important lesson we have learned is to never talk to just one spouse. That sure was a learning experience! We can’t foster healthy relationships when we only hear one person’s interpretation and think the other spouse is a louse! There are three sides to every story: his, hers and the truth. Be mindful not to speak to situations unless you have a clear picture of what is taking place. What initially presents itself is rarely the problem, and you will see more and more clearly as the story unfolds. That translates to any situation that may present itself. And truthfully, as hard as it is for some people to hear, people marry according to their emotional health. The differential is never the chasm we might think.

It’s very easy to go from supporting someone in a time of trouble, to enabling them. If we don’t see a drive or a compulsion to change, our encouraging—or even begging and pleading—just won’t work. We can turn into their parents instead of their pastors and form a co-dependent relationship.

Let’s face it, some people may be looking for an instant fix from you. It’s much easier for them to ask us what God has to say about a situation, than take the time to hear God for themselves. But they didn’t get into this spot overnight, and it won’t be fixed in an instant. The truth is, each of us must get our own knee time instead of thinking someone else’s knee time will suffice.

To try to rescue people from the natural consequences of their actions and behaviors is to render them powerless and ineffective. It’s okay to let people fall and skin their knees. Everything that hurts won’t kill them. We can’t take the hard work away from people and think we are loving them by doing so. Having a caring pastor’s heart does not mean rolling over and being a doormat. It means we make the hard calls when necessary. Staying up ‘til 3 AM rending the heavens on their behalf will not help them. Setting healthy boundaries in relationships will. Let them rend the heavens for themselves! They will pull through if they decide they want to.

It is also imperative that we draw people to the Father and not to us. People who are attached to a leader don’t last. People who are attached to God do. As leaders, we must make sure we aren’t craving those attachments to make us feel secure or important. If that is the case it will harm us and them. We have to make sure we are healthy so we can portray health in the way we handle relationships.

In the end, we must realize we are not in control of people’s destinies, they are. Healthy relationships are simply the avenue God uses to help us see ourselves clearly so we can look more like Him. When we step back, it gives the Holy Spirit room to work fully in people’s lives. And He’s much better at bringing health and wholeness than any of us.