Boundaries are tough. We know they are necessary for our own health and for the well-being of those we are serving, but when in a caregiving role at church, they are constantly being challenged.
Anyone who has supported someone through a struggle has encountered a situation where you see a need that you could easily fill. You want to assist the person to find freedom faster, but would be enabling. That is working for the person and not with them.
When you’re in a support role at your church you likely find yourself having one of two thoughts when someone comes to for help:
- You want to do anything to fix or solve the problems this person is facing. You find yourself talking on the phone with them in the evenings after you’ve already dropped off some groceries on your way home from work. You are doing all that you can to see them through.
- You feel guilty because you think you should do more, but you just have so much on your plate. You’re already maxed out and wondering if there are others who are able to help.
In both circumstances, you are left with negative feelings and the person needing support is no further ahead.
As church leaders, you are in a unique position in that you often have a personal relationship or connection with those that are looking for support. At the same time, you are in a position of authority or a leadership role.
This is different from counsellors, doctors, or therapists where there are clear boundaries between their professional and personal life.
Caregivers in the church – be it pastors, group leaders, or coordinators – are personally connected to those they are leading.
This creates a unique dynamic that can’t be ignored when discussing the types of support the church offers.
Professional supporters have an easier time maintaining strong boundaries with regard to the level of support they offer. There is less concern about damaging the personal relationship because there isn’t one. Although the supporter may be friendly, they are not friends with those using their services.
However, this isn’t the case with church care providers. Regardless of how much you try to stay neutral and maintain boundaries, there is a loss of objectivity because the relationship between the support provider and the user is often personal.
A supportive small group leader, prayer team member, or team leader has a greater risk of enabling the individual they’re helping. There is a higher chance they’ll become engrossed in the challenges because of the nature of their relationship. Many times, they don’t want to challenge or disrupt the relationship because it could impact the membership of the church or group.
Because the relationship between church caregivers and those they’re helping is more personal, a different approach to support is required.
In the guide 3 Steps to Building a Sustainable Care Ministry, I discuss the three types of supporters.
- Professional – offers treatment
- Pastoral – offers counsel through a Biblical lens
- Peer – offers support from the perspective of lived experience.
Each of these types of support offers value and are an important piece of a sustainable care ministry. But I want to focus on how the approach to support is different for a church care supporter.
Because the relationship between support provider and user is closer, we tend to feel a greater sense of responsibility to find solutions to the person’s problem, or to make them feel better. It can seem easier to do the work for people so they can find freedom quicker. However, it’s important to remember that we are to be supporters, not saviours.
You are to walk alongside someone as they overcome their challenges.
Think of how you help your kids with their school work. It would be so much easier to step in and do the work for them. There would be less struggling, fewer tears, and less complaining. But by doing the work FOR your child they aren’t learning required skills, nor are they gaining any confidence.
By doing their work for them the next question or problem they face is that much harder. Instead, you sit with them as they struggle through it. Perhaps you break the problem down into smaller, more manageable pieces, or even describe the problem in a new or different way.
Similarly, as a caregiver it can be tempting to do the work FOR a person; especially when you have a more personal connection with the individual you are helping. While it may be easier and feel like you’re being helpful, it can actually hinder their progress.
Instead, use the same skills to support others as you would in helping your child with their homework. Break the problem down so it’s not as overwhelming. Try to reframe the problem or encourage looking at it in a new way. Even use analogies and stories to help them see new possibilities. This gives the person an opportunity to gain skills, confidence, and overcome their struggle.
Because there is a closer relationship and connection between care ministry members and the person who is looking for support, we need to be more mindful about how our support can cross over into trying to rescue or save someone. It is more beneficial for support providers AND for support seekers if we remain on the outside of the situation and walk alongside people as they navigate the challenges of life.
In the guide 3 Steps to Building a Sustainable Care Ministry, I offer a template that helps you connect with your community’s professional services. Partnering with community services is a great way to extend your capacity to care for others while remaining a strong supporter. The guide offers 3 strategies for developing a care ministry that meets the needs of your congregation without burning yourself out.