Boundaries for Clergy Spouses: 4 Slippery Conditions
Dare I say it? Just about every clergy spouse has a personal illustration of the dynamic: “unrealistic expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” Here’s a classic example, regardless of age, race or gender: A parishioner expects me to know the latest scoop about another parishioner who was just hospitalized with a heart attack. Then walks off in exasperation when I confess that I had no idea about the situation; I had just returned from a business trip.
And yet am I, as a clergy spouse, immune from harboring my own unrealistic expectations? How can I expect parishioners who have never moved outside of a community to empathize with my challenges in coming into a new church and community?
Pretty unrealistic, don’t you think?
Too often, though, unrealistic expectations are far more subtle and hard to recognize. They startle us, like accidentally stepping backward into a mud puddle. Things get uncontrollably messy in an instant. Often, strained or broken boundaries can follow.
Fall is one of the most stressful seasons for many clergy spouses. School cranks up, and along with it the church calendar. Summer’s leisurely stream of others’ requests and expectations quickly roars into a river. Advent arrives in a blink of an eye. Almost every clergy spouse I coach eventually asks, “How can I protect myself and our family from endless church demands without slipping into a talk-to-the-hand attitude?” In other words, “How do I set boundaries for me when I also want to support my pastor-partner in their ministry?” The tugs of family, spouse and church expectations can easily overwhelm even the most healthy, assertive clergy spouse.
Expectations alone are not bad. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect a paycheck from my employer, for example. It’s the unrealistic part that’s dangerous.
When battling unrealistic expectations, I find the best defense is a good offense. Yes, as in spiritual battling.
The adversary is not the congregation, church staff or sometimes seemingly my beloved family and friends. We’re dealing with the Enemy, who prowls for opportunities to stir up division among God’s Children. I’ve learned to watch for signs of situations that are likely to result in spotty communication and misunderstandings. Then I try to ask about others’ expectations ahead of time, so we can gain alignment together on what is realistic. Unspoken expectations risk never being met. And unmet or unrealistic expectations often lead to boundary issues. Sure, sometimes I find myself needing to respond, “A more realistic expectation would be . . .” I’m not always comfortable taking the initiative on this, but without fail it’s been much better to deal with everyone’s assumptions when there’s still time to discuss alternatives. Less potential for mud-slinging and greater opportunity for relationship-building!
What kinds of situations are most likely to spawn assumptions? Here’s my initial take.
Four slippery conditions: Clergy spouses, proceed with caution!
Change of church leadership (including pastors), of worship times, of my family’s routine, of health, of technology used at church or at home, to name just a few. Adjusting from the old normal to the new normal takes time, energy, and a tremendous amount of extra intentional communication. There will be voids; we are all human. And voids of communication become the Enemy’s petri dish for division. We can’t see all the voids ahead of time, but we can routinely ask, “What are your prayer concerns about this change?” and “What part do you see my playing in this change?”
2. Long-term service in the same role
If I’ve led a few Bible studies or made pecan pies two years running for the annual church bake sale or habitually joined my spouse in greeting parishioners leaving the sanctuary after worship, others begin to expect that I will (and will want to) continue serving in these roles indefinitely. Reasonable, right? Not necessarily. Often the mantle of expectations weighs unrealistically heavier on those in the public eye, like clergy spouses. I now try to qualify any service commitment with, “Sure, I’ll commit this time, but don’t count on me for the long term. I will, however, help recruit someone for the next time.” Who knows how God is preparing someone else to use their gifts?
3. Close personal relationships
What a joy to experience the love, grace and bonding of a friendship! So much so that we often speak shorthand in the relationship. The downside is that we can also assume that friends can read our minds (a failing of mine in relating with my husband sometimes). Likewise, a friend or spouse might lean too much on the legacy of the relationship and wait until the last minute to ask a favor, believing that my devotion to the relationship will override any hesitation I have to agree. It happens. So, you forgive and move ahead. Just be aware that sometimes even those closest to us fall prey to having unrealistic expectations of us. I’m just sayin’ . . . Don’t neglect to honor your most valued relationships; be intentional about aligning expectations with each other early. I often say some version of: “I’m happy to help if I can, but please ask me before you count on me. Being ‘voluntold’ is a real hot button for me.”
4. Lack of resources
When we feel deficient, when we feel urgency, when we feel loss, we all tend to stray from God’s peace. Our prayers grow hollow, or we neglect them altogether. We feel insecure and threatened. When we struggle with trusting in God’s provision, we can begin to see others as a means to GET what we think we need to feel secure again. Expectations of others become twisted and unrealistic. One example: congregations can begin to believe that a young clergy family will magically re-ignite the church vitality they recall from yesteryear. Tremendous pressure builds for the clergy family’s behaviors to mirror what parishioners believe “worked” before. So painful for everyone, and all the more imperative to recognize and discuss the root of those expectations early.
Unspoken expectations often lead to unrealistic expectations. From unrealistic expectations, it’s a slippery slope to broken boundaries in relationships. The Enemy is all about division. God is all about unity and building each other up. I believe talking about expectations early, with grace and love, is one way to respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship. After all, for us to build each other up, don’t we need to understand each other? Even if we disagree, with the Spirit’s help, our understanding of one another’s expectations defeats the Enemy’s intentions to divide us.
“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” Hebrews 3:13 NIV
What’s your perspective? Let’s learn from one another. I’m always humbled and amazed by the wisdom abounding in every group of clergy spouses I’ve been blessed to meet.
- How was this blog post helpful? How do your experiences differ?
- When do you make a point to discuss expectations?
- When do you struggle most in saying no? To whom?
- What scripture do you lean on when you need to discuss expectations?
I hope and pray you’ll share your thoughts and experiences! You can comment here or feel free to email me separately and I’ll post your contribution anonymously here.
Don’t miss our next two posts related to aligning expectations and maintaining boundaries:
Part 2: “WHY say No: Three Reasons”
Part 3: “HOW to say No: Two Key Rules” (video)
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Watch for the next program we’re developing about how to align expectations and maintain boundaries – both important for dialing back the conflict in our lives.Are you open to a confidential phone interview, as part of our background research for this new program? Contact Julie Anderman if you’reinterested.