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Establishing and Navigating Relational Boundaries

Setting limits is part of caring for yourself and others

One of the oft-overlooked components of successful leadership is the thoughtful establishment of clear expectations and boundaries regarding our availability to those we lead. After 20 years, I have come to understand that the more intentionality we bring to this, the better off we—and our volunteers—will be.

Why We Need Boundaries

Successful leaders routinely rise to the many challenges we face. We then get rewarded with higher-level opportunities, which have more responsibility. These promotions are gratifying but they can come at the cost of our own well-being. In my twenties, I worked 50 to 60 hours a week at my for-pay job, and then devoted another 10 to 15 hours to church activities. I did not faithfully care for my body nor did I spend sufficient time on my own spiritual development. I found myself near burnout by the time I hit 30.

The first boundary we need to establish is the amount of time we realistically have to offer. For a healthy individual, volunteering four to six hours a week should still leave sufficient time for self-care, personal relationships, and the mundane acts which we all wish we could avoid, but in reality, cannot. Add into the mix a health issue or caring for parents or young children (or having multiple children who are involved in sports or music!) and those hours quickly vanish. Because our lives are not static, we need to take our pulse on a regular basis. What worked as a 25-year-old may not work as a 30-year-old. By routinely exceeding our limitations, we risk exhaustion and engender manic volunteers who may also flame out far too soon.

Do We Really Need Boundaries with Our Volunteers?

I love leading and I truly enjoy those who partner with me. I also have three children, a long-term health issue, and a tendency toward codependence. Not too long ago, I believed that helping anyone who asked (and some who didn't) whenever they asked (and sometimes before they asked) was the mark of a successful leader. After being diagnosed with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, I had to reevaluate my logic. I now communicate my availability with painstaking clarity. After our first meeting, my teammates understand that though I am completely present to them during our team time or when we see each other in church, that availability does not extend to everyday life. I give my home phone number (but not my cell) and my email and specify that I will return most communications within a 24-hour period. This specificity allows my team members to know what they can expect from me and helps me not to overextend myself (perhaps the bigger issue).

Permeable Boundaries and Points of Growth

Inevitably, when individuals have served on my teams for a length of time, the lines of demarcation begin to soften. Mutuality, trust, and affection grow and lead to the dismantling of earlier boundaries. This can be wonderful, and also fraught with complexities. When a relationship begins with one person being the identified leader, some awkwardness may surface as it shifts into mutuality.

This was the case in my relationship with Kim. She came through one of the long-term programs that my husband and I run. She was emerging from a toxic church situation and needed both nurture and time to heal. Her leadership skills were obvious; we soon invited her to be part of the team as an assistant, and then the following year as a small-group leader.

Our transition from hierarchy to mutuality felt a bit like a plane landing during a thunderstorm: turbulent. Leadership gives us a scaffolding upon which to build relationships but that same structure often feels too rigid when imposed on friendships. I was accustomed to leading in relationship to Kim and had to constantly check this impulse so that we could have more mutuality. Because of her recent betrayal within the church, she reflexively tested me to see if I was going to replicate her previous experiences. I knew I needed to hold steady and not bend into her transference, but I also felt somewhat hurt that she did not trust me.

Rather than back off and reestablish higher boundaries, I chose to press in and directly name what I thought was happening. Though slightly uncomfortable, I think this helped Kim and allowed us to move toward a more reciprocal friendship. Over the years, Kim has become one of many teammates with whom I have developed a very meaningful relationship. Such friendships are one of the best perks of leadership, but they rarely develop without hiccups along the way.

Establishing boundaries has not come naturally for me. Before I understood their necessity, I assumed I was being selfish if I turned down volunteers who were in need. With solid boundaries in place, I am notably more content and healthier. And I'll bet if you asked any of the volunteers who serve with me, they would be able to articulate that my shift has also served them.

Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing, making photographs, pastoring, and trying to keep her three teenage sons adequately fed. She and her family live surrounded by apple orchards, just outside of Boston, MA. You can find more of her words and images at www.dorothygreco.com.

October10, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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