I wasn’t in paid ministry very long – first day, in fact – before my then senior pastor gave me a salient lesson on boundaries. It would be a lesson I was destined to learn the hard way.
Not that all lessons learned the hard way are the wrong way to learn. Easy way or hard, the main thing is that we do learn – God is gracious to this end. But I diverge.
Some people reminded me strongly, early on, who I was there to serve: them! I took it on advisement but contrasted this with the wise counsel of my senior pastor. I saw a need of balance – that there were vital truths to be learned and established and implemented in remaining true to both imperatives.
I was there as a pastor for people. And in being there for people, I found I could do them a disservice in trying too hard to help, or being too available, or being too willing to facilitate a solution, or just in being too plain nice.
Then I remembered something I learned in a secular Stephen Covey (Franklin-Covey) course I attended for my professional development way back in 2007. Don’t be too accessible; even by delaying response to some requests a few hours teaches people to be resourceful. Or words to that effect. In my secular work as a safety advisor (really more a chaplain role) I found it incredibly powerful for people when I didn’t get back to them immediately. They sorted their own problems out. They got resourceful. And I don’t know how many people got back to me and said, ‘Oh, it’s no worries, I did [this or that] and sorted it myself… thanks for getting back to me, though.’ Great result! I found it a marvellous freedom not being needed. I felt safe enough in my role without any further validation.
Many of us get a great deal of pleasure out of serving people. We like to serve as a way of loving them. God blesses us as we are a blessing. But there’s a fine line between helping and proving, for God’s service, a hindrance – to His Spirit’s power in their lives for growth. Too many of us have rescued people when it would have been better for them to be left to work it out or be given a little support but not too much.
We are responsible to people, but never are we responsible for people. There is a significant nuance of difference in this concept. In serving people we already take our role seriously. We do not need to give them what they think they need. We’re responsible for what we discern God believes they need.
How do we tell the difference? Well, we let them fight their own battles. How will they draw on their own resources otherwise? We may assist them devise their plans, we may pray, and we may even give them advice, but we’re loath to do it for them! If we did, they may learn nothing, and worse, it could complicate the dynamics of conflict already at play.
It can be a privilege to love people through serving them, and where most of our encouragement ought to come is through seeing the Holy Spirit work in them. Not through solutions procured in our strength or theirs.
We love people best when we serve them without rescuing them.
Rescuing people from what they might experience deprives them of what they might learn.