Over the years I’ve seen and read a number of articles about professional boundaries and their application to work in the church. Much of that literature is very helpful and stakes out areas where abuse and exploitation are all too possible. One has to be grateful for the reminders that literature provides and the protection that it offers for those who might be vulnerable in one way or another.
The literature on boundaries also serves to remind people who work in the church about the attention that they need to give to their own well-being and the well being of their families. More than one pastor has accomplished a great deal in providing spiritual guidance and care for others, only to neglect the needs of his or her family to their own spiritual detriment.
That said, there are times when the conversation about professional boundaries seems to offer an easily defined space in which clergy and others can be serenely and completely insulated from the spiritually, emotionally, and physically demanding task of caring for others. I even had one colleague years ago declare, “I don’t do funeral homes and hospitals because they depress me.” That kind of boundary is impossible to establish or maintain and it is not even desirable.
The fact of the matter is that caring for others spiritually is, in the final analysis, unavoidably and predictably costly. Spiritual care for others will regularly take people into hard places where grief and loss are regularly present. And constant exposure to those issues will carry the person providing that care into a struggle not only with the needs of others, but a struggle with her or his own sense of vulnerability and mortality.
The same, I might note, is equally true of chaplains, first responders, physicians, healthcare professionals, and therapists, among others.
Some measure of spiritual grounding, then, is essential to those who do the caring. Each of us no doubt finds that wisdom in different ways, but here are a handful of thoughts that might be helpful.
One: It is worth remembering that the conscious engagement with the needs of others is an opportunity to be honest with ourselves about the human condition. All too often we live in denial of and run from the truth about our lives: our frailty and our mortality chief among them. The costly care that we offer others can be viewed as a spiritual gift: The opportunity to be more honest with ourselves, with others, and particularly with God.
Two: From the Christian point of view, caring for others is an opportunity to participate in the work of the Incarnation. On one level, the work of Jesus who is both God and human, is work that is unique to him, without equal, without precedent. But we can and do participate in the Incarnation by being physically available to others – providing others with a reminder of God’s love, “with skin on.”
Three: At the same time, such experiences remind us of our ultimate dependence upon God. Perhaps the safest place to navigate a life of caregiving is to navigate it with an awareness of just how powerless we really are – not in a way that is innervating, but finally life-giving.
The original root of the word, compassion means to “suffer with.” In popular parlance, it has come to mean, “to pity” which is far from the original meaning, in both power and connotation. For Christians who are called to participate in the Incarnation, we are called to step into difficult places with others. That does not mean that we can “fix” what harms and hurts others, but it does mean that we cannot build artificial boundaries to shield ourselves from the pain of others and their needs.
Our model for this is Mary and John at the foot of the cross: Willingly available, exposed, and powerless – but wonderfully so, in a fashion that witnesses to a reality that conquers death. This is truly what the tradition calls imitatio Christi – the imitation of Christ.