I write following four days of training in clergy sexual ethics the week before last, for clergy across the Rio Texas Conference. Each clergy member of the conference was required to attend one of the four days. Our trainer was Becky Posey Williams, director of — for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. On the day of the training in Austin, Bishop Schnase was with us as well, recording his introductory remarks for the succeeding days’ gatherings.
Ms. Williams and the bishop shared great wisdom with the clergy present, mostly related to the importance of boundaries in our relationships. Healthy human boundaries lead to healthy relationships, and unhealthy or missing boundaries often do harm. It’s a basic tenet of human interaction, one that takes on particular importance in the church.
In church, all kinds of people are present, for all sorts of reasons. Whoever we are, many if not all come in a vulnerable stance, seeking something important. We arrive at church with questions and doubts, embarrassment, fear, and sometimes even hope. Sometimes we’re conscious of what we bring, and sometimes not. But just as we use the term “sanctuary” for our main worship and gathering space, the church should be a place of safety for all that vulnerability, known and unknown.
Boundary crossing occurs in church when we forget our duty to offer safety, respect, and hospitality to each other, as we offer our vulnerability to God and entrust it to one another. It happens when we let our own needs or agenda supersede the needs of our neighbors, or worse, when we try to use our neighbors to meet our own needs. It happens when a person lets their integrity slip or exploits a power disparity. Sometimes boundary crossing is unintentional and unconscious, and other times it’s on purpose. Either way, it means a vulnerable person is harmed.
Church folk who have been trained through our conference Safe Gatherings and Trusted con Confianza programs have learned this. We have learned that we need to think about our own actions or decisions in the context of how they impact other people, especially vulnerable ones. We have to step back from what we might normally assume about what’s happening in a certain moment, to wonder if some deeper dynamic is at work. This seems so simple, and perhaps it is, but for some reason, maintaining healthy boundaries isn’t always our first instinct, especially when we’re not in a healthy place inside.
We learned in our training last week that people are most likely to cross boundaries inappropriately when we’re not taking care of ourselves or aren’t aware of our own needs. This is why clergy need friends and resources outside the church, where they can be honest about their lives. It’s why we all need time to reflect and recharge, doing what we can to carve out moments, hours, and sometimes even whole days to remember our sacred rootedness as children of God.
I am glad to be part of a church that takes these things seriously. For when we create and maintain spaces that are safe for the most vulnerable, we end up taking care of everybody. Thank you for your commitment to that kind of community.
Grace and peace,