A new skill requires lots of practice before mastery, right? Why is it that some skills take years of practice before they become second nature to us? Here’s a story from my real life ministry setting about a skill that I am working to master:

After six years of parish ministry, I decided to fulfill a dream I have had since graduating seminary four years earlier. I worked for a year at the Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Palo Alto, California, as a Clinical Pastoral Education resident. I wanted to learn more about myself, gain additional skills in my pastoral ministry, and explore another ministry opportunity.

One of the first lessons I was able to put into practice in CPE was something I had found difficult to do in the parish setting—establish and maintain boundaries within my work duties. The nature of working in a hospital and, more specifically, in a military setting like the VA, lends itself to natural boundary setting. My tour of duty was from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., and if I was not the chaplain on call, I was not to be on the premises. The VA had certain expectations and guidelines for chaplains to follow. The VA had other professionals, highly trained and qualified, to give care to the patient’s other needs. My job was to work with these providers to assist in the patients’ healing process by offering spiritual care.

A beautifully challenging year came to an end last August, and I found myself back in the parish. I am serving as a solo pastor-for-a-year (a.k.a. interim pastor). Almost immediately after I took this position, an issue emerged related to one of the church’s renters, an issue that greatly affected some of the church’s property neighbors. Weeks turned into months worth of meetings with all parties involved disagreeing on any kind of peaceful resolution. The deacons relied on me, as the pastor, to be the go-between with the renters, neighbors, and the church. No one agreed on anything. It seemed like it was easier for the neighbors and renters to refuse and not cooperate because they were communicating with a messenger (the pastor) and not each other.

Finally, one night while finding myself researching property laws online, I stopped to think about the lessons from CPE. I prayed, “God, what am I doing? I am back in the same trap again. This is not the work You have called me to do.” I had no training or experience in property law, yet I had allowed myself to be triangulated in the middle of this situation. Immediately, I sent an e-mail to the members of the deacon board requesting a meeting. At the meeting, I shared my frustrations with communications and my realization of my own limits, and I set a boundary with them. I handed over the paperwork and all communications and asked for someone else to take it over. I said, “When I spend my time on these projects, I am not able to be fully present to the job you hired me for, to be your pastor.” Amazingly, they agreed. They took the information and began contacting all persons involved. Once the pastor got out of the way, a compromise solution emerged within a week!

Was it hard to be vulnerable and admit my own limits? Absolutely! But it was worth it in the end. I was able to claim more time and energy to do the things that bring me life in pastoral ministry. I had more time to spend with the congregants and preparing for sermons.

It also made a difference in the lives of the deacons. They saw what they were able to accomplish for their church. It empowered them to take on other projects since this event.

I have had ton of opportunities to practice this new skill of boundary setting in recent days. Sometimes I have succeeded, and at other times, I have failed miserably. But I have always learned something new about myself in the process, and it gives me hope for healthier ministry practices in the future.

What skills or lessons are you practicing in your ministry? With what parts of this wonderful vocation do you struggle?