Should pastors have friends in the church?

Mennonite Church Alberta explores healthy boundaries

November 6, 2019 | News | Volume 23 Issue 20
Joanne De Jong | Alberta Correspondent
De Winton, Alta.
Proving you’re never too young to learn about healthy boundaries, Pastor Will Loewen and his son Sebastian sit together at this year’s Equipping Day at Trinity Mennonite Church. (Photo by Helena Ball)

When Don Baergen, an elder at Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton, heard that Mennonite Church Alberta was hosting an Equipping Day on healthy boundaries, he decided to go since he had never received formal training at work or in the church. Baergen also works at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. 

“Ministry with different cultures means boundaries are not always the same,” he said. “Some cultures are freer with physical and emotional expression and some are not. When it comes to hugs, I just stand there and let them decide!”

Although the impetus for the Equipping Day event was to talk about sexual boundaries, the workshop led by Marilyn Rudy-Froese, Mennonite Church Eastern Canada’s church leadership minister, covered a wide range of topics.

The workshop was held on Oct. 19 at Trinity Mennonite Church in De Winton, with 30 pastors and lay leaders in attendance.

Baergen said he was surprised at the level of debate around the topic of whether pastors should be friends with people in the congregation or whether it is more appropriate to keep a professional distance. How does a professional who is called to love, which is generally a messy business, create healthy boundaries? 

Discussion was also had around hiring congregants to do jobs in the home: What if the person does a poor job or the church has to let the person go? Is it appropriate to receive gifts from congregants? Sometimes strings can be attached, but rejecting a gift can be hurtful. One participant only accepts gifts up to $25. 

The concept of relationships as a sacred trust really hit home with Baergen, and he appreciated the reminder that personal relationships with God and with others are sacred, and push people to take healthy boundaries seriously. During the session, participants were taught that “not all boundaries are negative. Boundaries can be positive, just like fences serve a purpose.”

Rudy-Froese also addressed the relationship between those with power and those who are vulnerable. Multiple participants appreciated the reminder that congregants can often transfer onto the office of “pastor” negative or positive feelings based on experiences from the past. 

Part of creating healthy boundaries is discerning the risk level of different situations, she said. One activity involved participants moving closer or farther away from signs on the wall that said “high risk” or “low risk.” An obvious example was, if a male pastor repeatedly visits a single mom going through a crisis, is it a high-risk or low-risk situation?

Other scenarios were less obvious. If a congregant, who happens to be a policeman, unknowingly pulls over the pastor for speeding, and, once he realizes it is the pastor, lets him go, should the pastor accept the gift?

Pastor Will Loewen of Trinity Mennonite Church in De Winton noted how, over time, the Mennonite church has tightened its boundaries around pastoral ministry and loosened it around membership. “It struck me as interesting that, in the past, the Mennonite church has been weak in setting up healthy boundaries between pastors and congregations, but were strong about who can and cannot belong,” he said. “Now it is reversed, with congregations making it a priority to reach out to those on the margins.”

According to Tim Wiebe-Neufeld, executive minister of MC Alberta, the issue of healthy boundaries is being recognized nationally as an important issue to be addressed, since unhealthy boundaries can cause a lot of damage in the church and community. “Healthy boundaries make for healthy relationships, and having healthy relationships [is] important, for both our faith communities and our witness in the world,” he said. 

Proving you’re never too young to learn about healthy boundaries, Pastor Will Loewen and his son Sebastian sit together at this year’s Equipping Day at Trinity Mennonite Church. (Photo by Helena Ball)

Participants sit at round tables and discuss how to have healthy boundaries at this year’s Equipping Day, held at Trinity Mennonite Church. Peft to right: Coreen Froese, Brenda Tiessen-Wiens and Jeanette Thiessen. (Photo by Helena Ball)

Marilyn Rudy-Froese, left, church leadership minister with MC Eastern Canada, chats with Tim Wiebe-Neufeld, executive minister for Mennonite Church Alberta at this year’s Equipping Day at Trinity Mennonite Church. (Photo by Helena Ball)

Jake Froese, left and friend Don Baergen enjoy discussing this year’s Equipping Day topic, ‘Healthy boundaries.’ (Photo by Helena Ball)

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