A Lack of Strong Boundaries is the Number One Killer

Professionals say, hands down, that the biggest career, marriage, and family killer—regardless of age, socioeconomic status, education, or faith—is a lack of strong, clear boundaries.

My own experience as a pastor, and as one who has counseled countless men and women, underlines the critical importance of creating and enforcing boundaries in one’s work and personal life.

The key boundary-struggle areas for most people revolve around:

  • work areas, such as job description, work hours, staff issues, and expectations that others have for you and your work; and
  • non-work areas, such as marriage, parenting, relatives, personal finances, and social obligations.

A Job Can be a Friendly Monster

Work can eat away at your personal and family time so subtly that you barely notice its effects until it’s too late and you have no life apart from your job.

Slowly but surely, your whole existence is taken over by your career, at the cost of neglecting your loved ones and yourself.

PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) caddie John “Cubby” Burke made a shrewd observation about how golf hooks many pro golfers. He said that after a while they come “under the influence of golf.” By this, he meant that their obsession with golf ends up being the only thing left in their lives.

In similar ways, workplaces, marriages, and families are tragically littered with the skeletal remains of individuals who didn’t set good boundaries and simply couldn’t say no. Unfortunately, they sacrificed their family life and personal time to do whatever it took to “become all things to all people.”

Recently, I saw a T-shirt that perfectly describes the life of a vast number of people:


During the first twenty years of my ministry, I worked an average of more than seventy hours a week. It was a hectic schedule jammed with meetings, counseling, preaching, speaking, staff issues, hospital visitations, weddings, funerals, and a slew of other responsibilities. There was little time left over for my family, let alone my own needs.

I certainly echo the sad truth that a Christian college professor lamented to his class: “Busyness is the only sin that is applauded by the Church!” I don’t know if you’ve ever been praised for your long work hours, but I have. Sadly, this motivated me to work even more.

Boundaries in the Bible

Boundaries, both physical and emotional, play key roles in the Bible. For example, the Lord said to Moses:

Command the Israelites and say to them: “When you enter Canaan, the land that will be allotted to you as an inheritance is to have these boundaries”... This will be your land, with its boundaries on every side.

Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped an injured man who’d been robbed and beaten? This story is a great illustration of boundary setting.

The traveling Samaritan came upon an injured man. He could have gone on, but he stopped, applied first aid, and paid for the man’s recovery. Then he took the fellow to a local inn and left him in the care of the innkeeper, promising to pay any future expenses. But the Samaritan didn’t allow this to delay his trip. While he chose to allow an unexpected interruption, he guarded his time and stayed on schedule. He maintained boundaries that limited how he used his time.

Jesus clearly used boundaries in his life and ministry. Whereas many people are tempted to please everyone, Jesus stuck to his limits and didn’t try to meet everyone’s needs or agendas. For example, even when facing multitudes of people needing his help, Jesus took time off for strategic rest and prayer:

Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

How often do you get away from your ministry pressures to find refreshment and renewal? In what ways can you do this in the midst of dealing with needy people and programs?

Boundary Problems in the Modern Workplace

There is an interesting parallel between professional football and full-time work. Like other large corporations, the NFL (National Football League) is a big-time profit machine. The sole, driving purpose of its coaches and office staff is to win football games. To do this, some teams’ management will ignore a player’s injuries and long-term health. They will use players until they are absolutely drained or are severely, sometimes irreparably, injured.

Unfortunately, like the NFL, many companies and organizations also exploit their leaders and staff, saddling them with unrealistic demands that disregard their personal well-being.

However, we can’t totally blame our management—oftentimes the villain in our workplace is us. We can be our own worst enemy when it comes to our priorities and time use.

Dealing with a “Messiah Complex”

Many people live with a “Messiah Complex,” believing they are the single most important link in the chain of their job’s effectiveness. Sure, intellectually they believe God will take care of everything. But in practice, they act as though their company’s or organization’s success depends primarily on their personal actions. Despite their biblical beliefs, their actions flesh out, “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.”

I labored under this Messiah Complex for a long time. Now I can joke about my foolishness:

Question: Do you know what the difference is between God and Jim Stout?

Answer: God doesn’t think he’s Jim Stout!

With such hectic schedules, it’s no wonder that individuals “grow weary in well-doing” and experience burnout. How about you? Do you feel overworked or overcommitted?

Note: This is an excerpt from my book Boundary Setting: A Practical Guide. To learn more, please click here

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Hi, I'm Jim. I've been through the emotional wringer. I've been a successful pastor and leader and a loving father, but I've also been suicidally depressed. I'll teach you the techniques I used to heal myself, and give you the tools to reclaim your life and move forward!

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