Becoming a parent has taught me so much about having healthy boundaries within the life of the church. It’s not that I didn’t continually work on my boundaries before having children, it’s just that I didn’t truly realize or appreciate the incredible balancing act that it is to have a young family and do, well, anything.
As a pastor, it’s easy for me to talk about the boundaries I hold most sacred. Healthy boundaries and self-care have been drilled into me ever since I expressed a desire to follow God’s call into ordained ministry. Talk is easy but when the rubber meets the road, things get a lot harder.
Since becoming a parent, I’ve had to wrestle with setting healthy boundaries that make sense for me and for my family in this season of life. What I’ve learned is that healthy boundaries aren’t the same in every season. With two young toddlers in our home, this is a season of pulling back. It is a time of saying “no” more than I, or my congregation, or denominational staff might like. Now is a time for remembering just how long it takes us to get out the door, how many trips to the potty are required before leaving, and doing immense calculations about how far we can drive before we need to bring the second bag of snacks.
Hard, Holy Work
Setting healthy boundaries in this season is hard work. Before I commit to something, I have to do the mental work to decide if I can say “yes” and faithfully fulfill my commitment, while staying healthy. Before participating, I have to consider the effect on my family, decide if this is the right season, consider what boundaries need to be in place for us to be healthy, and if I have the time and bandwidth to fully engage.
This is really important and holy work. And it’s the work our young people and young families are doing, often unnoticed, every day. We are trying to decide which boundaries are firm and which can be bent. We are trying to decide how to respectfully engage in the church while also maintaining the structure and style of parenting we’ve chosen. We are all doing the best we can with what we’ve got. We are trying to know better and to do better as we seek to raise our children in healthy ways, teaching them to be engaged, self-aware, healthy individuals.
As a church leader, many of our conversations revolve around what it takes to bring new people into the congregation. As a parent of young children, I’m in one of those sought after demographics: young families. It’s easy for us to come up with plan after plan to entice young people to show up with their children and to be a part of our community, but becoming a parent has helped me see that in some respects, we’re trying too hard. I don’t want to be a part of a community that has made it their sole mission to recruit me and my family. I just want to be a part of a community where I can authentically be myself with my family as we worship Jesus.
Make Space for the Messiness of Life
I want to attend church in a place where my children are valued for their curiosity, intelligence, and the silly things they do. I want to attend a church where I don’t have to make excuses for the boundaries I set or for the way I’m parenting my kids. I want a community of mutual love and care that accepts me as I am, that extends abundant grace, and allows me to be the messy parent of two toddlers that I am (and trust me—two toddlers is a lot of mess.)
That is the kind of church I want to lead too. I want to lead a church that makes space for the messiness of life. One that doesn’t have judgmental eyes for the parents who manage to drag their families into church a few minutes late, or that gives advice for the toddler in the midst of a meltdown. I want to lead a church that revels in grace and rejoices in one another’s presence while creating healthy, safe boundaries for all to be involved. To that end, here are my loving recommendations on creating a community of mutual care and abundant grace for young families:
- Think before you speak! Young families want to feel welcomed and loved as they are. They don’t want you to make comments on their family size or structure, ask when they are planning their next baby, or make comments about their bodies. (There’s a hard boundary on when to ask someone if they are expecting—never.)
- Ask before you touch! When I was pregnant with my children, I often became the unsuspecting victim of older women reaching out to touch my growing stomach so they could feel the baby. If that’s your urge or instinct, sit on your hands, or place them behind your back! No one wants you to touch them without asking. And if you ask, please respect the response, no questions asked. That goes for children too. Ask a parent before touching a baby or young child. Ask a child before giving them a hug or touching them. Most young families I know are teaching their children about consent and bodily autonomy and reinforcing those boundaries matters to us!
- Tell young people and young families that you love them and you’re happy they are here. Then, let them be exactly who they are. Don’t parent their children for them. Don’t override their parenting. Don’t offer unsolicited advice. If your conversation starts with “Don’t be mad, but…” or “You may not want to hear this now, but…” don’t say it! Someday you may be asked for advice, and then you can give it. But until then, enjoy your memories and smile! Young people and families come to church to worship, not to receive advice or to be told how you did it in your day.
- Ask young people and young families to get involved! Then, respect their answer. Don’t push too hard. Don’t tell them that the whole church is depending on them. Don’t decide for a person or a family what their commitment should be, instead, ask and invite them to participate. Don’t be surprised if they are shocked that you asked, and don’t be upset if they have to say no. Remember, there are seasons in all our lives. In some seasons, we have more bandwidth and space to commit than in others. If we say no, or not now to one invitation, it doesn’t mean you should never ask us again!
- Be efficient! If young people commit to participating in something, please be respectful of their time and their commitment. (That’s true for people of every age, but especially true for young people and young families.) Begin and end on time. Keep meetings to reasonable time limits. Send agenda items and reports in advance so that folks can be prepared for the meeting. Be cognizant of night commitments and bedtimes. If you can start a meeting after bedtime, do so! If it works to do it on zoom, go for it! Helping young people and young families prioritize their time together will help them keep their commitments and be excited to serve.
- Offer abundant grace. Things happen. Our kids get sick—parents get sick, schedules conflict, and sometimes we cannot be everywhere we want to be. When young people or young families mess things up, don’t take it personally. When we do something differently than you would have, offer love and acceptance. Help us see the love of Jesus by welcoming us, accepting us and the boundaries we set, and inviting us to worship and serve alongside you.
Now it’s your turn. What would you add to this list? How will you make young people and young families welcome in your spaces? What boundaries are you willing to hold and make so that young families can feel comfortable participating? What are you willing to give up in order to help young people and young families maintain healthy boundaries?
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