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Like an Oak: Clergy and Caregiver Boundaries

Be like an oak tree when reaching out to help people in need. Have strong roots, a solid and clearly defined trunk, and branches that reach out but don’t get intertwined. Learn how to bend in the wind, but don’t let yourself sway so far that you topple over.

An oak tree is a good image for effective leadership and caretaking especially for clergy and others in helping professions.

The mission of many churches and congregations includes reaching out to help the poor, the oppressed, and those suffering from economic, physical, emotional and spiritual distress. Helping people in need is central to the mission of most social service agencies, including behavioral health centers, homeless shelters, treatment centers and neighborhood programs.

But there are always far more needs than any one person can assist with no matter what their role. How do we make good and effective choices about who, when and how to help?

Taking inspiration from the oak tree, here are steps to help you be most effective in outreach and caregiving.

Keep a Solid Trunk.

Clearly define the central structure and core purpose of your church or other organization.  Understand that mission. If it is too broad, help to narrow down the specifics of what your organization will do and what it will not do. No organization can be everything to everyone. What is the central focus? What outreach might detract from this focus?

Avoid focusing on one person’s specific need while losing sight of the larger mission. Churches give people spiritual grounding and welcome them into community. But if a member becomes disruptive or threatens the physical or emotional safety of others, step back and weigh the needs of the whole organization in relation to the needs of this individual. Can the church provide the support and services this person requires while still living out its mission to all the members of the organization?

If one lost sheep strays from the community can the rest of the church take care of itself while a pastor reaches out to them? Or are the needs of that individual so great or so specialized that they can’t be brought back safely without jeopardizing the mission of the church.

Know your Branches. Know your role.

Each branch of a tree comes from a different part of the trunk and reaches in a different direction. Some branches have more leaves, some less. Some host nests for birds, squirrels, and other animals. Some branches are low enough for children to play on. Some are too high and would be dangerous for that purpose. Many branches provide acorns as food, but not year round.

What tasks are part of your role in your organization? What are tasks are not? What is your responsibility in this season?

Sometimes clergy and other caregivers struggle to do what we can in our specific role to meet people’s needs without over-functioning. Doing things for others that they can do for themselves strips power from them. When we take on the work of other leaders or volunteers in the church or offer specialized services that would be more efficiently provided by another organization, we take away power from others.

Engaging in work that isn’t aligned with our core purposes takes away time and energy from the tasks we are called to do. This can lead to personal burnout.

Take Care of your Roots.  Self-Care.

You cannot help others effectively unless you take care of yourself, including knowing your limits and limitations. Know your personal strengths and weaknesses. Know your humanity. Ask yourself, does doing this particular aspect of outreach ­­­­­­­­­­­­ fit my priorities and my schedule. If I do this will I still have time to eat, sleep, exercise, pray?  It doesn’t matter how crucial the need is, if you do not have the personal resources to reach out effectively, your involvement will not help and may even harm the other person.

Be firm, but flexible enough to sway in the wind.

A healthy oak tree stands tall. It is clear where one tree ends and another begins. But when a big storm whips wind across the land, the wood in an oak tree gently bends without breaking or falling over.

Clergy and other caregivers need to be have a clear sense of self and role. They also need compassion, flexibility, and an ability to learn from others. The best leaders and caregivers work to maintain a healthy balance.

It can be very hard to stand firm when others are criticizing you. The challenge is to listen and incorporate wisdom from others’ perspectives without losing your sense of self, mission and role.

It can be difficult to say “no” when someone begs for money to support their family. Reflect on where your role ends and another’s begins. Remember that you cannot solve all of humanity’s problems in one lifetime. Do your small part and turn the rest over to God and other competent human beings who also work for the larger good.

The Oak as Minister

Be like a tree in your ministry. Know your mission and purpose and hold to it like the solid trunk of a tree. Know your specific role and let it grow like one branch on a larger tree. Take care of yourself so that your roots will be stable and healthy when you reach out to others. Eat, rest, relax, pray. Keep clear boundaries and a decisive message, but be able to take in new information and perspectives. Be willing to shift focus when a situation changes, but don’t lose your sense of self, role and purpose.

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