Do you find it difficult to set boundaries? In this episode of Fran and Jesus on the Job, Fran keeps trying to sprout superwoman wings, thinking she can be all things to all people, and ending up with misplaced priorities which create stress and burnout for her.
The challenge of setting reasonable boundaries is almost always a relationship issue. And it frequently comes from our misplaced idea of what it means to be a good friend, or what it means to be a good team player. There’s no doubt that as Christ-followers, our standard given to us by Jesus himself is to go the extra mile, to do more than is required of us. We are called to be servants, as Jesus was, and that should always be our attitude.
But when we try to do more than we should do and we think that going the extra mile means we jump through everyone’s hoops and meet everyone’s expectations, we are then in dangerous territory. This is how we become burned out; it’s how we become enablers; it’s how we allow false guilt to drive us into exhaustion and resentment.
I would remind you that Jesus knew how to say no. Do you remember when the disciples were looking for Jesus one morning because a crowd of people had gathered to hear Jesus again, and no doubt were eager to take advantage of his gift of healing? They found him alone, praying, and they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” The disciples tried to tell Jesus that he should come back and preach to the crowd waiting for him, but Jesus knew when to say no. You’ll find that story in Mark 1.
Another time a man stopped him and asked him to settle a disagreement. He said, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But Jesus said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” Basically Jesus said, “Sorry, that’s not my job.” He drew a boundary and said no, even though he could have done it but it was not what he was sent to do. You’ll find that story in Luke 12.
Jesus knew that he could not please everyone; in his human body while here on earth he had physical limitations, as we do. He became weary, as we do. He needed rest and time alone, as we do. And in order to do what God had sent him to do, he had to refuse to do other things—he had to draw boundaries. I believe his example teaches us that we must also learn to draw reasonable boundaries in order for us to be able to do what God wants us to do.
Let’s consider some other boundary issues Fran is facing. It’s Wednesday of this week in her life, and she has just barely made a deadline for her most important client, but it was at the expense of late hours last night because she allowed a coworker to talk her into helping her for “ten minutes,” which turned into three hours. This was one of the boundary issues she faced in last week’s episode. Fran is relieved that she got it done, but quite honestly, she is exhausted and sleepy.
With two hours to go before the end of the day, she is counting the minutes until she can leave, tying up a few loose ends, and dreaming of going to bed early when the kids do tonight. But in walks her manager, who says,
“Fran, if you’re not busy tonight, I’d love for you to join me for dinner with the Vice President of Marketing, who is in town this week, you know. I’ve been telling him about your success and how much you’ve contributed to the fact that we’re twenty percent ahead of our quota, and he asked if you would join us. I know you have your kids, but if you could get a sitter, I’d be glad to cover that expense for you.”
Don’t do it, Fran, the inner voice of God’s Spirit seems to say to her, but how can she say no? I mean, how often do you get this kind of opportunity to make a good impression? Well, she thinks, I can do it. Mom will keep the kids for me, I think, and it’s just one night. So she hears herself saying, “That’s very nice of him. I, uh, I think I can make that happen. Let me make a call and I’ll get back to you.”
She calls her mom, who does have plans for that evening, but Fran twists her arm and convinces her that her Dad will be glad to watch the kids while she’s away, so of course, Mom can’t say no either, and Fran has that problem solved. Then, when she gets home and explains to the kids that she has to go out to dinner with her boss, Drew complains, “But Mom, we agreed that you would help me with my science project tonight. You promised.”
Oops, that’s right. Fran did promise Drew help tonight, since she couldn’t help him last night because she had to bring work home. Now what? Well, Fran is determined to make this dinner with the Vice President. After all, it’s her job! So, she convinces Drew that Granddad will help him with the project, and after all, Granddad is much better at these things than she is. Drew is not happy about that. “You mean, I’ve got to take all this stuff over to their house? Can’t Granddad come over here?”
Okay, so now Fran has another issue to resolve. Can she talk her Dad into coming to her house, which will make things much easier for Drew? It’s worth a try—so she calls her dad, who is on his way home from work, and plays on his Granddad heart. “Dad, Drew really wants your help with his science project tonight—you’re so much better at this than I am, and I was wondering if you’d mind coming over here. It would be kind of difficult to move all his stuff over to your house and then back here. Is that possible?” So, a tired Granddad agrees to change his plans and fill in for Fran.
This is just an example of the unintended consequences that can happen when you refuse to set some boundaries. Of course, once in a while these things happen and people have to step up to the plate and help out—especially with single moms. I was a single mom for many years, so I get that. But much of this particular situation is a result of Fran’s inability to set some boundaries.
You see, not only does Fran have difficult saying no to the irritating and unnecessary requests that are made of her, she also has trouble turning down an offer that she sees as positive. That’s understandable—most of us have that same problem. But if she keeps living outside the margins of her life, overriding reasonable boundaries, the day will come when she’ll have to deal with some serious not-so-nice consequences.
Can you identify with Fran? I can think of times in my life, when my daughter was young and still at home, when I didn’t set boundaries on myself. I took a job that required a great deal of travel and kept me away from home too much. But it was a somewhat glamorous job that I really wanted so I convinced myself that I had no choice. That was not true; I could have refused that promotion in order to stay home, but I didn’t want to do that. So, I exceeded reasonable boundaries that should have been in place in my life at that stage of my daughter’s life.
The dinner with the boss and the Vice President wasn’t as productive as Fran had imagined it would be. It turned into a much later night than she expected, and the conversation didn’t always stay within business boundaries. After a few drinks, this Vice President told some inappropriate stories, make some remarks that verged on sexual overtures, and it became a pretty uncomfortable situation. Fran used the excuse of getting home to her kids to exit the dinner as early as possible, but it was still ten o’clock by the time she got home. With apologies to her Dad, she tried to clean up some of the mess from the science project, get her house in decent condition, and fall into bed at midnight.
Now, it’s Friday and she is running on fumes. “Thank God it’s Friday,” she says to herself. “There’s nothing on the calendar for the weekend. So, I can sleep late, get stuff done at home and take it easy. And I promised the kids we’d do something fun tomorrow, whatever they would like to do.”
Then, at about 3:00 she sees a text from her Pastor asking that she help with a special event at church tomorrow. He writes,
Fran, I know this is a late request, but did you know that Courtney Trent’s mother died suddenly—heart attack, I think—and so she’s not able to do the registration for our equipping class tomorrow. We’ve got over 200 people registered, and I need someone who knows the program and the software, and can handle the registration process calmly and efficiently. That, of course, is you. Again, sorry for the late request, but I’m sure hoping and praying you can do it. Let me know as soon as possible. Thanks, Pastor Paul.
“Well,” Fran says to herself, “how do you say no to that? I’m so sorry for Courtney. It’s certainly not Pastor’s fault that this request is so late—and for sure he needs help. It is church work, after all, so I just think I have to buck up and do it. Some weeks are just like this and you just need to get through them. Of course I’ll help him.” And so she sends a response that assures Pastor Paul she’ll be there.
Now she has to break the news to her kids and disappoint them, work late on Friday to get her Saturday chores done, and try to get a few hours’ sleep before heading off to church. What a week!
Have you found yourself in some similar tough weeks? They happen and are sometimes unavoidable, but if you find that far too many of your weeks are exceeding reasonable boundaries, it might be helpful to take a look at the underlying causes for this dilemma.
For Fran, it’s a combination of trying to please everyone, enjoying the recognition she gets from being the go-to person who can do lots of things well and feeling guilty when she has to say no.
And another reason is that she thrives on activity. She loves challenges. She enjoys winning and hates losing. And therefore that competitive spirit often gets her in trouble.
So, what does she do? That’s how God has made her, she reasons. True, but God has given her a good mind, has promised to give her wisdom, and has a list of good deeds for her to do that will not bring her to continual burnout. Hard work? Yes, of course. Weariness at times? Certainly. But not a continual habit of crossing reasonable boundaries and thereby depleting her energies, which often causes her to neglect more important responsibilities.
If you have trouble holding to reasonable boundaries, and you know it, perhaps you’ll consider what causes you to do that, ask God for wisdom, and then pray for his strength to stick to your boundaries. It really is the best way to live out your faith.
This is necessary in order for our lives to glorify Christ. Out-of-balance lives aren’t good testimonies. I find when I’m overstepping my boundaries, that’s when I’m most likely to develop a rotten attitude, say things I regret, hurt people I love. It’s a never-ending challenge for me, as I’m sure it is for all of us, but we have the power of God’s Spirit to enable us to set and keep reasonable boundaries.