Catholic Charismatic Renewal Center for Chicago
by Linda Strickland
The phone rang promptly at 6:30, just as it had every night for the past two weeks. As I looked at the phone, I could feel my face redden from the inner struggle of feeling torn. Picking up the receiver, I began to feel that familiar “knot in the pit of my stomach,” knowing that I was once again making a bad choice.
It was my first experience on a prayer team, and from the very start, it felt like the perfect fit for me. It wasn’t long before I started receiving compliments from clergy and fellow prayer ministers, praising my dedication and compassionate heart. Feeling overly confident in my newfound identity and growing reputation as a gifted prayer minister, I made a big (although common) blunder. I completely ignored all boundaries, allowing the prayer recipient to call my home every night to talk about her problems.
It only took a few days for me to realize the enormity of my mistake. In over my head, I didn’t know how to reverse my (ego run amuck) error in judgment. I tried to fix it by casually mentioning during one of our conversations that after working all day I had a lot to do to take care of my family in the evening. Unfortunately that message went right over her head. She was lonely and hurting, and for her, the combination of my compassionate heart and inexperience as a prayer minister was actually just what she needed. So there I was, squeezed between the proverbial rock and a hard place. After two weeks of promising myself and my husband that I would find a solution, I was still choosing her (and the coveted accolades) over my own family.
In Francis MacNutt’s book, The Power to Heal, he included a chapter titled Having to Say No. In this very personal narrative, Francis is open and honest about his own struggle with setting healthy boundaries in ministry over the years. He says, “It’s hard to be yourself when you are in the healing ministry: either people think less of you than you are and you are faced with criticism, or they make too much of you and you are exalted beyond reach.”
At CHM’s School of Healing Prayer® Level 4, we teach prayer ministers that the battle to set and maintain healthy boundaries falls into two main categories: outside resistance and inside resistance. Outside resistance is when well-meaning people pressure you to do more than you know you should. Inside resistance is the guilt you feel when you say no.
After watching three close friends literally collapse while trying to meet the needs of people through teaching and healing, Francis found himself wondering if the same thing might happen to him. Although it was hard for him, he had to learn to say no, both to requests to speak and to the desperate pleas from individuals. As a result of his personal journey, Francis shares with us what he calls the Three Seductive Near-Truths he had to work through:
SEDUCTIVE NEAR-TRUTH #1: FALSE SPIRITUALITY
This is the idea that prayer would cover every lack of human prudence.
He shares what a typical weekend conference could look like for him:
- arrive at the airport and be taken directly to a hospital to pray for several desperately sick people
- after a very short lunch, be taken to meet with leaders of the community
- attend a meeting during dinner to prepare for the meeting that night
- go straight to the meeting after dinner to both speak and minister
- stay in the home of one of the group leaders where the host would discuss serious issues well into the night
- the next day would be more of the same, with the addition of the phone ringing off the hook with desperate people who had been at the meeting the night before asking for prayer
Francis came to realize that during these weekends he would become so exhausted that he could barely make the trip home. But what can you do? What are your options?
Option #1 (unrealistic):
You can always do what is asked of you and get over it.
Option #2 (somewhat unrealistic):
When you are picked up at the airport you can refuse to go and pray for dying people in the hospital and attend leadership meetings because you need to rest from the travel. You can also insist on having your meals alone where you can actually eat and not have to talk, and then relax, or take a swim or play some tennis before the meeting.
Francis, in his own experience, points out that the problem with Option #2 is that it would blow your image of being a spiritual leader. After all, spiritual people don’t act this way. As spiritual people, especially leaders, you should always choose the option to pray! How can you compare something as important as helping a sick person get better to something as frivolous as playing tennis and enjoying yourself? However, the problem with not ever choosing this option is that, if you are an anointed healing person, pretty soon your entire life will be nothing but praying for the sick.
“You have to look at the balance of your entire life and to say that beyond a certain point you have to not only rest, but shift gears and change activities,” Francis advises. “Otherwise, you will burn out, and in the long run, end up praying for fewer people. For most of us, life is a long distance marathon rather than a sprint, and we should pace ourselves accordingly.”
SEDUCTIVE NEAR-TRUTH #2: GUILT
“Spawned by this false spirituality comes a guilt that makes me ashamed to tend to my real needs and to say ‘no’ to a request—especially a desperate, legitimate request for prayer,” Francis writes. He often struggled against this guilt that he either imposed on himself or that others tried to make him feel. “It’s hard to say no to a sick person who is asking for help and then go and lie down on your bed and rest. Yet, that’s the way it really is; sometimes you have to do that. People don’t even have to try to make you feel guilty; it’s just their sickness pleading for help that does so. And my guilt comes into play almost automatically; my feeling that if I could take the time I ought to deny my own apparently lesser needs. But it’s not just one more person; behind that person stands another with arm extended, and another and another…”
SEDUCTIVE NEAR-TRUTH #3: COMPASSION
More difficult to resist than the false spirituality and the false guilt, is to know (or believe) people can be healed through prayer, and then have to pass them by. “The truth is,” Francis explains, “the greater our ability to help, the more people will come. And it hurts to say no to a person whom we feel we could really help if there were only time. In the beginning of learning to pray for healing, a big problem can be the fear that nothing will happen and we will be hurting people by leading them into false expectations. Later, as we experience how much God blesses and heals, in spite of our own pitiful weaknesses, it seems we have the opposite problem. It’s hard to hold back and restrain ourselves, so that we don’t kill ourselves praying for those who call out to us for help. Healing prayer does drain us and takes its toll.
“I see the same paradoxes in the life of Jesus. I am so grateful that he was human like us: ‘For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin.’ (Hebrews 4:15) We see Jesus so moved with compassion that he heals on the Sabbath even when he knows that the synagogue leaders will turn against him.
“On the other hand, we also find Jesus trying in various ways to protect (or pace) himself as best he could.” In Luke 5 we read that, “His reputation continued to grow, and large crowds would gather to hear him and to have their sickness cured, but he would always go off to some place where he could be alone and pray.” (v.15-16)
In Mark 1 we find the story of Jesus taking a sick person outside of town and healing him there. He then told the person not to tell anyone about it. Francis believes that he did that because he already had too many people following him around asking to be healed. Later on in that same story there is a poignant description of Jesus getting up before dawn to pray. He didn’t even tell his disciples where he was, so that, come dawn and the rush of people, they had to go looking for him. When Simon and the others find him, Jesus doesn’t come back with them to town, but instead tells them he is moving on to the next town so he can preach to a different crowd. The end of Mark 1 perfectly describes Jesus’ dilemma: “Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. Even so, people from all around would come to see him.” (v.45) I love Jesus’ creativity. He even used boats and secluded locations to get away—he knew he needed to be alone.
Francis refers to this story in Scripture of Jesus’ reality as “the diary of a hunted man!” He explains, “Clearly, if Jesus felt it necessary to plan on how to get away from the sick, we can feel justified in laying out similar plans. If you, like him, find it hard to say no, you had best, from time to time, get to some place where no one can ask you for prayer.”
ESTABLISHING GOOD BOUNDARIES IN MINISTRY
One of my favorite examples that God used to demonstrate the importance of boundaries in ministry is the person of Moses. After leading the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity, Moses found himself overwhelmed with their care. Scripture tells us that there were about 600,000 men, plus all the women, children and a rabble of non-Israelites in tow. During a particularly exhausting time, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, came to visit. Exodus 18 tells us, “When Jethro saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he asked, ‘What are you really accomplishing here? Why are you trying to do all of this alone while everyone stands around you from morning to evening?’” (v.14)
Feeling overwhelmed but indispensable, Moses answers Jethro’s thought-provoking question by listing all of the things for which he is responsible. “‘The people come to me to get a ruling from God. When a dispute arises, they come to me, and I am the one who settles the case between the quarreling parties. I inform the people of God’s decrees and give them his instructions.’” (v.15-16) Jethro replies, “‘This is not good! You are going to wear yourself out—and the people too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself.’” (v.17-18)
I think Moses was knee-deep in alligators (so to speak) and as a result had lost perspective in his leadership position. It took someone from the outside to help him draw some much-needed boundaries. Using what had to be Holy Spirit wisdom, Jethro gave Moses some administrative advice, helping him to establish boundaries that would turn out to be beneficial for Moses and the people for which he was caring. Jethro told him that he should continue to teach and instruct the people, but he needed to appoint some leaders who could help him by handling the smaller matters and settling the common disputes. “‘If you follow this advice, and if God commands you to do so, then you will be able to endure the pressures, and all of these people will go home in peace.’” (v.23)
Good boundaries, particularly in ministry, can become blurry. I find it interesting that, although Moses was able to solve other people’s problems, he did not have clarity for his own issues. The truth is, we all have blind spots, and we need each other.
Here are a few suggestions we give our prayer ministers at CHM for setting good boundaries in ministry:
Freedom to Say No
The most basic boundary-setting word is no. The truth is, God is not necessarily calling you to help just because you care. To quote Agnes Sanford, “Not everyone is in the bundle that you are meant to carry.”
Have Realistic Expectatations of Yourself
Few crises are so serious that it becomes necessary for us to wear ourselves out. When it comes to realistic expectations we are often our own worst enemy. Becoming comfortable with your own human limitations is one of the most freeing exercises you can do for yourself. I was forced to confront mine after a very wise friend lovingly reminded me that Jesus was the only one called to be a sacrificial lamb. (We all need an honest “Jethro” in our life.) We cannot continue to help people unless we know how to take care of our own needs as well.
Set Limits and Boundaries Early
People who are suffering often forget that those who are trying to help them actually have lives of their own. This is not a purposeful act, but when people are in pain, most of what they think about is the fact that they need help. When you set limits early, the recipient will know their place in your life. If you don’t do this from the beginning, they are likely to feel that you are always on call and will feel rejected when you finally do set limits.
We always caution our prayer ministers about allowing a recipient to become dependent on them. Many people who are hurting would like someone to take over and take care of them. Feeling cared about is a powerful emotion! If we allow them to become dependent on us, we may rob them of the opportunity to see God take over and take care of them. As prayer ministers, it is not our job to become a savior; it is our job to point people to the Savior.
Use Caution When Making Promises
People who are hurting tend to hang on to every word a loving and kind prayer minister says and promises. They look forward to you carrying out what you say you will do. For example, if you promise that you will pray with them once a week for the next six months, the first time something comes up and you have to skip a week can be devastating if they are dealing with rejection or trust issues.
People without boundaries usually have distorted images and attitudes about responsibility. It is important to know what God wants to do, what he is asking you to do and what he is asking others to do. I think it can be helpful to explain to the recipient what your roles are. As their prayer minister, you are simply the “helper.” Recommending professionals when needed may be part of your ministry to them, and can even facilitate a healthier recovery for them. Common recommendations may include clergy, a therapist, or even a medical physician. Also, helping the recipient understand personal responsibility can be vital to their long-term goals. If you discover they are unwilling to participate in their healing process, you may need to re-evaluate your commitment to minister to them. It can be disheartening to spend months, or even years, trying to help someone only to discover that you are the only one invested.
Teach People How to Pray for Themselves
This is something we don’t often think to do, but one of the most important things you can do for someone is to encourage them to stop and pray for their own needs before automatically calling you. Although this is a good boundary-setting exercise, more importantly, you will be empowering them to grow and mature in their relationship with the Lord.
Pray Cleansing and Cutting Free Prayers after Ministry
It is important to recognize that the sickness and evil we encounter during ministry can sometimes negatively affect our own spirits. After ministry it is essential to give the recipient back to Jesus, and then ask Him to cut you free from anything you may have picked up during your time with them (such as sadness, despair, negativity, etc.). Then ask the Holy Spirit to fill you anew with his life, his love and his power.
(*You can purchase CHM’s Prayer Card, which includes The Prayer for Protection and The Prayer To Be Set Free, on our online bookstore.)
After my first no-boundaries debacle, I almost quit prayer ministry all together. But for me, experience was, and continues to be, my greatest teacher.
I decided to enlist the help of my prayer partner, and when I told her what was happening she immediately took charge of the situation. Admitting my mistake was hard to do. I was both relieved, and humbled at the same time. Later I discovered that many of the other prayer ministers on our team had learned their boundary lesson in the same way. Through that experience I learned that one of the greatest gifts we have is the support and accountability that comes from serving in community.
On the side mirrors of my car I also have those smaller mirrors that allow you to see your blind spots. I have had them for so long that I now rely on them and I don’t like to drive a car without them. I feel the same way about ministry. Serving with people who will lovingly point out blind spots is a safety feature I never want to be without.