Boundaries Revisited

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was,
and when he saw him, he had compassion.” (Luke 10:33)

Boundaries Revisited

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the summer of 2002, Pastor Rob Bromhead at Centreville Presbyterian Church preached a sermon which referred to a book by Henry Cloud and John Townsend called Boundaries. What is a boundary? Cloud and Townsend write: Just as homeowners set out physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t (25). The sermon intrigued me. That afternoon I went on-line and ordered a copy of the book.

Reading through Cloud and Townsend, two points made a big impression on me.

The first impression came from Cloud and Townsend’s reading of the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-35. They ask: why do we call the Samaritan good rather than great? They observe that the Samaritan saved the life of the man assaulted by robbers and cared for him (this made him “good”), but the Samaritan did not depart from his business trip to take care of him; instead, he delegated the man’s care and continued his trip. In other words, the Good Samaritan did what he could, but maintained healthy boundaries on his care giving.

This insight into healthy boundaries in care giving impressed me greatly because for years anxiety about not being able to “save the world” had left me feeling powerless to initiate simple steps of charity that were well within my reach. The healthy boundaries displayed by the Good Samaritan therefore empowered me to take steps to become more charitable myself. While I still could not save the world, I could offer charity to the needy person in front of me.

The second impression came from Cloud and Townsend’s observation about abuse. Abusers are people who disrespect other people’s boundaries. It is our responsibility to communicate our boundaries; it is their responsibility to respect them. Both parts are important in reducing the relational uncertainty that often causes pain, anxiety, and stress.

Thinking about stress, I remember working years earlier for a manager who was a screamer—if you offended his sensibilities, he threw a loud tantrum. After experiencing a couple of these tantrums, I went to a friend who knew him better to ask why she continued to work with him. She responded that she really enjoyed working with him because once you knew what his hot buttons were, life was easy—he was very consistent. In other words, my screaming manager had well-formed boundaries and, contrary to my initial assessment, his staff did not see him as abusive.

Cloud and Townsend’s teaching about abuse alerted me to problems in my own life. In the office and at home, I lacked safe time and space, and experienced a feeling of being out of control because I had let other people hijack my boundaries. In the office, when I began to assert personal boundaries, my supervisory took offense and over the next year engineered my early retirement along with six months severance pay to walk out the door. At home, I asserted personal boundaries by volunteering to serve as an elder at church in the fall of 2002.

My three-year term as elder began in January 2003 and in our first meeting I volunteered to serve as clerk of session. While many people view the clerk’s role as primarily being the chief note-taker, I viewed the clerk as the chief lay leadership role in the church. Thus, when Pastor Rob appealed to the elders to help out on Sunday mornings by offering personal testimonies (we lost our associate pastor), I told him: “I do not feel comfortable offering a personal testimony, but I will help you preach.” Over the next year I preached about once a quarter and began teaching adult Sunday school on a regular basis.

The engineering of my retirement took the form of a series of short term research projects under tight supervision. Projects that others might work on over several months, I had to complete in about six weeks. Topics were carefully scrutinized by supervisor and the final reports had to meet specifications acceptable to a bank examiner. When another colleague of mine was placed in this situation, he filed a discrimination lawsuit; in my case, I simply cranked out half a dozen studies that were published internally. But that was not the intent—the basic strategy was to put me on a treadmill and crank up the speed until something broke, which it did.

In early 2004, I found myself approaching an administrative deadline for early retirement with no word as to whether my request to retire would be granted. The stress was enormous because a campaign was underway to organize an employee union at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and management released no information to me or anyone else about who would be allowed to retire. Although I had applied to retire and my office planned a sendoff party on Friday, as of Thursday morning I had no decision from management.

Thursday afternoon, I was whisked into the office of the Senior Deputy Comptroller for Economics. Without the benefit of counsel or another job offer, I was confronted with the necessity of negotiating my departure package alone without much preparation. Would I get early retirement, the six month severance package promised, or find myself pushed out with neither? In order to retire without a position, I argued for early retirement and the six months severance because without both I could not make ends meet—both were granted.

Although I was not able to find another federal position, I interviewed for a software consulting position the following Monday and, in the coming days, I used my severance package to pay off my mortgage. In February, for example, on a whim, I attended the inquirer’s weekend at Princeton Theological Seminary and applied for admission, much to the dismay of my immediate family; for kicks and giggles, I was also studying Greek when time allowed. Early in the summer, I succeeded in finding a consulting placement and applied for a permanent position as a financial engineer with the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO). When the OFHEO position eventually came through in August, my high hourly wage as a consultant allowed me to argue successfully for about a 30 percent increase in salary over my prior federal salary, a completely unexpected windfall.

Particularly in view of my windfall, the sequence of events—sermon heard, boundaries established, windfall received, preaching felt—began to weigh on my mind and I remembered my pledge to God in 1992 over my son’s hospital bed: “Lord, do not take him, take me.” As time passed over the next couple of years, I felt God’s call, but did not know exactly what to do about it.


Henry Cloud and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES; When to Say NO; To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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