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Setting Boundaries (1 Timothy 5:3,4)

Take care of any widow who has no one else to care for her. But if she has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God. (1 Timothy 5:3,4)

One of the challenges we all face when caring for young people is that of setting boundaries. We want to be available to them and help them as best we are able and yet there are limits to the amount of time we can invest in them.

We all have other responsibilities such as study, work and family as well as our own need for relaxation and recreation. Supporting other people through tough times is a privilege but it can cause us stress if we take ownership of the problem off the young person and place it on ourselves. 

It is this dynamic that Paul has in mind when he addresses the issue of widows in these verses to Timothy. To understand what is happening here, we must understand that in Biblical times there was no social welfare. When a widow in the church had no means of support then the church would step in and provide for her. This is Christian love in action.

But Paul is careful here to place conditions around such care. If the widow has children who can care and provide for her then they should do so. Such care and provision is their responsibility - not the church's and not Timothy's. 

Putting a boundary around the care we offer and requiring those responsible to meet their responsibilities does not demonstrate a lack of love. It demonstrates wisdom and obedience to Scripture.

To understand how this relates to our care of young people, we need to remind ourselves of two foundational Biblical truths. Firstly, God loves each young person and is concerned for them more than we could ever be (John 3:16). As such our primary task is to point them to God. It's not to be "God" to them or feel as though we need to meet their every need. We get to partner with God in what He is doing but we are not indispensable. 

Secondly, we are not responsible for another person's choices. We are responsible for offering wise counsel but if they reject it, then the responsibility is theirs and they reap the consequences. (Ezekiel 3:17-19).  

When you understand these two principles you will be able to set two specific boundaries for caring.

The first of these is to care for yourself first. This approach may seem to run counter to the command to love others, but you don't have to be available 24/7 to every young person who says they need you. It's notable that Jesus took time out to be alone with His Father, and to be with a few close friends. At times He would turn His back and walk away from people in great need (Matthew14:22-23), while elsewhere He commanded His disciples to rest after a busy period of ministry (Mark 6:30-32).

In practice that might mean turning off your phone or at least choosing not to reply the moment a message is received. It may also mean letting people know when you are available to help and when you are not.

When we don't practice self-care, the quality of care we offer others is dimniished as is the length of time we tend to stay in leadership helping those we're yet to even meet. If caring for others is wearing you out and you're starting to feel like quitting, there is a good chance you are no longer obeying God or doing His will. Remind yourself again of the two foundational principles above!

The second practical boundary I suggest you put in place in caring for others is to make them responsible for seeking God and doing something about their situation. Some young people will soak up any attention you give them and will be reluctant to grow and risk losing that attention. 

Once you have listened and understood what they are facing, help them to hear from God and set goals for themselves. Point them toward relevant Bible verses that speak into their situation and ask them what they plan doing in response to what they are hearing. 

Once they establish an action plan which they themselves own (not one I've imposed upon them), then they have the responsibility to follow through on it. If they are reluctant to do so, I need not get caught in the circular trap of making an effort to help them when they are unwilling to make an effort to help themselves.

At times our willingness to always be there for young people with no conditions or expectations is the very thing that stops them seeking God. 

"Why seek God when I know I always have you?!" 

Reflection

Are there any pastoral situations I'm facing that are causing me unnecessary stress? Are people's needs wearing me down and causing me to lose my enthusiasm for ministry? Are there people who love to receive attention from me but see reluctant to actually take practical steps to change? 

If so, what boundaries do you need to put in place?