Boundaries: Secrets from DCEs who Thrived, Not Just Survived

Each year dozens of professional church workers leave their position at their church. Why they leave is no secret to many of us. They have gotten to the point that they cannot control their workload; they cannot prove they are making any headway; they have poor communication with their colleagues; and they are just … spinning … their … wheels. G-r-i-n-d.  Eeeeerk. Hault.

“My pastor doesn’t even talk to me.”

“My position is being eliminated.”

“I am just barely keeping my head above water.”

“Some days I don’t even know where to start.”

“I need someone who will just tell me what to do.”

Whether you are saying these words right now, just thinking the words, or having the time of your life, there are secrets you should know. The secrets that cause purposeful thriving and not accidental surviving.

Ask these four1 questions:

1.       Do you stick to your original position description when setting your goals?

2.       Do you write and promote all your goals or assume some can remain unwritten?

3.       Do you know where your calendar is?

4.       Do you read and live out the principles found in the book Margin(Swenson 2004)?

If you answered YES to 1 of these, well at least we know you are alive.

If you answered YES to 2 of these you at least know some of the secrets.

If you answered YES to 3 of these hopefully one of them was #3.

If you answered YES to 4 of these you are on your way to thriving long-term as a DCE.

Look at the essence of the four questions above and how you can make new choices about position descriptions, goals, calendars and margin.

a.      stick to your original position description

Hero worship is big in America and you want to be that hero. Your pastor, quite innocently, asks for a special favor and you turn it into a new line on the “to-do” list. It isn’t related to your position, your mission, your ministry goals, but you like the attention and the praise.

There are times when emergencies happen and you are the only one trained to handle a particular situation. Fine. But your ministry is equipping the saints, not entertaining the saints with your fantastic abilities.

On the other hand, some of you stick to your job description to a fault.  You are not willing to go the extra mile when ministry calls you to stick your neck out. This faulty protectionism is not a healthy boundary, but selfish minimalizing of what ministry really is.

Real heroes stick to the mission. They discard all that makes them blend in with the crowd and do the job they were called to do. They don”t get sidetracked. Their mission maximizes ministry because everyone wants to be with them. Why? Because their mission is clear. It is concise.

b.      write all your goals

Many of you write the goals down you think people “over you” want to know, put those goals in a drawer and then you continue on doing whatever gets thrown your way. Hey kids. Class is over. Life is not a homework assignment. Put away your student persona. One secret of being a long-term and happy DCE is to take charge. This starts with your goals.

All right. You are going to cry once in a while even if you have every goal clearly posted and have armies of people helping you to achieve them.  But then at least you know why you are crying. Dont be tossed to and fro like waves in the wind. Set your hand to the plow brother and sister DCEs.

Oh and the pastor. The pastor who does not make his way down the hall to talk to you might not have the same goals as you do. Well duh! It is up to you to get him on board. To dog him. Do your goals align with the goals of the congregation? Then train your pastor up to be a partner in those goals. Your goals are valuable … right!?

Remember, write down ALL your goals…like family goals, health goals, reading goals…they all make up your ministry results.  Don’t just write down “Take a hike with family” either. That can result in a hike with the family checked off the “to-do” list while your mind was on all the things you had to get done back at the office. No. That hike with the family (or friends) is a focused time of listening and laughing, celebrating and serving together. It is part of your ministry.

Goals are not “to-do” lists. They are bigger. They look to what you want someone or something to become; not to what you have gotten done. They are future oriented; not checklist oriented. They give you something to run toward and give those you influence something to run toward. You are not just teaching confirmation once a week to get content into junior highers’ brains; you are preparing a people to be sent into the world to be a light to the nations.

c.       your calendar

Do you know where it is? For many of you it is in your head. Write it down and get it out of your head. Boundaries allow you to put aside what is not yours at the time. There will be so much pressure for you to “succeed,” but if you are always “on call” you will not influence well and you will not stay healthy. Emergencies aside, you need to have “retreat” time. Holy time. Time set apart with our Father.

Some of you have all you need on your cell phone, iPhone, or Blackberry; others of you are still writing things down on your hands. These are still “to-do” formats of living. Your calendar needs to reflect your goals; not your to-do list. The calendar is not a reactive tool but a proactive tool. The calendar is not for you to write things down your church leaders tell you to write, but a place for you to plan out how to lead people forward.

You are the leader. So go find your calendar.

d.      the book Margin

Richard Swenson wrote a marvelous book that every professional church worker should read and develop habits to live by. The book describes how we need to plan to maintain margin in our lives. Swenson measured the white space of a books page and estimates that about 40% of a page in the average book is empty space.  He uses this as a metaphor for life and work. The important things in work and life should be planned into 60% of our waking time. We intentionally leave margin. A lot of margin. A lot of space.  Space for the events of life and ministry to happen without causing the feeling that you must pass by on the other side of the road instead of stopping for the real ministry of the church.

What does this mean? Giving some things up. Giving up … ummmm … well. Some of you pride yourselves in your ability to multitask. You dont give a few things attention because you are afraid you might miss out on something.  Swenson, an M.D., tells a story of giving up a nice car so that he could spend more time with his family. A nice car was not his goal; a nice family was. What is your goal?

Please tell me that your ministry is more than having a nice car.

Some of you have said YES to low paying DCE positions. But your goal is more outstanding. Some of you are envious of people who have more. More money. More technological gadgets. More square footage in their homes. More toilets in their homes. But your goal has more momentum than all of this. All of this is a choice. What you place your value in is a choice. How you see yourself as blessed or not is a choice. This is what Swenson writes ferociously to help us understand.

Position descriptions. Goals. Calendars. Margin. Four secrets revealed. Quantifiably the most valuable tools in a leaders belt. Four tools developed to give us freedom; not to bind us. When they are in place, they free us to take breaks while still handling our responsibilities. When they are exercised well, they free us to live with time for wiping tears and listening more sincerely. When implanted with discipline, they provide time for stopping because it is healthy, rather than stopping because we have no other choice. And that should never ever again be a secret.

So will it be survive or thrive?


1These questions are absolutely NOT scientific. I just made them up based on what I have observed new DCEs struggling with in the field. They honestly represent the characteristics of DCEs who are struggling. They also represent the gifts, skills and actions of DCEs who, in my opinion, thrive.

Swenson, Richard. Margin. NavPress, 2004.

About the author

Craig has served in elementary education, youth ministry, outdoor ministry, and challenge course facilitation and development. He is the former DCE program director at Concordia University, Portland. He currently serves as the director of Camp Concordia, located on the Woodbeck chain of lakes north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Craig and his wife Mary have one daughter, Whitney.
View more from Craig

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