Boundaries: surviving cross-cultural life

Boundaries… are conscious and healthy ways to protect ourselves from emotional harm.1

Cross-cultural ministry has been defined as “the mission of God [that] seeks to enfold people of every nation, tribe, and language into God’s kingdom.”2 It is no wonder that cross-cultural workers, entrusted with this huge task, quickly find themselves overcommitted, stressed, and overwhelmed. How can we say no to so many important activities that are part of this Great Commission? Most of us are left with little energy or time for our families or ourselves, which eventually leads to burnout and leaving the field prematurely. Therefore, a fundamental aspect of cross-cultural ministry is setting good boundaries.

Boundaries are “guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.”3

The first step in setting good boundaries is to understand their purpose. Boundaries keep good things good. Boundaries function for us as a fence around our home does: it keeps bad things out and good things safe inside. Boundaries, like fences, tell us how far we can go and still be safe. They set limits on our time, activities, and energy. Without them, all kinds of things can get in and sap us of vital resources. And just as “good fences make good neighbors,” so also good boundaries build longevity in ministry.

Author and life coach Natalie Gahrmann identifies the following essential steps in setting boundaries:4

  1. Be self-aware: Identify weak or non-existent boundary areas. Create new boundaries that identify what people may do or say around you, remembering to be realistic.
  2. Inform: Difficult as it may be, we should let people in our lives know what is and is not acceptable behavior and communication. This needs to be done kindly but clearly.
  3. Request: Be specific in the things you want others to do and not do, explaining that such things are signs of respect or disrespect.
  4. Follow-up: Encourage and praise others when they respect your boundaries.
  5. Demand: We need to be clear about the consequences if our boundaries aren’t honored.
  6. Consequences: If your boundaries aren’t being respected, you need to follow through on the promised consequences, but remember to pick your battles—decide what is worth fighting for and what is not.
  7. Respect others’ boundaries: Don’t violate others’ boundaries. Respect others’ requests for limitations on behavior and communication.

The idea of enforcing our own boundaries and respecting others’ boundaries seems challenging at first, but setting up boundaries is a lot like the commandment to love others as we love ourselves. It isn’t about making selfish demands, but showing respectful behavior to others, as well as expecting it for ourselves. It is hoped that properly setting boundaries will not only enhance our ministries, but also help us to continue ministering fruitfully for many years.

Eileen Nielsen is presently a middle school and high school counselor at the Christian Academy in Japan, as well as Member Care Facilitator for TEAM.

1. Raymond Lloyd Richmond, “A Guide to Psychology and its Practice,”

2. Ed Stetzer, “Cross Cultural Ministry and the Mission of God: A Closer Look by Craig Ott,” April 24, 2013,

3. Ibid, Richmond

4. Nancy Gahrman “Surviving Work Overload,” June 6, 2011,

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