High-Maintenance Boundaries

The overly needy church woman is a difficulty many pastors’ wives face.

by Gabriele Rienas

Q: I am having a problem with a woman at our church. She approached me for friendship/mentoring soon after we came to this church 3 years ago. It was great at first: she seemed loyal to our church, eager to learn, fun, helpful, and generous with our family. However, things have gotten complicated. She makes constant demands on my time and attention, gets her feelings hurt regularly, and becomes resentful of time I spend with anyone else. She openly sulks and shares with others how hurt she is by the way I treat her. Talking does not seem to solve anything and the tension is escalating. The last straw was when she went off on me in the crowded foyer last Sunday because I did not sit with her. I want to run the other direction when I see her coming.

A: You are describing a difficulty that many pastors’ wives face — the overly needy church woman. Let me call her Emma. From a friendship perspective alone, Emma is a huge challenge. In spite of the fact the relationship started out on positive footing, she is clearly trying to get her needs met in ways that take away your freedom. The situation becomes even more difficult if you have a spiritual calling to reach out to vulnerable people. In a perfect world you would be able to help her with liberal amounts of love and patience. But with Emma, and women like her, you are dealing with some serious relational immaturity, if not a significant amount of brokenness. Keep this in mind to avoid taking too much responsibility for the ongoing drama.

Let me talk about what makes Emma’s antics so difficult. God has called believers to love one another. Loving includes helping people in distress, and Emma’s distress is clearly evident. If it is your nature to be high in mercy and compassion, you will be even more impacted by her pain. When she implies to you or others that you have failed her, it strikes right at the heart of that desire to minister to others with Jesus’ love.

I notice that she did not reveal all of her relational angst at the beginning. In fact, she came across in a positive way that drew you in. Gradually, the intensity of her expectations has increased. This is a common dynamic with people like this. Two factors contribute:

  1. People’s brokenness is most present under stress. Under normal circumstances they present their best side and better manage the negatives. As the relationship progresses, tensions inevitably arise and the broken side begins to emerge.
  2. People with a history of chronic relational difficulty are very good at manipulating relationships to get what they want. Emma was good at drawing you into friendship. Maintaining it is more of a challenge as she ends up resorting to more desperate ways to get what she wants. You are not the first person who has faced these challenges with Emma, and you will not be the last.

Now that this has emerged, Emma’s neediness can become like a bottomless pit that no one can satisfy and which robs you of your freedom. The truth is this: No matter what, you cannot do enough, say enough, or be enough to satisfy the desire she has to be perfectly loved. If you try, it will quickly begin to feel stifled, overwhelmed, and restricted. Remember that God has not called anyone to be everything to anyone else. That is His job.

Whatever your definition of biblical love, it must include doing what is best for the other person. Emma would like to define what is best; but, in this case, she is mistaken. If you give in to her desires, it would not help her personal growth and health. It would contribute to her success in manipulating others to rescue her instead of growing personally.

God has not called us to save everyone from all pain and discomfort. Sometimes it is necessary to let people face the challenges of life, the consequences of their actions, and the pain of their wounds so they can grow. When people are deprived of the consequences of their mistakes, they are deprived of learning. This is true in relational maturity as well. From an early age, consequences for bad relational behavior leads to growth and can become the foundation for the way we approach interactions throughout our lives. If you overcompensate for Emma’s bad behavior, you are indirectly furthering the problem.

Even though she does not see it, Emma’s expectations are unrealistic. As a guideline, there are some specific expectations that a healthy relationship never demands and therefore we should not meet these demands. If Emma applies pressure, firmly decline both verbally and by your actions.

Unhealthy Expectations

The following are some unhealthy expectations. They include:

  • Being a closer friend than we are prepared to be.
  • No limits on the amount of time spent together.
  • Unlimited emotional energy to explore every challenge, hurt, and frustration.
  • Absolute loyalty above any other friendship or any other person.
  • Total affirmation and agreement without question or challenge.
  • Perfect empathy, understanding, and validation.

Drawing the line with Emma requires courage and wisdom because she will not likely respond positively. Do it anyway. Be prepared to set consequences for unacceptable behavior and follow through. Be clear and direct with her about what you are willing to offer in friendship and what you consider to be inappropriate on her part. Refuse to be guilted into giving more than you can afford to give.

Do not let this Emma-drama deplete your energy, enthusiasm, and stamina for ministry any longer. By all means, be compassionate and loving, but do not hesitate to place limits when necessary. In the end, you will take back the freedom you have to be yourself and to pursue friendship and ministry with passion and wisdom.