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The Protective Factor of Good Boundaries: Case Study

LukeNotes, Winter 2022

Deacon Greg is a longtime employee of St. Monica’s parish. He is a member of the executive council and supervises other church employees. As a lifelong Catholic who attended three years of seminary, Greg has been involved for over 30 years in a variety of parish ministries. After two decades of growth and dedication as a lay minister, Greg was eventually ordained as a permanent deacon and identified his ordination as one of his proudest moments. He is a well-liked, outgoing, and devoted member of the parish community.

The parish staff and parishioners love and welcome Greg’s excitement and passion for his faith. Over the years diocesan officials have primarily received positive feedback about Greg. Recently, however, there have been concerning reports about Greg’s behavior and interactions with staff and parishioners. One of the church employees reported that he was giving financial advice to some senior members of the parish. Greg was also observed on multiple occasions spending time with younger members somewhat late at night. Others noticed Greg touching and hugging parishioners without their permission. The concerns about Greg were presented to diocesan officials for review.

Father Allen, the Vicar for Clergy, met with Greg and highlighted the concerns presented. He also asked Greg to share his understanding of his behavior. Greg struggled to see how he had hurt anyone or why his behavior was problematic. In his view, he was being friendly and helpful. Although Greg was unable to understand why his behavior was problematic, he denied any intention to hurt anyone. Greg was encouraged to seek professional help and was referred to a therapist to explore the concerns raised. He volunteered to temporarily step down from his ministerial roles to allow himself the time and space to focus on his health and wellness.

Within a month Greg begins therapy with Dr. Dow. He is uncertain about how Dr. Dow can help him and initially shares very little, remaining emotionally distant. As Greg begins to trust Dr. Dow, he shares childhood and life experiences and details about his relationship with his parents. As Greg explores his upbringing and childhood experiences, he gains insight into the way he navigates the world. Specifically, structure and rules were nonexistent in the household, and boundaries were not taught or modeled. He could stay up at night as late as he wanted, there was no set family mealtime, he had few chores, and he often would just take money from his father’s wallet without permission. As Greg had few friends, he did not learn how to manage social relationships and integrate the expectations and norms that accompany those interactions.

Dr. Dow highlights for Greg that his lack of awareness about boundaries is likely the root cause of his behavior in the parish. Greg is still puzzled; he does not know what boundaries are or how they apply to him. Dr. Dow works with Greg to understand boundaries and his role in setting and adhering to them. Aspects of boundaries they worked through included time and physical space. In practice this includes adhering to time limits, being respectful of others time restraints, and/or saying no to avoid overloading one’s schedule. In terms of physical space, Greg learned to maintain a foot or two distance between himself and others, ask if he could hug another, and knock before entering a colleague’s office.

Eight months later, with Greg’s permission, the vicar for clergy joins Dr. Dow and Greg for a meeting to discuss Greg’s progress. Dr. Dow presents the challenges Greg was struggling with when he entered therapy and shares his progress.

Dr. Dow also outlines a plan of support to guide Greg as he works to implement the new behaviors he has learned. Through his work in individual therapy, peer support groups, and psychoeducation workshops, Greg begins to understand the many ways his boundary violations have impacted him throughout his life.

He recalled being dismissed from seminary because of poor judgment and intrusive behavior, over-sharing, and borrowing people’s possessions without asking. It never occurred to Greg that those behaviors were boundary violations. Following his work with Dr. Dow, Greg feels confident in asserting his boundaries and has gained a new perspective about himself and the world. He now views boundary setting as an essential tool for personal health and for effective ministry.

For confidentiality, reasons, names, identifying data, and other details of treatment have been altered.