Boundaries within ‘care’

Small Groups can be the first line of support when it comes to caring for people. But sometimes there are situations that go beyond what a Small Group can handle. So how do you know when it’s appropriate to help someone yourself, or when you should help the person find other support? Hopefully these notes will help you in these situations:

Principles of group care

Here are a few basic principles that we like to use when considering caring for people in Small Groups:

First, consider the role of the group. A Small Group is designed for fellowship, equipping and championing one another to practice the way of Jesus in all of life, but always with the purpose aligned to the mission of making disciples. A Small Group is not designed to be a counsellor or a parent.

Second, view situations through the lens of ,’what would you do for a friend?’ You would listen to a friend, care for a friend, pray for a friend…

Third, each group members needs to maintain responsibility for their own actions and next steps.

Scenarios when you should help the person find support elsewhere

One situation that could come up from time to time is borrowing money from someone in the group, when someone in the group is in financial need. This can be particularly hard because people want to help. They want to do something to help someone in need, but they can feel like they’re in a tough spot: If they say “no”, they can appear stingy and uncaring. If they say “yes”, they’re afraid they’re potentially being taken advantage of. In these kinds of situations, it’s best to have the person needing financial assistance talk to someone else: either someone on staff at LifeCare, or refer them to a financial professional. It’s often very hard to figure out what someone’s real financial need is without asking for a lot of personal / private information.

Another situation might be if someone is trying to push extreme views on a topic. This can be really polarising to the group. As the leader, you need to be careful how you let people talk about things like this. It’s definitely a tension to manage because you want to let people to be open and to grow. You want to let people talk about things that are important to them. But you want these conversations to be guided what Jesus said, and not by what an Internet article says

Another big situation would be mental health issues. These are things that a Small Group is just not designed to help someone overcome. You can be there to walk with someone, to help encourage them – but people may need therapy or they may need medication. And no matter what the mentally ill person says, the group is not a substitute for that, under any circumstances. In this case, you, as the leader, needs to direct them to seek the help of a professional. You and your group members need to put boundaries up on what they will and won’t do to help this person. This can be really hard depending on the situation, but in reality it’s the best thing that you can do.

Finally, there can be conversation dominators: people who are always coming to the group with some sort of problem. It’s important to learn how to appropriately cut those conversations off once you see someone is continually doing this, and pull the person aside to talk to them and let them know that their problems can’t dominate the group every week.

Scenarios when the group could help the person, yourselves

One of the most important times a group can help care for someone is when they’re grieving the loss of someone. This is one where groups may have questions on what they need to do; and it’s really not about knowing what to say or what to do – it’s just about being there. This is somewhere where a group is perfectly designed to help someone: showing up to group says you care, sending a note, making a phone call, bringing a meal…

Another example might be supporting someone who is sick. Just walking, alongside someone who is sick and helping them in those times can be a huge help.

Consider when it might be 'too much care'

A caution here would be around 1 Timothy 5:8: For if a believer fails to provide for their own relatives when they are in need, they have compromised their convictions of faith and need to be corrected, for they are living worse than the unbelievers.

For example, sometimes someone might have a sickness that can be all encompassing for a caregiver. If a group member is spending so much time caring for someone else that they’re not able to care for their own family, they’re doing too much. In these cases, you either need to get help caring for that other person, or you need to help them find a professional to care for them instead.

It is vitally important to remember that, as group members, we’re responsible ‘to’ people and not ‘for’ people. This means we are responsible to love and care for them, to listen to and support them. But we’re not responsible for them, for their happiness, for their financial security, for carrying their daily responsibilities.

So a helpful question to ask is, ‘when are you doing it ‘for’ them?’ The person in need needs to be a part of the process and you’re just supporting them in that process.

Some examples may be that group members could be responsible to provide emotional and spiritual support, and they are sometimes responsible for providing temporary physical assistance. But group members are not responsible for providing legal support, medical support, or ongoing physical support.


It’s generally not appropriate for a group member to call you at 3:00 AM just to chat; but , it may be appropriate for them to call you in the middle of the night for a time sensitive emergency, like someone in their family’s passed away or a medical emergency.

Sometimes individuals that don’t understand healthy boundaries, however, think that their situation is always an emergency. We see this in care all the time: someone may reach out saying ‘my spouse has left me and I need to meet with somebody right now to get them to come back’. Or someone will reach out and say they’re in a financial crisis: they need rent money immediately or they’re going to be evicted.

So it’s important for you as the group Leader to remember that usually situations like this have taken months or even years to build up to where they are today. And are not going to be able to solve things immediately. The person in need likely didn’t get into this situation overnight, so it’s not going to be solved overnight. They can wait until tomorrow.

Ultimately you need to care for people, but have appropriate boundaries in place. It’s not that you’re not going to help them when they need it, but you don’t have to be available 24-7. 

Boulders vs Backpacks

Henry Cloud and John Townsend have written a book called “Boundaries: When to say yes, How to say no” where they use this analogy of a ‘boulder’ and a ‘backpack’ as a guide for us to know when to set boundaries.

The ‘boulder’ and the ‘backpack’ are based on Galatians 6:2-5:

Love empowers us to fulfill the law of the Anointed One as we carry each other’s troubles. If you think you are too important to stoop down to help another, you are living in deception. Let everyone be devoted to fulfill the work God has given them to do with excellence, and their joy will be in doing what’s right and being themselves, and not in being affirmed by others. Every believer is ultimately responsible for his or her own conscience.

These verses and the book, ‘Boundaries’, talk about how we should help people carry their burdens that are like ‘boulders’: it’s too heavy for them to carry alone. But we really should allow them to carry their own ‘backpack’, which is their daily load.

However, often we have a hard time distinguishing between a ‘boulder’ and a ‘backpack’. The questions to ask here is, ‘does the group have the resources or the knowledge to handle the situation on their own? Is this a ‘boulder’ or a ‘backpack’ that the person is asking to help carry?’

If it’s a ‘boulder’, for example maybe a group member is facing a serious illness or a prolonged recovery, the other group members can help them practically by providing meals, providing childcare, organising a prayer chain.

But if this is a ‘backpack’, for example paying one’s bills or being responsible for one’s own happiness, what the group member can do is simply support the person by helping them set up a plan and encouraging them to execute it (not execute it for them).

Something to note, however, is if it is a ‘boulder’ please speak to your Coach or Malcolm Campbell to figure out what the next appropriate step might be for that person. Just because something is a ‘boulder’ and the person needs help carrying it, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are the person to help them carry this issue.

Watch the 15 minute video (above, thanks to North Point Community Church) and consider:

  • Do I know the difference between a ‘boulder’ and a ‘backpack’?
  • Do I enable irresponsible behaviour in others?
  • Are there areas where I need to set a boundary with others?
  • Is it typical for me to help others too much?