A lot of communities are familiar with boundaries. Boundaries are often used to define who is an insider and who is an outsider. Religious communities often use belief as a boundary. (Members of this community believe in X, Y, or Z, and if you don't believe in X, Y, or Z, you can't be a member of this community.) Some communities use behavior as a boundary. (Members of this behavior abstain from alcohol, or pray at certain times of the day, or wear special clothing, and if you don't do these things, you can't be a member of the community.)
Especially for people whose entire social circle is comprised of a single community, these rules and restrictions are a means of controlling people. Stepping out of bounds can mean being ostracized or disowned. This sort of boundary is harmful when shame, rejection, and condemnation are used as enforcement. The message from many religious communities is that certain people are unacceptable, unlovable, or unworthy because they don't fit within the community boundaries. In many cases, boundaries become walls, shutting people out of community, imprisoning people in relationships, or preventing safe self-disclosure, honesty, and affirmation.
Healthy communities, on the other hand, set boundaries based on what behaviors align with the shared values of the community. A healthy community doesn't need to distinguish between insider and outsider, because the community's commonly held guiding principles and shared purpose are clearly defined. Rather than controlling people's behavior, healthy boundaries are collaboratively defined practices that reflect the community's values.
For instance, if a community has decided to practice mutual affirmation, self-disclosure, hospitality, active and unconditional love, and honesty, they may agree that some behaviors reinforce those values and some behaviors run counter to those values. Let's say, for instance, that a community recognizes that gossiping about someone isn't congruent with those five characteristics, but that it reflects those values to speak honestly, directly, and respectfully to a person when there's conflict. The boundary for the community, then, is that communication within the community reflects the community's shared values.
If Alex goes to Bethany to complain about something Charlotte said, that doesn't mean Alex should get kicked out of the community or shamed. It does mean that Bethany has an opportunity to help Alex make a course correction and realign with communication that reflects the high aspirations of the community. Bethany could do this in a variety of ways. She could guide Alex toward speaking directly, honestly, and respectfully with Charlotte -- or even offer to go with Alex if the conversation seems challenging. She could also help Alex empathize with Charlotte. Remaining detached from Alex's anxiety might be challenging for Bethany, and she may be tempted to take sides or spread further gossip about Charlotte (or Alex). Having clear boundaries in the community and giving everyone responsibility for upholding those boundaries will hopefully make it clear to Bethany how she can respond more intentionally.
This is an important point, because many communities have specialized people who are boundary enforcers. If you have a problem with someone, you go to the boundary enforcer and file a complaint, the boundary enforcer looks into the situation and decides if a boundary has been crossed, and then (ideally) a system of justice is activated to provide just consequences. This system lets most people off the hook for enforcing community boundaries. In a large society, this has some benefits. Our national justice system is severely flawed, but it's at least an improvement on vigilante justice or the escalations of retributive violence that happen in some cultures. In smaller communities, though, people can collaborate to create community boundaries that reflect their shared values, and everyone can be equally responsible for enforcing those boundaries by their own intentional behavior. Bethany doesn't need to go running to a community elder to inform on Alex. She's capable of being intentional in her own behavior when Alex's anxiety gets activated.
Each community has to determine for itself what level of boundary-crossing warrants greater attention. There are times when people may be resistant to correction when they are acting in violation of a community's shared boundaries. People can engage in conflict when they are anxious; fear prompts defiance in some folks. It's important for a community to know how it will respond to this kind of anxiety or fear in a way that aligns with its guiding principles and values. Community members should know ahead of time what the consequences are for persistent boundary-crossing, and as many members as possible should be empowered to hold one another accountable to the community's shared values and guiding principles.
Boundaries can also help provide a sense of safety in a community. Background checks for people working with children is a boundary. Clear lines of financial accountability may be another community boundary. Sometimes these sorts of boundaries are rooted in fear and anxiety about people. The same boundaries could flow from a community's intentional identity, however. The difference is not necessarily the boundaries themselves, but the foundation on which the boundaries are built. Well-defined community values and shared vision undergird healthy boundaries.
Healthy individuals have boundaries, too. And individual boundaries may not be identical to community boundaries. One person may choose to be vegetarian, while the community as a whole doesn't make such a choice. It's the responsibility of the individual to clearly state their boundaries, and it's the responsibility of the community to respect the boundaries of individuals. Emile has the responsibility to say, "I won't eat the chicken casserole Devon brought to the potluck, because I don't eat meat." No one has to apologize for the presence of a chicken casserole, because vegetarianism isn't a shared value of the community. Likewise, no one in the community gets to force Emile to eat the chicken casserole, or shame or pressure Emile (or Devon). Radical hospitality may prompt someone to take action to make sure Emile has something to eat, but this can be a loving act that respects the boundaries of those present.
Sometimes personal boundaries are the result of false beliefs, and sometimes personal boundaries are inconvenient for a community. Healthy community can recognize these realities and remain respectful of the boundaries that individuals set, as long as the community's shared values and guiding principles aren't compromised. Say a community decides that its shared values are non-theistic -- that as a community they will not promote supernaturalism through any of their common practices. If Gerry prefers to pray before a meal, it's fine for Gerry to pray. It isn't fine for Gerry to insist that everyone else pray. If Gerry wants to listen to overtly theistic music, that's fine. Gerry just doesn't get to require everyone to sing theistic music together.
The same would be true for a theistic community that determines its shared values to include affirming and promoting affection or gratitude toward a supernatural. If this is a shared value of the community, Fabian's personal boundary of refusing to pray doesn't get to define the practices of the entire community. The community's boundaries also don't mean that Fabian can be forced to pray, however. Fabian can choose not to sing the community's theistic songs, but if the community's shared values include gratitude toward a supernatural, Fabian should expect them to sing praises to that supernatural as a community practice.
For some communities, the challenging part is defining these boundaries clearly so that individuals will know whether their personal boundaries will be in conflict with the community's practices. If a community expects everyone to do something, it's best to be honest and direct about that expectation. Too often, communities claim to welcome everyone and fail to provide a clear indication of what they're welcoming everyone into. It doesn't matter to me if a Christian community acts like they welcome me; if they're going to expect me to participate in blatantly Christian activities, I'm not going to feel welcome. I'm not going to feel like a respected, valued, accepted part of a community that expects me to act in opposition to my own personal beliefs. When a community is clear about its boundaries and practices, and an individual is clear about their personal boundaries and practices, people can easily see whether they are a good fit for the community. Hopefully, a community's shared values and guiding principles are directly reflected in their boundaries and practices.
I mentioned that sometimes personal boundaries are the result of false beliefs. As long as those personal boundaries aren't in conflict with the community's boundaries, it's still best to be loving and respectful of those personal boundaries that may be misguided. As a person grows in their ability to practice mutual self-disclosure and honesty, and as a person participates in giving and receiving sincere affirmation and active, unconditional love, their beliefs -- and therefore their boundaries -- may change. People first need to feel safe in community before they can engage in the challenging work of defining personal guiding principles and casting vision in their lives. Respect for their personal boundaries, and clear community boundaries, can help provide that sense of safety.
All of this conversation about boundaries is within the context of a community that is practicing the essential five ingredients we've already explored: mutual self-disclosure, mutual hospitality, mutual active and unconditional love, mutual honesty, and mutual affirmation. Some people may need a lot of help from their community to learn how to establish healthy personal boundaries. Boundaries can also be abused to preserve a community at the expense of the individual, or to create power-over structures rather than power-with systems. This is one reason community boundaries should be collaboratively created by the members of a community, with a clear connection to the shared values and guiding principles of the community. With these elements in place, a community can incorporate one more vital piece to creating greater wholeness in the world: a well-defined shared purpose or vision.
There are several books and web resources that carry this conversation about boundaries deeper, but one of the best is still Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Even though this is touted as a Christian book, Cloud's observations are valid beyond the sphere of Christianity, and his recommendations are easily interpreted into a sound Humanist framework for relationships. He's also released a number of spin-offs that may be helpful to people looking for guidance on setting healthy boundaries in specific relationships.