What Should a Speaker’s Boundaries Be?

'Are we done yet?--Daily Image 2011--January 13' photo (c) 2011, rochelle hartman - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I was once asked to speak at a retreat which was 8 months away. Between the date that I was asked and that particular retreat I had four other retreats and numerous one-time events. I was also writing a weekly column, homeschooling my kids, and volunteering at my own local church.

The way that I handled my speaking engagements was I tried, as much as possible, to use the same talks or the same retreat packages to minimize prep time, and I would start getting ready for one after the previous one was done. So this particular retreat, probably in mid-May (I don’t remember now) I planned to start thinking about in early May.

But in November I received an email. Can I send all my notes and my handouts? And can I give feedback on the brochure and the graphics?

In December they wanted answers to whether I felt the schedule was good, so could I come up with my ideal schedule.

In January they wanted to meet for a prayer meeting with all of the committee members. Could I come for a three hour prayer meeting (this would have required a two hour drive one way).

And on and on it went. I was starting to get an email a week with questions.

Finally I had to put a stop to it. I told them I could not attend the prayer meeting, because I had other speaking engagements, and I had other responsibilities. But they could rest assured that if they covered me in prayer, I would be ready when the time came.

I received a Twitter message from a new speaker recently asking about a similar scenario. She had promised to teach a series of studies for free to a church, but the church wanted her to come and attend the service beforehand so that she could get a feel for the type of background these women came from. But the church is 1 1/2 hours from where she lives. And they would not be providing transportation.

These types of things are really quite common when we start speaking, and you’ll find that people will infringe on your time as much as they can. They will think:

  • You cannot do a good job unless you know them intimately
  • You must meet to pray with them or the prayer may not be effective
  • They must know everything you are going to say ahead of time or the evening won’t be seamless
  • They must get to know you as a person first

None of these things is true, by the way; but let me try to explain what is behind the urge to know you.

When churches run events, they are often very nervous. For the person running the event, this is probably her primary focus for months. This is all she is thinking about. And so she assumes that everyone else is, too.

And if you are not a seasoned speaker, she may assume that she has to keep a careful watch over you or everything will be horrible.

Ironically, I usually run into much more problems in this regard with smaller churches and smaller events than I do with large churches with big events. Large churches are used to putting on events, and know that things will go smoothly. They are used to working with seasoned speakers and are used to people being able to come in, do a good job, and leave. Small churches, which may be doing something new for the first time, are often much more nervous and much more demanding, especially when you are doing it for free, or for very little money. If you’re not charging much, then it’s a “labour of love”, and you should love it as much as they do. And so you should sacrifice more of your time!

That, however, does not work. If you allow your boundaries to be really stretched, then you will find yourself exhausted, guilty about the home life you are leaving behind and the other duties you are neglected, and often a little bitter when you actually do the engagement.

So how do you deal with these things? I prepare a letter which I send when a church books me, that says something like this:

Between now and the event, Sheila will do her utmost to prepare her heart and her mind to speak to your group. She will ask God for guidance during her daily devotions; she will pray specifically for this event and for the music team and others who will be ministering with her; and she will endeavour to tailor her talks to meet your needs.

Should you need specific information from Sheila, feel free to email, and she will try to get back to you within a few business days. However, her schedule is very full, with both family commitments, her own church commitments, and other speaking engagements, and so if other planning meetings are necessary, you can contact her about her fees for meetings outside of the agreed upon date.

And that usually does the trick!

I do believe that as speakers we have a responsibility to pray and prepare ourselves; but part of preparing ourselves is caring for our families and tending to our own personal responsibilities. So you cannot let a speaking engagement make undue demands on you. And what might some of those demands be?

  • Speaking too much on the phone
  • Driving for meetings when time is an issue, and mileage isn’t being reimbursed
  • Asking for a complete outline of everything you will be saying more than two weeks before the event (even then, I rarely give one in case God changes my mind; I just give the main Bible passages and main points).
  • Too frequent emails

The best way to deal with this is to reassure people that you have spoken before; that God always has a way of making everything tie together, and that you will be praying for the event. Then spell out your policy in writing, and that usually takes care of things.

Now it’s your turn: Have you ever had unreasonable demands on you before a speaking engagement? How did you handle it?

If you’re wanting to treat your speaking more professionally, my download Treating Speaking as a Business can help you get going in the right direction. Learn how to communicate your requests to churches, and figure out your fees so that you are not taken advantage of.

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10 Responses

  1. What a great post with excellent advice. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I always learn so much from you and appreciate your honesty when sharing your experiences.
    I have not had this happen so far. I am hoping it is because I spoke and planned programs for a living when I worked full time. Now I do it as ministry business. I am grateful for the reminder that even God’s speakers are allowed to have boundaries.

  3. Thanks for that great post, Sheila. I just finished sending a “theological treatise” to a church that is worried about the fine points of my theology. (Fortunately, I like writing about theology–and I can appreciate that pastors have to guard their flocks–but it took a pretty big chunk of my time.)

    I’ve been keeping my answers to inquiries in a file on my computer so I can cut and paste for future inquiries. But I like your
    idea of sending a policy statement.

  4. This is great advice for a “newby” like me. I am printing this as something tells me I will need to refer back to it a time or two. Thank you!

  5. The Lord has given me an open door to begin speaking engagements at women’s retreats and other events. Thank you for being so open with the rest of us as we begin this journey. Your advice is very helpful. God bless you as you continue to balance life, family, and speaking engagements. God has great plans for all of us!

  6. I love your letter. It also serves to remind them that even though the speaker may not be a “big name speaker”, her time is valuable!

    I always keep in mind when I did evangelism with Operation Mobilization years ago. Even though we were in very poor areas they always asked for at least a few pesos for the Bibles we handed out because they had learned that even very poor people didn’t value what was “free”. It also helped cover a few of the real needs of the mission group.

    It’s just human nature to not value what is free and available. I often wonder about speakers who charge thousands of dollars and are good but not great. Perhaps those who hire them aren’t quite as picky because they feel good about getting a “great” speaker!

    Jill Farris

  7. Thank You I am going to have a Event coming sooning in the building were i live and i am going to have someone to speak for me.You are helping both ways i will need to learn to keep in touch with you

  8. Great article! My ministry team was asked to minister for a women’s retreat Friday night through Sunday. We informed them right away that we didn’t minister on Sundays (we always make sure we are home with our families on Sunday) and they agreed. They then asked us, however, that they expected us to be there all day Thursday and all day Friday to set up for the retreat. We explained to them we were moms with kids in school and/or women and men who worked outside of ministry and we would be there prayed up and set up in plenty of time to minister at the start of the retreat. They were furious we weren’t willing to add Thursday and Friday day saying that they had to make other arrangements for their families as well. It was hard for them to understand what they do once a year in putting on a retreat, we do many, many times a year. We learned to set up boundaries up front. Thank you for the great words!

    • Wow! Be there all day Thursday too? I’ve never heard of that, but unfortunately it doesn’t surprise me. I think we need to be clear that our first responsibility is to our families, just like you did.

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