In my 20s, I was a member of a church near King’s Cross where we started a community project called Decorating and Gardening to do practical jobs for vulnerable local people. We called it D&G for short and borrowed the Dolce & Gabanna logo. We never heard from their lawyers.
The first person we did a job for was a man called Terry who lived in a flat on a large estate just off the Caledonian Rd. Terry had recently come out of prison and had multiple addictions to crack, heroin and alcohol. We decorated two of his rooms and he was very grateful.
To our genuine surprise, Terry then regularly started turning up at the church on Sunday evenings.
Being honest, it was very challenging. Terry would frequently interrupt the services, especially right in the middle of prayers or times of silence and launch into long monologues about how no one cared about him. Except he used slightly stronger language.
The situation became very stressful for many members of the church. It was even causing some people to not want to come to services.
At the time I was managing a hostel for homeless young people in Soho. Every day at work I made tough decisions in response to difficult incidents. But at church I found the boundaries more complex.
We sang songs which pledged radical commitment to God and to others: surely we had to show kindness and tolerance for someone with so many obvious needs?
Amid the discussions about how best to handle the situation, someone recommended that I spoke to a Christian rehab in South London called The Nehemiah Project. I called and spoke with their Director and asked for some advice about the situation with Terry.
It’s a telephone call I will never forget because the Director was incredibly blunt and direct. He said that tolerating these forms of toxic behaviour was helping no one. He said that my hesitancy about taking firmer action was naïve because this kind of chaos could do huge damage to the church community.
He advised me that we had to put in place boundaries to contain the impact of Terry’s behaviour and ensure we protected others – especially those vulnerable in other ways.
His words were incredibly wise and helpful. It was a catalyst for me to start thinking about grace and truth as key components of truly helping someone. It helped me think more clearly and integrate my faith with my paid work.
There were many further flashpoints, incidents and arguments with Terry. But (generally), the church got better at maintaining boundaries. Terry was frequently escorted out of the building and it was made clear that interrupting services was not acceptable.
These actions did not destroy the relationship with Terry. In fact, this is what enabled the church to maintain a relationship with him and show kindness and hospitality to him over the coming years. Read more about Terry and what happened.
Over the years, I have stayed in touch with The Nehemiah Project and live close to their base. I have really enjoyed attended their inspiring graduation ceremonies for people completing the programme.
And recently I met with their current residents to learn more about what had triggered their recovery journeys away from addictions. It was a fascinating couple of hours.
What struck me most was the role that consequences and boundaries had in kick-starting a desire for change. The examples they gave were events like being arrested yet again, of liberty being denied, of being reminded by people they cared about that life did not have to be this way. It was these experiences that helped provoke steps of authentic change.
Leaving chaos behind
And in addition, it was strong boundaries that were key in what they appreciated about the Nehemiah programme. They want firm and sensible restrictions, the ‘tough love’ which keeps their new community safe. They know all about the chaos, destruction and mayhem unleashed by addictions and this is what they want to leave behind.
It was a similar story to what I learnt in supporting my cousin who struggled with a heroin addiction for so long. Or what I have learnt from my friend Chris Ward whose recovery journey began when an older lady at his church spoke hard words of truth to him about his behaviour. And its a key aspect of Darren McGarvey’s story as told in his brilliant book Poverty Safari.
What really helps
Its common for liberally-minded, well-meaning people to see the main way to help others is to be more generous, more accepting, to give more and more, and view people in need simply as victims of forces beyond their control.
But when it comes to addictions this is naïve. Colluding with chaos and excusing toxic behaviour helps no one.
Building and maintaining relationships whilst holding onto healthy boundaries is what really helps others. People struggling with addiction need others to walk with them to encourage and support them, but the responsibility for change always lies with them.
As another wise person often said, it is their faith that will heal them.
13 thoughts on “Colluding with chaos or maintaining healthy boundaries?”
A lot of good sense here. Made me think..
Thanks Vangie x
Thank you for this. I am just taking a period of time out, distancing myself from an incredibly toxic family member. As a Christian I feel that its my job to just try harder. But I have come to recognise that I am not helping and I am damaging myself and other members of the family are getting hurt too. But it is so hard just to sit on your hands when you could be picking up the pieces once again.
Hi Jan – thanks for reading and commenting. I have been supporting a friend recently in ‘letting go’ of picking up the pieces of a close family member with very significant problems. It is terribly hard but I think its so valuable to change the dynamic and not to accept responsibility for things which are not yours. I think we easily feel guilt, especially if we are being manipulated but we need people around us to support us and tell us that we are doing the right (and actually kind) thing by NOT getting involved again and temporarily ‘saving’ the situation again. God bless you in your struggle and thanks for sharing.
Wise words. This resonates.
I was told that the biggest problem in my marriage was my lack of submission. According to the pastor if he said jump it was not why but how high. He could literally do what he wanted and when without any challenge. Even to the point of staying out all weekend every weekend for 2 or 3 months. I was not strong enough to cope with his behaviour so he divorced me. The kindest thing he ever did for me. I heard on the grapevine that none of my successors lasted as many months as I did years.
Sorry to hear this. I think boundaries with the person you live with are both a) even more important and b) far more difficult to navigate. But I find these forms of ‘submission’ deeply problematic and a cover for all kinds of manipulative and even abusive behaviour. We need to submit to each other!
You might find this article interesting as I wrote it about my own marriage and grace and truth: https://gracetruth.blog/2021/09/27/marrying-grace-and-truth/
Great insight here. Thank you.
Our paths may have crossed as I was pastor in Soho from 1995-2009.
Anyway, much appreciation for your words here.
Hi Matt, thanks for reading and commenting. I worked for Centrepoint and managed a hostel firstly on Wardour Street, then later at Dean St (next to St Anne’s) and then lastly at Berwick Street. I left the role in 2002.
Which church were you pastoring?
Really good article, however I struggle with how to apply this in a housing situation. A key away to end rough sleeping is to not evict people, but some people’s behaviour is very distructive. How do you keep boundaries and keep people housed? We know that homelessness often leads to more chaos and makes it harder for people to recover.
Hi Helen, no easy answers to this question. I think it is the biggest challenge facing the ambition to reduce rough sleeping because people’s complexities and self-destructive behaviour is often one of the key barriers to progress. I think scheme likes Housing First have reset boundaries in a helpful way for many people – and I think the challenging task of keeping some boundaries whilst giving complex people as much understanding and support as possible is at the heart of this.