the north face trousers Exploring the Spiritual Dimension of Social Work
The article ends with specific, applied benefits that a credible spiritual perspective brings to social work practice.
Exploring the Spiritual Dimension of Social Work
To be human means to be spiritual. Human beings have longings and aspirations that can be honored only when the person spiritual capacity is taken seriously. (Gratton, 1995)
Popular interest in spirituality has experienced a rapid growth in recent years. This subject has occupied the top of the bestseller lists in bookstores, become a common theme of entertainment media, and is featured in many professional conferences and training programs for human service workers. Notice of this trend prompted well known journalist, Bill Moyers to comment, journalist worth his salt knows that the real story today is to define what it means to be spiritual. This is the biggest story only of the decade but of the century. (Keen, 1994, p.22)
The demographics of this popular interest in spirituality is revealing as well. A 1996 survey by the Fetzer Institute and the Institute of Noetic Sciences lead to the conclusion that there were 20 million Americans referred to as creatives concerned with psychology, spiritual life and self actualization. (Simpkinson Simpkinson, 1988) Research conducted by Reg Bibby (2002) found that while the vast majority of Canadians believe in God (86%), a very small number actually attend church regularly (17%).1 These figures represent a sharp drop in the past 40 years prompting Bibby to observe: is wrong. Canadians are asking religious questions at a time when the nation churches have never been emptier. (Bibby, 1995, p. xviii)
By the figures above, many of our social work clients have spiritual beliefs of great importance to them. It is not much of a leap, then, to suggest that human services, including social work, psychology and psychiatry have become the place most commonly turned to in times of crisis we have inherited a role that was once reserved for priests and ministers. Like it or not, social workers are being challenged to honor the spiritual issues woven into the concerns clients bring to us. Yet, it is my impression that we currently lack the credible and accessible means of integrating spirituality into social work practice. This has implications for client engagement as well as access to the resources that a client spiritual beliefs and experience can offer.
This article summarizes findings from a one year fellowship that explored the spiritual dimension of family service work (McKernan, 2004)2. The discussion that follows identifies the challenges that current spiritual trends present to social work, the task of building a bridge joining the wisdom of social work and spirituality, and a list of some advantages for spiritually integrated social work.
What we understand as the helping professions are relative new comers to the business of serving human needs. While social work and psychology have been reckoning with human experience for a little over a century, spiritual traditions (including major organized religions, shamanic, esoteric or hidden and mystical traditions) have been refining their grasp of the cosmos and human healing for millennia. We cannot ignore the potential richness that this can add to current social work practice. For example, while modern social work presses for empirical validation, the scope of our inquiry into human experience is limited to what is rational, logical and empirical. This fails to do justice to the full human experience in the same way that dogmatic religion rejects empirical and rational inquiry. First, our connection to spirituality is changing. In addition to the information about spiritual practice being more accessible in many different forms, we are discovering new words and metaphors for speaking of the transcendent and mystical. Spiritual perspectives arising in science (quantum physics, chaos theory, creativity studies, biology, ecology), and other bodies of learning including art and alternative healing, are enriching our understanding of the spiritual dimension outside of traditional religious formulas. We need no longer to see spirituality as an arbitrary set of beliefs held by a select group.
A second factor helping spirituality to be more accessible to social work is that we are living in times of pervasive anxiety that is calling for a new vision of life. The dominant current outlook based on the myth of progress and control is simply not adequate to the challenges of global issues of terrorism, the ecology crisis, and astounding levels of strife including genocide and global poverty. In our local communities we observe the crisis of housing shortages, loneliness, and high rates of relationship breakdown, loss of confidence in institutional leadership and crippling poverty that exist in the midst of very wealthy communities. The ethic of individualism, with its claims for freedom and privacy, has lost its counterbalancing principle of connection that joins people to each other, to the earth, and to the cosmos as a whole. As Joseph Campbell puts it:
The psychological dangers through which earlier generations were guided by symbols and spiritual exercises of their mythological and religious inheritance, we today must face alone This is our problem as modern individuals for who all gods and devils have been rationalized out of existence. (1968, p. 82)
These unstable times are calling for a new worldview, a new paradigm that can assist us. Marilyn Ferguson argues that this new paradigm must include the of breakthrough science and the insights of earliest recorded thought (1980, p. 68). William Harman, President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences contends that this shift includes the creation of:
body of knowledge, empirically based and publicly validated, about the realm of subjective experience. For the first time in history we are beginning to create a growing, progressively funded body of established experience about humanity inner life particularly about the perennial wisdom of the great religious traditions and Gnostic groups. For the first time there is a hope that this knowledge can become a secret repeatedly lost in dogmatization and institutionalization, or degenerating into manifold varieties of cultism and occultism rather the living heritage of all humankind. (as cited in Ferguson, 1980, p.27)
A third factor that makes spirituality more accessible to social work is found in its origins. Social work roots in the Christian and Jewish charity movements of the 19th century; reminds us that the bridge to spirituality/religion is part of its foundations (Barker, 1992). For social work, it will not be enough to merely introduce greater and greater levels of regulation of practice or greater levels of results oriented research. If I were to speculate about how this new paradigm were to arise in social work, I believe it will not come from official leadership (universities, professional associations, major employers of social workers) but rather from a progressive consensus of social workers invested in the spiritual perspective. This may be particularly true amongst those in the private practice community and marginal organizations that embrace a spiritual mission. This will create a new path joining spirit to social work that will eventually become a well traveled road (Ferguson, 1980).4 There will come a time, I believe, when the spiritual dimension of social work will seem a self evident truth and excluding it from practice will seem inappropriate and even unprofessional.
Two Levels of Integrating Spirituality in Social Work
Addressing spirituality in social work can happen on two levels. The first order of integration sees spirituality as a more superficial issue of information about client experience. When a client speaks about their relationship with God or wonders about life after death following the loss of a parent or spouse, we are faced with questions about how we understand and respond to this issue. This level of spiritual work does not require the worker to have a spiritual perspective for him/herself and requires that they view spirituality as an important factor of client experience in the same way that we would see gender, race, or culture. Through understanding, we can use language, employ strategies and adjust our approach to the way that spirituality is presented. It encourages us to ask questions about how spirituality matters to our clients and how it is a resource for their success. Again, it does not imply a in on the part of the therapist. Instead, a professional may adopt a correct stance that is sensitive to the client spiritual perspective.
The second order of integration assumes that spirituality is a subjective experience that includes the experience of the worker. Like attending to the process of a client interview, it is subtler because it is focused not merely on content but on the experience itself. The social worker is not separate or neutral about what is taking place. The insights of quantum physics tell us that we cannot measure things in absolutely objective ways the act of measuring changes what we measure. In this sense, the initiative for addressing spirituality in social work practice is shaped by the worker beliefs and experience. This is a much more challenging, subjective and controversial area yet it is also the richest place of inquiry; it requires that we bring our fullest and deepest grasp of our selves into the work we do no holds barred.
Working with Spirituality on the Content Level
On the content level, issues of spirituality applied to social work can include: i) the use of prayer and meditation with clients; ii) reckoning with research that highlights the power of prayer for healing, and the health effects of spiritual practice; iii) the implications of non local healing (from a distance), energy work, explorations of consciousness including transcendent experiences, dissociative phenomena, mystical experience, altered states of consciousness; and iv) viewing agencies and communities as fields of creativity imbued with spiritual purpose.
Until recently, these areas of attention were a marginal aspect of social work practice. This is not to say that many social workers have not held their own personal spiritual perspective simply that professional associations and schools of social work have not officially addressed it.5 This is changing. The questions are being shared more overtly, the information and research more pervasive and compelling, the spiritual ideas more informed. There is a call to acknowledge these issues in such a way that we can bridge the rigors of good social work practice with the enriching dimension of spirit. It is also true that as we explore spiritual matters more freely, our confidence and vocabulary for dealing with such matters grows.
Creating a Bridge Between Spirituality and Social Work
The challenge to create this bridge between the wisdom of social work and the wisdom of spirituality brings up certain basic questions: