Effects of Social Work Practice on Practitioner Spirituality

deans publication

Spirituality is important to the lives of the clients, families, and communities that we serve. It is important that we have the knowledge and skills to explore this important area with them. The literature on this aspect of social work practice has been growing over the past 30 years. This research has looked at ethics related to imposing practitioner spirituality on clients as well as tools and models that incorporate spirituality into practice. However, one aspect of spirituality that has received scant attention is the effect of our social work practice on our own spirituality. Kelli Larsen, former assistant professor here at HPU, and I recently published an article in the Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work entitled ‘Effects of social work practice on practitioners’ spirituality’. We found that there were three ways that social work practice influences spirituality: practice can serve as a source of spirituality via new spiritual knowledge and growth; practice can support existing, fixed spiritual beliefs and values; and denial of influence of practice on spirituality. The article caught the attention of our new Dean, Halaevalu Vakalahi and was awarded the first College of Health & Society Dean’s Manuscript of the Year award. The article was co-authored by some amazing two graduate assistants, Christiana Chun (MSW, ’17) and Chloe Harrington (MSW, ’17). Read more about the project here.

Many of us have been taught that in order to center a client’s beliefs, we need to check our own and that the imposition of our own beliefs, religious or otherwise, on a client is not ethical. For me, this is where my training about spirituality/religion in social work practice stopped. I learned how not to talk about my religion/spirituality with clients, but not how to talk about their beliefs nor how to incorporate them into practice. Thankfully, social work programs are doing better at training how to engage with clients/constituencies about spirituality/religion and at providing models that support that practice. This is a necessary move forward for the profession. However, the emphasis continues to be unidirectional, focusing on limiting the influence of our own religious beliefs on practice. That is important, however, as social workers, we understand people and environments as having reciprocal effects upon each other. It makes sense, then, that the effects between practice and spirituality are not one way. The research study that Kelli Larsen, Chloe Harrington, Christiana Chun and I undertook was aimed at developing a more complete understanding of the interplay of religious/spiritual beliefs and social work practice by exploring how our social work practice influences our religious/spiritual beliefs.

This study was part of a larger mixed methods study that Dr. Larsen completed that explored a number of questions about social work practice and religion/spirituality with a sample of 527 surveys from members of NASW across the country. This particular study focused on the questions “To what extent do you feel your practice has influenced your spiritual development?” and then “Can you please explain what this means to you?” We then used guidelines for thematic analysis commonly used in qualitative research to find meaning in the diverse answers. That is where the work of Chloe Harrington (MSW ’17) and Christiana Chun (MSW ’17) was invaluable. We spent hours and hours reading the answers of the respondents and coding them in order to discover patterns in the data. We would compare our coding results and talk until we agreed about how to best capture what the respondent was stating. This was exhausting work. From this process, we created three themes that accounted for the responses: practice as a source of spirituality, social work practice as a support to current beliefs, and denial of any influence of practice on spirituality. Overall 41% of participants reported their personal spirituality was influenced by their social work practice significantly to very significantly, while 28% reported little to no influence of practice on their spiritual development.

Let me tell you, just briefly, about each of the themes. The first theme explores practice as a source of new spiritual knowledge, growth and challenges. Here social workers talked about how practice exposes them to different religious beliefs and practices and that this is an area of growth, as one social worker stated, “Experiences my clients have voluntarily shared over the years has broadened my understanding and exploration of spiritual matters.” Not surprisingly, we learn from our clients too! Social workers also talked about how their practice often involves entering into intimate relationships with others during stressful times and this gives the opportunity to witness both the pain and suffering that clients have experienced as well as the way that spirituality has effected clients.  Here social workers spoke about how witnessing, even second-hand, the trauma and suffering often necessitated spiritual reflection. As one social worker stated: “It’s impossible to deal with human suffering so extensively and not be moved and impacted. This is beyond countertransference. As we are witness to horrors of mankind, it sparks so much reflection and deep learning within myself.” Social workers spoke of witnessing strengths and resilience also and how that impacted them spiritually. The last source of spirituality that we found was related to the setting the worker was in. Social workers reported that certain practice settings had a more obvious influence on practitioner spirituality such as in hospice work and in the area of addictions work. These settings provide many opportunities, the social workers reported, to explore personal spirituality. As one social worker stated, “I deal with children who are dying. I have to seek some understanding regarding that.”

How social workers integrated these new lessons into their spirituality was through a process of reflection. One practitioner described how reflection helps to integrate the many experiences a social worker faces, “I’ve had a surplus of opportunities to reflect on and ponder about client’s life circumstances, more than the average person has had. This feeds my search for the greater spiritual development I’ve pursued in my life.”

The second theme was about how social work practice served to support existing beliefs, knowledge and practices. This occurred because there was a perceived close alignment between personal spirituality and social work. These areas of alignment acted as a mirror between one’s spirituality and practice, in effect confirming beliefs. Some examples of this alignment was in the closeness between the personal spiritual values and the values of social work as a profession; the choice of social work as a vocation; and certain beliefs that aligned. For these social workers, spiritual beliefs are confirmed through practice. Social work practice can confirm spiritual values such as empowerment, service, and the importance of human connection. Vocationally, social work was for some, more of a calling. One worker reported, “My practice has allowed me to connect my helping profession to my spiritual purpose to help heal wounded souls through talk therapy and empathy.” Finally, for some social work practice was described as a way for the divine to influence the world. For example, one worker said, “I have felt the presence of God in my work sometimes working through me.” For these social workers, practice reminded the worker of what they already believed.

The final theme talked about how social work practice and personal religion/spirituality are not connected. This was true for about 28% of the respondents. Some said that they wanted them to be disconnected. For some, having social work practice effect spirituality was akin to a kind of spiritual laziness, “My spiritual development was already in place before I started working.”

These findings were interesting to us all. And of course sparked our curiosity to know more. These findings suggest that we need to create spaces, in supervision, via our peer groups to discuss the intersectionality of our practice and our beliefs. As we wrote in our article: “Recent work by Holly Oxhandler (2017) suggests that lack of reflexivity on the part of the practitioner regarding this intersectionality of identities may close one to not being able to see the importance of those beliefs to

clients as well as to intentionally or unintentionally letting one’s own beliefs interfere.” Reflective practice and reflective supervision are methods that can further that understanding. Are we creating space in our supervision for this discussion or have we created a taboo on talking about spirituality? What about that 28% who see no influence between practice and personal spirituality? What are the factors that underlie this belief? How does this understanding of a lack of influence impact the well-being of the worker and the client?