DALLAS (ABP) –Christian social workers face an unprecedented opportunity to “shape the shift” that is transforming their profession, a leading social-work educator told participants in a national conference.
Most professional social workers were trained in programs “that were allergic to any discussion of religious faith,” Diana Garland, chair of the School of Social Work at Baylor University, said in the opening address at Hand in Hand 2004, which attracted 145 participants from 11 states.
Garland described her 30-year career in social work, during which she struggled to define the role of the church in ministry to hurting children and families, a dimension of her vocation ignored by her teachers.
“Like many of you, my professional education did prepare me — finally — to provide professional child-welfare services, but it did not prepare me for the faith-based context for those services,” conceded Garland, the founding director of Baylor's Center for Family and Community Ministries. The center co-sponsored Hand in Hand with the North American Association of Christians in Social Work.
According to conventional wisdom, “religion and faith had no role in the professional life of the social worker,” she recalled. “There was no integration or recognition that religion and spirituality are a significant part of the human experience and of the culture of communities and families.”
But recent trends highlighting faith-based social ministries are transforming the way the profession views itself, Garland said. “Religion and faith are 'in' topics,” she reported. “Learning about religion and faith has become a requirement for professionals. It is a part of being 'culturally competent.'
“At long last, social work is recognizing that faith, spirituality and religious practices are a dimension of the life of the clients we serve. Religious beliefs can contribute to resilience and courage and cultural identity.”
Within the profession, Christian social workers need to differentiate the standards and practices that distinguish their ministries from those of secular agencies, Garland stressed.
“Church agencies have a different responsibility from public agencies,” she said.
“The public agency is responsible for serving all the children and families in our society,” she explained. “The religious agency is responsible for living out its calling, and that may be serving a few or all, but doing so as a way to point to its mission. …
“The church is not simply a resource for the government to serve in all the places and problems where government wants to step in. Our mandate for service comes not from the need before us or government officials who admonish us, but from the God who calls us.”
Similarly, public agencies reflect governmental bureaucracy and legal mandates, while religious agencies express “the congregation, which is a community,” she said.
“Religiously affiliated agencies therefore may be much more adept at services that call for involvement and location in communities, with volunteers and with social-work professionals who have knowledge and skills for working with communities and volunteers and congregations.”
As the identity and role of faith-based social programs remain in the spotlight, Christian social workers can “shape the shift” in their profession, Garland emphasized.
“We need to be clear that because a religiously affiliated organization offers professional services, that does not mean it has become 'secularized,'” she said.
Historically, most church-based social agencies have underplayed their religious identity “in order to receive support necessary for providing badly needed services” to at-risk children and families, she reported.
Ironically, in this era of faith-based programs, those church-based agencies are called “not religious” because of their public perception, “and funding is being given to smaller, grass-roots faith-based organizations that may not have the capacity or expertise to address the complex needs of our most vulnerable families and children,” she added.
“The very organizations that have been there for a century or more — providing sustaining care for the 'least of these' the best they could with the fallible human resources they could bring to their holy task — find themselves being called 'secular.'”
Garland called on social-work schools and religious helping organizations to provide new models for community-based child welfare programs that involve faith-based organizations and congregations.
“Congregations are wonderful resources in communities,” she said. “They have buildings, volunteers and a mission to serve their communities.”