As the New Year begins, many of us look to the hopeful possibilities of the future.  The New Year can be a catalyst to start over and grasp the future that will serve us best.   I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I was thinking about what I could focus on in my clinical practice, in order for me to be a better social work practitioner.  I was looking not to be a better employee or business owner but a better social worker.

I decided to focus on doing a better job of bringing spirituality into my social work practice.  Even though social workers are trained to look at the whole person, for some reason, it seems like a lot of social workers have difficulty including spirituality in their services.  Clinicians do a great job with the mind and body part of a person but falter a bit at spirituality.

Social workers are often confident with working with a diverse population so why is religious or spiritual preference any different?  Maybe a social worker is worried about offending their client.  They may be comfortable asking personal questions about their client’s sex life but spiritual life – not so much.  Sometimes social workers are so cognizant of not proselytizing or pushing their own beliefs on their client, that they just avoid asking the questions.   One I’ve been guilty of in the past is to avoid the question because I don’t want the client to feel like I’m judging them if they say they don’t have any spiritual practices.   Some social workers may just feel like they don’t have the knowledge of the individual’s religion or spirituality to provide guidance.

The field of social work has been getting better, overall, including spirituality.  Virtually any assessment tool that you find today will have questions on people’s spirituality.  Time and experience have taught social work that a person’s spiritual beliefs not only help them feel whole but can be a strength.  A person’s spiritual beliefs may give them hope or confidence for the future.  A person’s spiritual beliefs might give them a sense of belonging or connection to the community.

Conversely, sometimes there may be shame involved with religious beliefs or other barriers.  A person’s identity and history is wrapped up in their spiritual beliefs.  If we fail to ask about someone’s spirituality we are missing a part of them we may be able to help heal.

Tips for bringing spirituality into your social work practice…

  • Get to know yourself and your beliefs.

Take a personal inventory.  Who are you spiritually?   Examine to see if you have spiritual or religious beliefs that would counteract you helping in certain situations.  It is OK (imperative really) to know if there are certain backgrounds or situations that you can’t effectively practice in.

  • Always ask about Spiritual and Religious beliefs.

Assessment is an ongoing process so make sure to include questions about spirituality. My experience has been most people want to speak about their spiritual life.  Many have very little opportunity to do so. This is often an unexplored area even if someone is devoutly religious.

  • Educate yourself and keep learning.

One of my favorite things about being a social worker is I learn about so many different ways of life.  When someone brings up a religious or spiritual practice or belief you are unfamiliar with – learn about it.  Read about it.  Consult another professional who knows about.  Never stop learning.

  • Learn to find value in beliefs that are different than yours.

I supervise a worker who tells me that he has no problem relating to people’s spiritual journeys in order to help them.  Unfortunately, he often ends this declaration with “even though the client is wrong.”  As a clinician, you don’t have to subscribe to the same spiritual beliefs as your client, but be careful that you aren’t unconsciously being patronizing or humoring their spiritual path.

  • Spirituality does not necessarily equate as religion.

Sometimes a person’s spiritual life is very rooted in religion.  They can talk to you about the services they attend, and the rituals and holidays they participate in.  .  They can discuss how certain religious texts or teachings help them find meaning.  Learn to be comfortable with different religious practice.  Learn to be as comfortable with someone bringing a bible verse that meant a lot to them as if someone brought in a self-help book they enjoyed.  If you are unsure or have questions – ask.  If you are respectful most people don’t mind and even love to get to be the teacher.

Other times a person’s spiritual life is not tied to a specific dogma.  Some of the best discussions I have had with clients have been around their spiritual life.  I’ll ask someone who is an atheist if there is more to them then their knowledge and body and do they have a soul.  The discussion helps individuals clarify who they are and can help calm their struggles.  When a client tells me they are spiritual but not religious, I ask them what being spiritual means.  Some people have definite answers and others are forming their answers.  Both can lead to amazing therapeutic interactions.

Some social workers already do a great job with incorporating spirituality and religious.  Some even make it the focus of their practice.  My hope for the New Year, as I work with others, is to continue to help heal by honoring the whole person mind, body, and spirit.