“Have a blessed day.” “Maybe we could just shake on it.”

24 01 2011

I was raised Catholic. went through periods of time when I was angry with the Church, and wouldn’t go for a while, but I always found my way back.

It’s been a few years since that. I’m now pretty comfortable identifying as an atheist.

I try not to be an asshole about it. Let’s face it, a lot of people are. I hate constantly having to hear about how sunshine is actually the smile of Jesus upon us, but it’s equally annoying to have to listen to a diatribe about how the Pledge of Allegiance didn’t include “under God” until 1954 and our nation is being brainwashed.

Um, that’s nice, SocialJerk, but what does this have to do with social work?

Thank you for keeping me on topic.

Religion comes up a lot. It’s what The View would call a hot topic. Sometimes, it comes up more often than I think it should.

We always want to start where the client is. We want to work with what’s important to them, identify their natural support systems, and help them to help themselves.

For some people, religion is a big part of this. I worked with one woman whose church prevented her from being evicted by loaning her the money to pay off her rental arrears. Her son made a lot of friends in Sunday School after moving from Ghana. It gave them a community.

So we used that, as much as we could. I felt much better closing her case and stepping out of her children’s lives knowing that her religious community was there.

My director loved this. Because he loves him some Jesus.

There are bibles, theology books, crosses, and bible quotes decorating his office. It makes me a little uncomfortable, because it seems kind of strange for a secular agency. I know that it would throw me off  if I went there for counseling.

But I don’t say anything, because 1.) He signs my paychecks and 2.) I try not to be an asshole.

My director isn’t all that uncommon. People go into this field to help people. A lot of people are inspired by their religion to help. It’s what got me into a lot of volunteering and assorted other do-gooder-ness (that is definitely a word) when I was younger.

But when it comes to being where our clients are, we have to check it at the door. For reasons of self-determination, and not losing that sweet sweet city funding. Your journey to accepting the Lord was beautiful, I’m sure, but how is that helping this woman to enroll in a GED program?

I usually try to hold my tongue. Recently, at our staff holiday party (note my position in the “War on Christmas”) I felt like things went a little too far. I was told that we were waiting to serve the food until our director came in to lead us in prayer and a blessing.

I’m sorry, am I back at Girl Scout camp?

I had to register my discomfort. A couple of my workers looked mystified. Why would anyone object to a nice Christian prayer before a meal?

Why indeed. Once I said something, another person mumbled that, he “doesn’t do that,” and a sane Christian colleague informed them that a lot of people don’t pray, so if you want to, why not just do it to yourself?

I was looked at like the Grinch Who Stole Baby Jesus’ Birthday Party, but we were able to move on.

As happens so often, My So-Called Life accurately sums up my feelings on the matter. Angela Chase once questioned cheerleaders, saying, “Can’t people just like, cheer quietly? To themselves?”

During group supervision, it became an issue again.

A coworker was sharing a particularly tricky case. We were all throwing out possibilities for helping this family. Finally, Helpy McGee piped in with, “Just tell her to go to church!”

Being an expert passable social worker, I tried to reframe this.

“You mean, ask if she goes to church? If she can get some support there?”
“Yeah, and if she doesn’t go tell her to go. They’ll do a lot for them there.”

Holy government funding, Batman!

“Or you could tell her to become a lesbian. The LGBT community is so supportive!”

Even if this wasn’t against agency policy, and even if I didn’t find proselytizing to be distasteful, it’s bad social work practice. Nothing would make me run for the hills more than a suggestion that I “just go to church.” I don’t know if a worker who suggested that could ever do anything to make me feel that they understood me.

What works for you does not necessarily work for me. I am a social worker because I believe that people have a responsibility to care for one another, and that our government has a responsibility to its people. I believe in human dignity, and that no one (except maybe the cast of the Jersey Shore) is beyond help.

God doesn’t factor in for me. And I’m fine with that.

I hope that my colleagues are as well.

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19 responses

24 01 2011
mjfrombuffalo

Exactly. I’m a Christian who will be the first to say “under God” wasn’t in the pledge until 1954 (and there’s a lot of us Christian believers in separation of church and state). If the client believes in God and finds church useful, use it. If the client does not want to talk about his/her beliefs with you, you leave them alone (unless you think they’re worshipping a deity that requires them to beat their children to death, of course). If a client is not connected to a faith community and doesn’t show an interest in church, you follow their lead and look for other resources. “Finding God” is not an appropriate treatment goal for reasons of self-determination, not just funding source.

Worst example I’ve heard was MSW speaking to severely depressed teen who went off his meds and hadn’t left his room in days. She reportedly told him, after an hour’s conversation, that she didn’t think he really needed the meds after all, he just needed to go to church more. Offering God as a treatment plan counter to medical professionals’ treatment plans is a good way to lose a client and one’s license (practicing out of license authorization), I do believe.

24 01 2011
socialjerk

Wow, that’s really bad. And bizarre. It really always comes down to self determination. There are plenty of times that I wish a client would do something, like cut a certain person out of their lives, or go back to school, or whatever, and it’s a struggle to keep that to myself when it’s not what the client wants. One co-worker in particular (there’s always the one) seems to feel that religious involvement does not fall into this category. Like I said, despite my own beliefs, I am happy to incorporate religious supports, if that’s what the client wants. I know other social workers who have really disagreed with their clients religious beliefs (for example, a woman who said that she did not want her husband to be a part of counseling, because she was waiting for God to change him) but we have to work with this too. So I try to be prepared for that possibility as well.

We really need to get after that child-beating deity. He’s simply no good.

24 01 2011
SW24/7

As a Christian and a social worker, this is a constant struggle for me – not as a Social Worker, but as a Christian. As a Christian, I struggle with how to resolve my own beliefs and values with what I have to support in my social work practice. But as a social worker, my faith is only a guiding principle of WHY I do the work – not something I feel is appropriate to push with my clients. (Unconditional positive regard falls right in with my religious beliefs that God has commanded me to love everyone.)

I currently work for an agency that recieves government funding, but is also affiliated with a church denomination and has “God” and “Jesus” in their mission statement. I enjoy that I work for an agency that doesn’t hesitate to pray before office potlucks or to ask a client IF they have a religious community to rely on for support. I never talk about religion with a client unless they bring it up, and never push one way or another.

I used to work for a completely secular agency – that was difficult because we were discouraged from ever talking about religious beliefs with our clients. Interestingly enough, I often heard non religious workers put down clients who had strong religious beliefs or cited church as a source of support. Its a fine line between respecting a client’s beliefs (or lack thereof) and promoting one’s own.

24 01 2011
socialjerk

We always ask about religious affiliation as a part of the culture-gram that we do with all clients. And it’s helpful. Some people get a lot of support through church, and I think it’s so important that we incorporate that.

I had one incredibly obnoxious client (I try not to think of him that way, but honestly, he was) who insisted that he needed to know if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I explained that we did not do religious counseling, so it was really irrelevant, all that, and of course he took that as a no. For other reasons, I did not ultimately wind up working with him, but I can just think of what a challenge it would have been. I’m not sure how we would have managed–even if I had been religious, I work at a secular agency, and we don’t do religious based counseling.

I also definitely know what you’re talking about, with non-religious workers putting religious clients down. I don’t see it at the agency I’m currently with, but I definitely see it elsewhere. Like I said, atheists can often be assholes arrogant. Keeping the importance of self-determination and positive regard in mind is very important to me in avoiding falling into this, both at work and in regular life.

24 01 2011
cb

This is a really interesting perspective as I have come across very very few social workers here who are religious. Many who are, tend not to make it public. As an atheist jew, I would never dream of bringing my religion into work but I use it with people who have beliefs that help them and who mention it to me – if it is brought up in conversation and it will help an individual then I will discuss it and always with a great deal of respect – I am currently working with a very devout christian and it is very important that she links in with the community at the local church but to be honest, that’s a rarity. It is also absolutely crucial therapeutically that I am sensitive and respectful and value her beliefs.

I have to say, I’m a little bit uncomfortable about religion having any role in my work. I can work with it though. I just expect the same respect regarding my lack of belief (from colleagues).

25 01 2011
socialjerk

I am definitely uncomfortable using people’s religious beliefs in my work. IBut I am definitely down with using those support systems that they already have, but often don’t think to turn to.

That’s really interesting that you have so few religious social workers around you. My social work school was a place of sheer insanity, as I’ve mentioned once or twice here, and there was a pretty fair split amongst people who were in it for love of the lord, and the “Oh, I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” (Yawn.) Working out in the world, though, I’ve been surprised to find that most of my colleagues describe themselves as “devout.”

27 01 2011
sarahk

Wow, that is so inappropriate. Thank goodness almost all my coworkers are non-religious, and my supervisor is an athiest. As a formerly uber-religious person myself I feel VERY uncomfortable when people bring their religion into counseling or even case management. I am happy to support my clients in their own faith and religious social networks, but I keep to the policy that I do not share about my own religion (I also won’t tell you about my sex life, whether I drink, whether/what drugs I’ve done, the details of my dysfunctional family, and if I want to have kids) because it’s not clinically relevant and would most likely be detrimental to the work.

I have one coworker (not on my team, but in my agency) who is also a pastor and I know that some clients find him really helpful but I have seen so many conflicts come up due to it that I have really mixed feelings.

Funny that your school was so religious. There were just a handful of religious people at mine, and only a couple that were conservative or fundamentalist (boy, did they have a hard time). You can’t really get away with saying you think it’s wrong to be gay in a room full of social workers no matter what your religious beliefs are.

27 01 2011
Socialwrkr24/7

I don’t mean this to start anything – but I always wonder this when I hear social workers express negativity about religious people (especially if those religious people also happen to be social workers too). Why doesn’t self determination and respecting others’ beliefs not extend to Christians? I find it shocking that it would be deemed inappropriate for religion never to be talked about amongst clinicians – being that its something that could cause barriers/issues within our ability to provide good service and is a guiding principle in many of our clients’ lives. I have had to work hard to understand people whose principles are outside of my religious beliefs, but often don’t feel like those without religious affiliations work equally as hard to understand the other side. Just my two cents after hearing input from my fellow social workers above…

28 01 2011
socialjerk

Starting things is good! 🙂 Everyone agreeing is nice, but dialogue is more constructive. People (on all sides) are so sensitive about this topic that we usually avoid it with people who don’t share our beliefs, but I just don’t think that helps.

I think that because Christianity is the dominant religion (where most of us are) it can often be overlooked as something to really “work with.” A coworker of mine had a Muslim family referred to her, and she was very concerned about working with their beliefs and being considerate of their culture. I noticed how different this was, compared to working with a Catholic or Protestant family, for her. That made me think a lot about how I consider religion in my work.

I also think that a lot of this comes down to approaching a client genuinely. I have complete respect for their beliefs (except when their beliefs are disrespectful of others…that has been tricky to deal with.) But I know my limits as a worker, and while I can respect their religion and appreciate that as part is their culture and support system, I can’t communicate with them meaningfully on a religious or spiritual level.

I am happy to discuss religion with my colleagues. But I’m never going to be ok with being led in prayer. That’s just where I draw the line.

Thanks for reading and responding!

28 01 2011
mjfrombuffalo

It goes both ways. Social workers shouldn’t be expressing negative statements about believers any more than they should be encouraging non-believers to find God. Using ethnicity as a rough analogy, I’m not Latina but I can talk about the culture with people who are and people who aren’t – and I *should* be, since that’s how I can learn to better serve clients.

But just like we talk about right of self-determination for clients, we need to be aware of that with our colleagues too. I supervised someone Christian who wasn’t actively practicing and someone who was Muslim, both in an agency under a conservative Christian umbrella organization. Prayers before pot-luck might not have made them uncomfortable, but singing hymns or participating in an agency Advent-themed tree-lighting started to cross a line. When Christian staff are the majority, there has to be awareness and sensitivity to the non-Christian staff or the agency culture can become uncomfortable or oppressive for the non-Christian staff, who may not feel empowered to speak up… much like many of our clients.

29 01 2011
sarahk

I didn’t say I don’t respect people’s beliefs, or that I feel negatively toward them. My whole family is very religious and I love and respect them. I said that I’ve found it difficult to work with people who are overtly religious in their clinical work because it brings up a lot of conflicts.

I don’t have a problem with clinicians being religious at all, but to have someone who’s a counselor and also a pastor does create conflicts. (When I expressed relief that my immediate team is not religious that was about my personal comfort, not what I think is “right”)

As far as clinicians overtly sharing their religion, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Christianity or another religion. I work with Muslims, Christians, religious and non-religious Jews, and a few Buddhists (clients and coworkers). I think that overtly sharing your system of faith with a client is a bad idea, no matter what it is. Talking to clients about THEIR religious beliefs, on the other hand, is important and productive.

I have two coworkers in my agency that pray with clients, one is a pastor. I’ve seen that it can be very beneficial for some clients to have someone they can go to for that, but I’ve also seen harms. The boundaries that people have with these workers are often dangerously unhealthy, and a lot of our clients have personality disorders so boundaries aren’t easy anyway. Some clients attend the pastor’s church, and some of them have expressed to me feeling very guilty that they didn’t tithe there (even though they can’t afford groceries). They take his word as gold and when he’s not perfect they are crushed. They have a lot of guilt about sins and often aren’t honest with him because they fear being judged (but then will come to me and say, “I can’t tell so-and-so about this, but…”)

Aside from that, it creates an environment that perpetuates some of the problems in our society. My gay clients feel extremely uncomfortable interacting with staff who are pastors or express strong religious beliefs. You don’t have to come out and say “I judge gay people” if you make it known that you’re a conservative Christian. My Muslim and Buddhist clients feels judged by the majority of other clients at the drop-in center because they’re overtly Christian and find support in that from several staff.

So yeah. I stick by my statement that clinicians need to keep their religion to themselves.

28 01 2011
socialjerk

I didn’t mean to give the impression that my school was “so religious.” There was definitely a sector of religious people, who were inspired to get into social work by their religious beliefs. There were also a lot of atheists and non religious people. The largest group, though, was the collection of “spiritual” students who identified with no particular religion or sect. They thought that this made them better than religious people, I thought it made them more obnoxious 🙂

And I must say, most of my coworkers are great. The one who was so inappropriate…well, let’s just say I’m still trying to figure out how she’s worked here for as long as she has.

It’s a constant struggle to find that balance between genuine use of self, and sharing only in ways that are constructive to the work being done. Especially when it come to an issue as sensitive as religion!

28 01 2011
mjfrombuffalo

“You can’t really get away with saying you think it’s wrong to be gay in a room full of social workers no matter what your religious beliefs are.”

Um, yeah, some people can and do. Early in my career, at a training on working with LGBT youth and featuring LGBT youth guest speakers, at least one person with MSW after his name “pulled out the Bible” and preached about homosexuality being a sin along with his firm disagreement that LGBT youth on his caseload should be supported in their “choice” of lifestyle (his words). AFAIK, he didn’t suffer any reprocussions for his outburst… but since we were a program under a conservative Christian church, maybe the Powers That Be didn’t think they *could* deal reprocussions.

28 01 2011
socialjerk

Wow. That’s awful. I haven’t seen anything that bad, but I must agree that it happens. During group supervision, a fellow social worker brought up a 12 year old boy who had recently come out. Two other social workers immediately said that the kid was confused, and that they hoped he would realize he was straight and “didn’t want to be that way.” After I scraped myself up off the floor, a fairly intense discussion followed.

You shouldn’t be able to say that it’s wrong to be gay in a room full of social workers, but depending on where you are, it’s questionable.

28 01 2011
SW24/7

Here is how I see it – A social worker SHOULD be able to say “I think its wrong/sinful to be gay” in a room full of other social workers. However, it should be in the context of discussing how that social worker is going to set aside their bias and work towards meeting their client’s needs and maintaining unconditional positive regard.

I think when we assume that just because we are social workers, we are liberal (which I’m not) or that we always personally accept every other type of lifestyle or belief system – we do a disservice to ourselves as professionals. There are just as many differences amongst social workers as there are in the rest of the population! We should use those differences to meet the needs of society as a whole.

If all social workers believed the exact same thing, there would be large chunks of society that could get railroaded. If we REALLY believe in self determination, then we believe that it is okay for people to have opposing viewpoints to our own.

Bottom line – I’m okay with my coworkers believing/living/saying whatever they want about their personal lives. I am never okay with them pushing those beliefs onto others – coworkers or clients. But in order to to the best work we can, I think those differences have to be allowed to be expressed openly.

*Now I feel the need to defend myself by saying that while I am a pretty conservative Christian, I have no problem with anyone being gay. How dumb is it that I even need to have that disclaimer?

28 01 2011
socialjerk

I agree that we should be able to discuss our differences. And we should definitely be able to discuss the things that could present a problem for us in working with certain clients.

But at the same time, if a worker said that personally, they thought that African Americans, or women, or immigrants, were not as good as other people, I would be deeply concerned about that. I have the same feelings about someone saying that they, personally, don’t feel that it’s OK to be gay. I do work with people who have brought up the fact that they feel this way. We have discussed it formally in group supervision, casually at lunch, and at a mandatory staff training on the subject. But they still feel this way, and it comes through when we discuss gay clients.

I don’t know what the best way to address that is, I really don’t.

28 01 2011
mjfrombuffalo

@SW 24/7 – Yes, people should be able to express things openly… but my former coworker was not explaining his beliefs, he was stating his beliefs as absolute fact along with voicing his firm intent to make LGBT kids be “straight” one way or the other. There was no discussion of anything, it was “Gay = sinful choice” and just this side of condoning a parent beating the gay out of the kid. Sigh.

5 02 2011
Kris

I consider myself socially conversative, but I don’t think that its right for a co-worker to force his particular belief on someone else, be it coworker or client. We should be willing to serve any population, and leave your beliefs at the door. But that would be in a perfect world lol

6 02 2011
socialjerk

Absolutely. I think we’re just about at the perfect world…right? 🙂

Thanks for reading!

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