Spirituality and religion in social work practice

22nd April 2022
0

Ella Sheridan, social worker and Frontline fellow

In my second year of the Frontline programme, I undertook research for my masters which looked at the significance of religion and spirituality in social work practice. In unit meetings with my practice tutor and other participants, we often reflected on aspects of the social graces* model, discussing our own biases, and noticing the identities we were each drawn to. I found that religion was always relatively absent in what I brought to the discussion and I was curious as to why.

I realised I had an internal bias about religion, perhaps due to being brought up in a non-religious household, where my parents had chosen not to practice the Catholicism that was present in older generations. I began to reflect on this, and on how my individual upbringing and the gap in my experience could be impacting my practice. I saw my masters dissertation as an opportunity to strengthen this area of understanding and address this gap, in an attempt to understand and mediate my bias, which could become oppressive if unaddressed. I saw exploring religion and spirituality as essential to widening my lens and learning tools to support a wider spectrum of children, families and communities.

Here I’m sharing the key reflections and learning I took from my research.

Religion and spirituality

When I first started my dissertation, I originally decided not to include spirituality, as I thought it would make the topic too broad. In early research, I came to realise that I had not understood what spirituality meant or how to define it. For me, this highlighted the extent of my personal blind-spot and its potential implications for children and families. This was a key learning, understanding my own restricted viewpoint and widening my research to include spirituality, which I now saw as intrinsically linked to religion, but also very significant to the inner worlds of children and families.

In summarising fellow researchers, Linda Benavides understands spirituality as “a search for meaning and purpose, for inter-connectedness and transcendence, which can occur within and outside of religious practices, as a source of strength and ‘as an aspect of lived experience.” [1] As I moved through my research and continued reading about spirituality, it became essential to include in my dissertation. Families told me about experiences, beliefs and narratives which had clear elements of spirituality. I began to see spirituality as it had been described in research literature, as a protective factor which instils resilience for individuals, who can be empowered to seek reparative meaning and purpose, for example after adverse experience or trauma.

Children talk about religion and spirituality

Linda Benavidas also talks about a gap in literature when it comes to spirituality in children and adolescents, due to “the long-held belief that children and younger adolescents do not have the ability for abstract thought needed to contemplate spiritual issues” (Benavidas, 202). We can sometimes assume that children aren’t interested in or don’t have the mental capacity to reflect on topics such as the spirit, God, or the meaning of life. However, it is in a child’s nature to be asking questions, learning and creating meaning through the world around them – their families, their cultures, their communities – which also inform their perceptions of self.

Children discover and practice the world through their toys and through their play, which is a spiritual activity where they build and practice meaning-making. In a religious context, it is a protective factor for some children that they believe in a higher purpose, or a meaning for their existence. Beyond religion, many children and families believe in angels or ghosts, for example. If a child creates a story around a comfort blanket or favourite toy, they can assign a spiritual meaning – an object that is there for them, an object that listens, understands and comforts – instilling and validating their feelings and purpose. Empowering a child to lead play and listening to their perceptions can give us a sense of their spiritual world and help us to build their resilience.

Trauma theory is linked to religion and spirituality

Heather Marie Boynton and Jo-Ann Vis [2] led me to reflect on the link between religion, spirituality, and trauma (2017). If trauma is “a challenge [to] one’s cognitive structures and perceptions regarding worldview, meanings and purpose in life”, it is disruptive of spiritual development. Spiritually informed practice in dealing with trauma can really help children and families create new meaning and help them to recover. We can support a family to lean into religion and spirituality as a meaning-making resource, and/or facilitate a deepening of an existing connection faith through family, community, practice, tradition, practices or spiritual rituals. It’s useful to lean into spirituality or religion to create a new meaning so that the trauma doesn’t stay with them.

Spirituality and religion are often very important in family and community strength and can act as a form of resilience and protection.

My research has reinforced the importance of being aware of our own assumptions and biases. As social workers, we must remain curious and remind ourselves to continually read up on and explore topics like this. Although it can be difficult to find the time as a social worker, it’s important for generating new ideas on better ways to support children and families.

I’ve been struck by how often stories which relate to spirituality come up in the more casual, playful conversations I have with children and families. Many say they believe in ghosts or angels, for example, and listening to their stories can give me a sense for what their present looks like, as well as their more general worldview. For example, recently a mother told me how she had a photograph where her mother’s spirit appeared. Listening to her story asserted that she was grieving, but also gave me insight into the significance she saw in her mother’s visit. Her daughter, also in the room, had a different perspective. I see this as deeply connected to systemic practice, where we try to develop a better sense of the family system and the relationships at play.

Spirituality and religion are often very important in family and community strength and can act as a form of resilience and protection. As social workers, it’s crucial that we acknowledge how it can shape a family’s or child’s world, so that we can support them in a values-aligned way. By having these open conversations, you can better see the world that children are building – even something as simple as a comfort blanket can have a spiritual connection that can tell you so much about how they are feeling.

Read next: Talking about social graces improves social work practice


Resources:

*John Burnham and colleagues developed the acronym ‘social graces’ to represent aspects of difference in beliefs, power and lifestyle, visible and invisible, voiced and unvoiced, to which we might pay attention in supervision. The ‘social graces’ have grown since their original development and currently represent: gender, geography, race, religion, age, ability, appearance, class, culture, ethnicity, education, employment, sexuality, sexual orientation and spirituality, though the acronym can be more than a list. The intention is not that the acronym is used as a list but as a guide to consider the interacting factors that can inform identity and power and to consider the uniqueness of each person and consider how this interacts within the supervisory relationship. Having said this, the list-like qualities also are useful in reminding and making named, some of the possible unique differences to be considered about ‘otherness’. This list thereby becomes a framework for considering further aspects of difference.

[1] Canda and Furman, 2010; Benson et al, 2005; King and Benson, 2006; Crisp, 2008; Cited in Benavides, 2017, 202.

[2] The Routledge Handbook of Religion, Spirituality and Social Work edited by Beth Crisp. Within that, there is research by Linda Benavides, ‘Spirituality as a protective factor for children and adolescents,’ and Heather Marie Boynton and Jo-Ann Vis, ‘Spirituality: The missing component in trauma therapy across the lifespan’.