Christian Social Workers Challenged to "Shape the Shift"

( [email protected] ) Apr 02, 2004 05:02 AM EST

DALLAS --- The fifth annual event “Hand in Hand” sponsored by the Baylor University’s Center for Family and Community Ministries and the North American Association for Christians in Social Work, was held March 26-27 in Dallas, Texas with 145 participants from 11 states.

The conference was designed for the leaders of faith-based organizations across the nation to increase their awareness of welfare issues relating to vulnerable children and their families, discussing how can such faith-based groups provide help for them to overcome poverty.

The conference was organized by a series of workshops led by four renown speakers: Dr. Diana R. Garland, chair of the School of Social Work at Baylor University, Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, Deputy General Secretary for Research and Planning at the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Director of Family and Congregation Initiative and Carole E. Thompson, Senior Associate of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Garland during the opening address at the conference asserted the need of faith-based organizations to distinguish itself from other service organizations from the secular world as faith is being more recognized by social work today.

Garland pointed out how hard it was to include discussion of religious faith during her social work career in the past.

"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," said Garland, “Religion and faith had no role in the professional life of the social worker. 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.'

As Garland was explaining of the importance of differentiating the standards and practices that distinguish their ministries from those of secular agencies, she said:

"The public agency is responsible for serving all the children and families in our society. 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."

In addition, Garland urged Christian social workers to "shape the shift" in their profession.

"We need to be clear that because a religiously affiliated organization offers professional services, that does not mean it has become 'secularized,'" she said.

Garland also addressed the changes of faith-based organizations in terms of where they stand. Where as in the past, church-based social agencies have underplayed their religious identity in order to receive support, today some faith-based programs 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,'” she said.