The critical need for
social workers today
by Janet T. Tyler, Ph.D.
The situation: A world of need
One does not need to venture far or search hard to identify societal problems. Access any print or electronic media source covering current events, and you’ll see the multitude of issues we face. Consider the complexity of conditions such as human trafficking, behavioral health, and child welfare:
- Victims of human trafficking are so difficult to find and identify that estimates from major governmental and humanitarian organizations ranged from 20.6 million to 35.8 million victims worldwide in 2014.
- One in four Americans struggle with mental illness or addiction — an issue so critical that identical bipartisan bills were proposed in both chambers of Congress this spring, designating millions of dollars to equip emergency services personnel, police officers, educators, doctors, and students with Mental Health First Aid training.
- Approximately 500,000 children in the United States are living in foster care, many of whose education and development have been disrupted by instability or trauma.
Today’s societal problems and the resulting needs are complex, especially in the face of diversity. In the US, we live in a diverse society which, by all indications, is becoming more diverse.
Although the spectrum of societal differences is broad, the term “diversity” still first evokes thoughts of race, especially lately. Consider the volatility of recent situations in Ferguson, Baltimore, and communities throughout the US.
Despite Americans’ diverse backgrounds, we continue to grasp at racial reconciliation and equality.
Consider the root of many of these race-based and other tensions: the socioeconomic inequality in our country, another aspect of our diversity. Over 550,000 Americans live without permanent shelter, compelling the highest level of federal funding to address homelessness in history. Last January, the Washington Post reported that “for the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of US public school students come from low-income families.”
In today’s context of diverse issues, demographics, and ways to serve, biblical social workers are uniquely positioned to address needs with both professional and spiritual preparation, honed by personal experience.
Consider the diversity of families compared to 50 years ago. Today, there are fewer new marriages, more blended families, and more single heads of households. Forty percent of babies are born to unmarried mothers.
Consider geographic diversity, thinking of urban, suburban, and rural environments.
Although the term “inner city” evokes thoughts of poverty and economic injustice, suburban and rural communities face their own challenges, such as client accessibility to community resources.
Such complex issues require those who are able to work effectively, on both domestic and international scales, with the unborn; children, youth, and families; mental health and addiction; criminal justice; gerontology and end-of-life issues; and the sundry other challenges people face. They must be prepared to serve where needed, equipped to encounter those different from themselves.
When America needs someone equipped to care, social workers step into the gap. But in today’s context of diverse issues, demographics, and ways to serve, biblical social workers are uniquely positioned to address needs with both professional and spiritual preparation, honed by personal experience.
Quality #1: Professional preparation
Social workers specialize in confronting these issues of oppression, conflict, and inequality. We develop skills in counseling individuals, networking to locate available resources and services, facilitating groups with common needs, and promoting change within organizations and communities. The diversity of social work services span micro-level opportunities (serving individuals and families) and macro-level opportunities (serving communities). Increasingly inclusive accountability for both professionals and students uphold and enforce high standards of practice.
These tasks of a social worker require strengthening abilities to effectively partner with others in a helping capacity. The helping relationship, whether between individuals or within a group, involves demonstrating in word and action respect for the other person, care about what happens to him, and willingness both to listen and to act helpfully.
Quality #2: Spiritual preparation
However, in the face of these challenges, professional preparation alone is not enough. Social workers constantly face situations that test and stretch us. Even seasoned social workers may experience shock as they hear about the struggles of another through open, frank, and insightful dialogue without equivocation.
We are vulnerable to both compassion fatigue, which can occur quickly, and burnout, which builds over time. We must show empathy in situations that are stressful to both ourselves and the client.
However, as believers, we can draw strength from God as King David did: “God is my strength and power, and He makes my way perfect” (2 Samuel 22:33).We can remember the sovereignty of God and trust Him. With a biblical perspective, Christians can rejoice in the God of our salvation, instead of being preoccupied with the circumstances that tend to overwhelm us. We have the spiritual stamina to endure through difficult service.
With a biblical perspective, Christians can rejoice in the God of our salvation, instead of being preoccupied with the circumstances that tend to overwhelm us.
As believers, the challenges we face are also promised to develop endurance and maturity. James 1:3–4 helps us to know how we should respond as Christian professionals: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
With this spiritual preparation, Christian social workers are able to deliberately and intentionally extend themselves to be involved with the oppressed and the disenfranchised. They bring unique resources to the issues, including faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, the model of Christ’s compassion, and motivation by a clear calling: “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35–36).
The Key: Experiential preparation
While classroom learning is important to cultivate key skills and a biblical world- view, we really learn how to minister to the needs of others through experience.
Experience is impactful because it incorporates the acquisition and application of knowledge. Goals for social work experience are twofold: professional preparation through advancing understanding of how to effectively serve others in a helping capacity and fostering awareness of gaps in available support services; and spiritual preparation through being humbled, stretched, and challenged.
These experiential goals must underpin every quality biblical social work program, including ours at Cairn University. Since the inception of the BSW program at Cairn, field placement has played a significant role in student preparation. Since the 1990s, our unique field placement model has gotten students into one-day weekly placements in both semesters of junior year, followed by a 32-hour weekly block placement in the fall of senior year. As a result, Cairn students’ field experience exceeds the requirement for even graduate-level studies.
These extensive field placements have enormous value, providing students with the opportunity for hands-on structured learning while being mentored and discipled by Christian professors. The learning environment allows for feedback to enhance learning, sharpening critical and biblical thinking. The program itself is enriched by the wealth of information about challenges faced by students, fostering discussion about constant adjustments and growth to the program, facilitating successful professional and spiritual preparation.
Faced with a world of complex and diverse needs, Christian social workers respond with professional competence and spiritual strength. By experiencing first-hand both difficult societal realities and the strengthening grace of God, they step into life’s hardest situations, prepared to care.
Originally published at magazine.cairn.edu on June 23, 2015.