Why Spirituality Matters in Social Work

Thursday, August 4, 2016
UNC Charlotte scholar’s new book seeks to integrate spirituality, religion into practice

Questions like “Why am I here” and “What is the meaning of life” are essential inquiries in many people’s lives. The intimacy and importance of such topics often leads their discussion to be limited to a scarce few places and times—spirituality and religion standing among the preferred tools for unlocking their mysteries. Even for social workers, professionals tasked with helping people navigate the personal challenges of their lives, whether and how to broach these topics has historically been ambiguous.

UNC Charlotte Social work professor Jim Dudley is trying to change that. It is precisely because of their intimacy and power to heal that spirituality and religion must become more closely connected with the helping process, he argues.

Like an instructional text in Spanish or French, Dudley’s new publication offers readers the opportunity to learn the language of spirituality in social work and, hopefully, to better help clients in the process. UNC Charlotte’s Wills Citty sat down with Dr. Dudley to learn more about the book and what he hopes people take away from it.

What motivated you to write this book?

As a professional social worker, I have always believed that a client’s spirituality is important to consider in the helping process. I have become more convinced recently that tapping into a client’s spirituality can be an important way of empowering them in the helping process. Many clients have spiritual and religious issues with which they need help. A book on a spiritually sensitive approach to practice, I came to realize, would be a special contribution in helping social work and other helping professionals take this topic on in a more serious way than they may have done in the past.   

Could you describe the difference between spirituality and religion, and why that difference matters in this context?

The book is about two broad concepts – spirituality and religion. Spirituality is an inner quality that every human being has whether they are religious or not. Religion, in contrast, is an external entity that has been socially constructed. Religion refers to institutional groups like the Southern Baptists, the Roman Catholics, and Islam.

These and other institutional groups promulgate doctrine, beliefs, and practices important to many people. Religion is important to spirituality because it is a major source for how many people express their spirituality. 

Spirituality should be viewed as a broad, multifaceted concept much like the concepts psychology and sociology. Many of the specific manifestations of spirituality in clients are important to explore and can come alive in the helping process.

Could you share some examples of how a person’s spirituality expresses itself?

Spirituality manifests in many ways relevant to the helping process; examples include:

Love: Possibly the most important specific descriptor of spirituality, love is the ultimate goal of most people, including our clients, in their relationships. Often with help, their spirituality can offer many ways to more fully experience love in their lives based on engaging concepts like forgiveness, transcendence, gratitude, other-centeredness and fulfillment.

Inner Peace: Related to hope, people have the capacity to both overcome and manage anxiety, inner turmoil, and personal losses by drawing from their spirituality. It helps comfort clients and others in the face of pain, despair, loss and ultimately in dying and death. A client’s spirituality can help them adapt to their pain and suffering as they come to view it to have deeper meaning.

Wonder: Wonder is a human emotion that helps us come to realize, at a deeper level, the amazement and numerous gifts of being human. Wonder also helps many clients to believe in miracles that can appear in their lives, and the overwhelming beauty and vastness of our immediate environmental context and the larger universe. Social workers can help clients discover and explore their wonder in their lives.

A Higher Power: Most people’s spirituality encompasses a Higher Power or Supreme Being to whom they can turn especially during difficult times. Most of our clients are likely to believe in a Higher Power. They are also likely to pray, meditate and attend worship services and other supportive activities in their church, synagogue, temple or mosque. Their relationship to their God can often be a relevant topic in the help we provide and prayer or meditation may be one of the interventions that can help them.

What kind of training do social workers need to integrate spirituality into their practice?

Ideally, a Spirituality and Social Work course can be available in Social Work Programs that provides a foundation of knowledge about how to implement a spiritually sensitive practice approach. Taking a concurrent field internship with supervision provided by someone who is experienced in practicing this approach can be an excellent way of learning how to implement the spiritually sensitive approach taught in the course.

Does this practice have the secondary benefit of allowing the social worker to connect with and understand the client better, and thereby be more effective in helping?

Yes, it can be very beneficial whenever clients voluntarily disclose aspects of their spirituality and possible religious affiliations. These revelations can be important in fostering a closer relationship with the social worker because they are likely to be important to a client’s identity. Also when someone’s spiritual self is revealed and positively received, it tends to bring up intimate material that can often strengthen the helping relationship. 

Does the integration of spirituality into social work pose challenges for those who are not religious or may ascribe to a religion that has something to say about the character of religious interactions?

Studies have consistently found that faculty members who are very religious tend to embrace this content area in practice. In contrast, faculty and practitioners who are not religious or spiritual are less likely to support inclusion of spirituality content in the social work curriculum. While the highly religious may have challenges withholding their religious preferences and biases in practice, non-spiritual and non-religious social workers may have challenges in wanting to ignore or minimize these aspects of a client’s life. Thus, educational processes need to give particular attention to the tendencies of both groups so that both will be capable of effectively helping their clients totally based on the clients’ needs.  

If readers walk away with one thing from this book, what do you hope that is?

A much greater awareness of the importance of the spirituality of our clients and how to infuse spirituality into the helping process.


Dr. Jim Dudley is a Professor Emeritus of Social Work at UNC Charlotte and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in North Carolina. Spirituality Matters in Social Work is available for purchase here.