Clinical Social Work as a Window to God’s Love

By David Williamson.

In many of my previous posts on faith and work, I have found it helpful to explore the specific ways in which different types of workers exercise God’s creative gifts, with a focus on the skills and competencies needed for the work. This helps us see the different ways in which God’s character and mission are embodied in our work. Today I want to bring that closer to home.

I have long been an enthusiast for career assessment. In their formative years for determining career direction, I encouraged each of our then-college-age children to do their own career assessments. Each one did, and now are mid-career adults in careers that had been identified with their skills and interests.

One is now a clinical social worker for families where a child has a significant physical limitation. Recently, she listed the primary skills that she exercises through her work. She is skilled at understanding and accessing practical psycho-social support for the children and their families.

Throughout her life, my daughter has consistently demonstrated a deep desire to serve others. In college, during a J term, she worked with children in an elementary school in perhaps the poorest neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya.

In each setting, from Nairobi to her current position, she reflects something of Jesus’ attention to children. It is a reminder of Jesus’ invitation: “Let the children come, forbid them not, for such is the Kingdom of heaven” (Luke 18:16). She likes working with special-needs children and their families at the hospital, or coaching in a soccer program that is designed for children with disabilities. And now, her own daughter participates with her in this program, as well as with Young Life Capernaum.

This care for children extends to reassuring their parents who are themselves often overwhelmed as they try to provide skilled and caring support. This means accessing appropriate resources to help families maintain or develop healthy family-living skills. She carefully and graciously invites the children and their family to access the resources of the larger community. In doing so, she is living out the second commandment that God gave to his people, from Moses and the exodus to Jesus and the community of God’s people. We have been and are continued to be called to “love God” and to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Perhaps the prime expression or activity of loving neighbor through meeting the psycho-social-spiritual needs of others is that of listening. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic book Life Together, states: “The first service one owes in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that he not only gives us his word, but also lends us his ear” (p. 97). The work of love has been given to us by the one who is himself the Great Listener. We share Christ’s work when we carefully (care-fully) listen.

As a social worker, my daughter does this with natural and trained skill and eagerness. This listening is comprehensive and includes paying attention to important non-verbal cues, including behavior, tone of voice, and affect. She is trained to listen carefully to what is said and not said, discerning the larger message. She reflects faithfulness to God in skilled care-full listening to the context and the whole situation.

Having listened accurately, she can offer words of genuine knowledgeable encouragement and guidance, which Bonhoeffer calls “active helpfulness.” This means, initially, expressions of practical support to the family, managing the freedom of the children and their families by being modest in intervening, encouraging each member of the family to be appropriately responsible, and maintaining each person’s freedom and autonomy. Responsible clinical social work attends to and respects the individuals’ nature and endowment, including weaknesses and oddities. As Bonhoeffer says, this “means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept and affirm it, and bear with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.” (p. 101). The New Testament calls us to “walk with all lowliness and meekness with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). The other’s freedom is essential.

Doing this effectively involves relinquishing control. It is humbling, and a relational skill – enhanced by training, but often fairly natural. Self-awareness is important. And carefulness must be exercised, so as not to impose one’s own experience or “expertise.”

A highly skilled effective Clinical Social Worker develops a special sense of being “together” with the client and family: no superiority, but relating human to human. This calls the social worker (and each of us as followers of Jesus) to be open and honest, accepting ourselves as well as the other. This involves humbly but genuinely learning from the client – social worker and client working together, in humility, led by the truth and guided by the Holy Spirit.

This humble, mutually serving, listening, caring relationship becomes the foundation upon which the clinical social worker can do the more particular work of resourcing and supporting the family. It is a special skill and benefits from special training, but also a sense of depending on and demonstrating God’s personal love.

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