Equipping Faith Communities to Keep Children and Youth Safe

HarderJWeb0615When you read headlines about child abuse or neglect, you may feel powerless to help. None of us can protect every child, all the time, but we can take steps to protect the children in our homes, churches, and communities. It is the job of adults to do the strong and courageous work of protecting children and youth. We need to pay attention, care, and act. Who better than Christians in social worke to lead the way in this effort?

Faith communities often provide valuable support for people of all ages and all walks of life and are typically great places for children and families. Whether it’s a church, synagogue, or mosque – or a school, child care facility, or camp – attention to child and youth safety must be paramount.

Factors that may put a child or youth at risk are often complex and difficult to navigate: domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, among others. Any of us with children can acknowledge how the stresses of life can make it difficult to be good parents. Add ingredients like community violence, unsafe housing, or chronic unemployment, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Rather than be overcome by the immensity or complexity of the problem, let’s be moved to action. Let’s value all children we come into contact with—let’s listen to them, respond to them, and be a voice for them, when needed. Let’s reach out to youth—let’s mentor them, teach them, be a friend to them. And let’s assist parents—let’s lend a hand, be patient, and understand they may be experiencing more stress than we know.

As Christians in social work, here are some things we can do:

  1. Locate and read your faith community’s policy on child safety and protection. If they don’t have one, develop and carefully implement a policy that includes guidelines on the reporting of suspected abuse or neglect to authorities (see  some examples).

  2. Call your local CPS office or police unit and invite someone to speak to your church or group about child abuse.

  3. Find a safe environment curriculum to teach the children in your church. Talk with your director of children’s education about what you found.

  4. Provide parenting classes, support groups, and friendship for parents.

  5. Become familiar with resources in the larger community and partner with them.

  6. Start a prayer journal for the children and families in your community.

Every one of us has a responsibility to keep children and youth safe. Let’s be moved to action today.

Jeanette Harder, PhD, CMSW, is a professor at the Grace Abbott School of Social Work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Co-Founder and President of Dove’s Nest, a 501©(3) organization that works to “empower and equip faith communities to keep children and youth safe in their homes, churches, and communities.” Jeanette is passionate about child abuse prevention in faith communities, including the Amish; and evaluation of programs serving children, youth, and families in poverty.

Collective Impact – What Could It Mean for Christians in Social Work?

BeilJ1212Recently I played the role of “Top Chef” in the collective impact test kitchen at the Goodwill Industries International Action4Impact summit here in D.C., so I’ve been doing some research and thinking about the collective impact model of change.

In the human services world, collective impact is a well-defined approach to change.  Most useful for tackling complex problems, the collective impact model requires participation from any number of organizations, governmental leaders, businesses and philanthropic organizations who commit to a shared vision and goal. The representatives from the resulting group work together to drive continuous improvement, using their individual expertise in service to the commonly held desired outcome. Importantly,  ongoing communication in support of the collaboration is facilitated by what is often called a “backbone” organization charged with supporting the group’s effort and maintaining the integrity of the process.

As an example, let’s say a metropolitan area wanted to end family homelessness within five years (the shared goal).  Attending bi-weekly meetings organized and facilitated by a small non-profit that serves as the backbone organization, the director of public housing, several local housing developers, the CEO of the agency running the homeless shelter, the director of public welfare, the president of the community college, the director of the homelessness prevention program, the director of the community foundation, the superintendent of schools (you get the idea) agree to mutually reinforcing activities and a shared set of metrics to evaluate progress.  Each doing what they do best, reporting regularly on the barriers and successes, and tweaking the plan along the way, the community slowly but steadily moves forward toward their shared goal.

The model makes perfect sense and done correctly has been shown to work.  It does require public will, serious commitment, and considerable resources.  It’s not easy.  But if it shows results against what have heretofore seemed to be intractable societal problems, why aren’t we all using it in our communities?

While I leave you to ponder that question, I’d like to turn my attention to the potential “collective impact” of Christian social workers.  Let me be clear from the start.  I’m not talking here about proselytizing.  I’ve always seen my role as a social worker, not only in direct service, but also in administration, as being the heart and hands of Christ in the world today.  We have the potential to convey to those with whom and for whom we work that they have dignity and value; that their lives matter.  In our “throw away” culture, where so many people are considered expendable, where human rights are so readily trampled upon, and where the political or financial power of the few overwhelms concern for the common good, we are called to be salt for the earth and light for the world.

I’m sure there are many reading this blog post today who sincerely believe, like I do, that they are faithfully doing their best to bring the good news to those they encounter…one by one, day after day.  And yet, our world is wounded; its problems seemingly intractable.  Perhaps we need to start thinking about how to achieve collective impact.  What might be our agreed upon goals?  How can we measure success?  What tools should we be using to communicate with each other effectively, to support each other, to help eliminate barriers and celebrate successes?  What entity(s) can take the role of the “backbone” organization to keep us all focused?

While probably not the answer to all of our questions, the recently-formed NACSW member interest group focused on poverty alleviation might be a place to begin to investigate the potential of collective impact on the goal of educating and supporting churches and faith groups to play a more active, vital role in joining broader community and societal efforts to combat poverty locally, domestically, and around the world.

As the Vice President for Programs and Services since 2005, Jean Beil, is responsible for program development, implementation and evaluation for Catholic Charities USA, the national office for the network of more than 2,700 Catholic Charities agencies and institutions working to reduce poverty in America and serving over 9 million people of all faiths each year.  Jean is a licensed clinical social worker with experience in mental health and services to homeless individuals and families.  She has dual master’s degrees in Social Work from NYU and in Religion from LaSalle University. Jean has been a member of NACSW since 2007.

Listening Together:  Discerning Dialogs and Convicted Civility


SingletaryJCEU0315Lutheran Martin Marty once said, “People who have strong convictions these days aren’t very civil, and people who are civil often don’t have very strong convictions. What we need is ‘convicted civility.’”

A few years later, Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw turned this concept into his book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Mouw was inviting Christians to contribute more to the solutions than the problems our culture wars often perpetuate. He encouraged us to communicate in new ways when we disagree with others on the issues that matter most to us.

Since then many Christian and other leaders are still trying to learn the spiritual practice of convicted civility. In NACSW life, we have our moments of losing sight of this practice, but by and large, I feel that we maintain strong convictions and at the same time live in a civil manner reflective of the love and grace of the Christ we seek to follow.

Still, we know this practice is difficult. Last Fall, a colleague and I undertook a study of the lived experiences of people of Christian faith who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. A year into this study we are learning that LGBT Christians love sharing their testimonies of grace, their sense of vocation, and their struggles of living in Christian community when their brothers and sisters might not want to hear their stories.

As social workers and researchers, we are seeking to learn what competent practice means when serving people who are LGBT. The opportunity this has presented is further dialog among members of NACSW, including our LGBT sisters and brothers, as we seek to be fully faithful and fully loving.

In recent years, Regent University professor Mark Yarhouse has been promoting convicted civility with regards to conversations about homosexuality. He goes to great lengths to promote civility in Christian conversations about how we engage each other and LGBT sisters and brothers in these challenging conversations. At the same time, he maintains strong personal convictions in support of traditional Christian teachings about sexuality and marriage.

As NACSW and other groups engage these conversations, more Christians are stating that Yarhouse’s convictions do not represent the only Christian perspective. There are some with deep Christian convictions who struggle to understand the Scriptures’ teachings on sexuality and are convinced that living faithfully does not mean knowing the answers for others. There are others with deep Christian convictions who support homosexuality as part of God’s gift and calling. There are still others who believe the Bible may not be as clear as we have traditionally been taught about the nature of sexual sin and yet believe it is perfectly clear in terms of demonstrating love and care for all God’s children.

There are multiple Christian convictions and we have to be willing to listen to each other’s voices on this journey of civility. Knowing that my colleagues with a more traditional biblical and cultural view do not share my convictions should not keep me from reaching out to them and my hope is that while holding true to their convictions, they can hear with respect and openness the voice of LGBT Christians. It is part of my conviction that true civility, and true Christian community, demand it.

Our multiple perspectives on experiences and views of sexuality should not detract us from our common vision of supporting faithful professional growth and development together. I spent too many years avoiding meaningful conversations of difference because I was afraid my perspective would not be valued. Today, I have a much greater trust that God is honored by our attempts at working together to be faithful. My hope is that what begins as conversations of convicted civility will be transformed by God’s grace into much more meaningful dialogues of discernment.

As such, may we learn to listen in new ways and hear God’s voice anew. Here is my prayer as we venture forth on our journey of faith together.

 O God, as we seek to integrate our faith in all aspects of our lives, may listening to one another give us an opportunity to better listen to You. May we begin with a common commitment to loving you and loving all of your children. May we begin with valuing each other and believing we have much to learn from each other. And, may we begin together at the feet of your Son, the Christ, who calls us to serve all. Amen.

Jon Singletary, PhD, MSW, MDiv serves as the Diana R. Garland Endowed Chair for Child and Family Studies and as Associate Dean for Graduate Studies in the Baylor School of Social Work.  His research focuses on a variety of social issues as they intersect with faith.  He served as pastor and in a variety of congregational ministry settings before joining the Baylor faculty 12 years ago.  At Baylor he has directed the Center for Family and Community Ministries. Jon has been a member of NACSW since 2001.

Two Questions You Must Answer: Who do Men Say You Are? And Who Are You?

Adedoyin, ChristsonAt the beginning of every semester, I usually handout a 3-by-5 index card to each of my students, and ask them to write down their answers to four questions: (i) What is your purpose in life? (ii) What are your reasons for taking this course?  (iii) How does this course contribute to your life’s purpose?  and (iv) What are your expectations of the professor? In almost a decade of teaching and doing the 3-by-5 index card exercise in social work courses in public institutions, most students affirm that their purpose in life is somehow related to serving the vulnerable, and fighting injustice.

In my new employment at a Christian University I repeated the 3-by-5 index card exercise with the expectation that Christian students would answer the questions about their life’s purpose differently. Surprisingly, most Christian students stated that they are still searching for their specific purpose in life, even though they boldly, and unashamedly profess their faith in Jesus Christ.

I wrongly assumed that students in Christian institutions would have been exposed to professors, courses, and other faith-integration activities that would have helped the students develop an identity based on their professed faith and their pursuit of purpose. I expected that Christian students would have a clear sense of purpose, live purposefully, and manifest their purpose as part of the great commission. Then it occurred to me: as a Christian professor, can I say with confidence that I know my own identity, or who I am in this profession? That is, am I clear about my own God-given identity which authorizes me to pursue my perceived calling as a Christian social work professor/practitioner? If I cannot answer the identity question of who I am, how then can I help my students know who they are?

To answer this question about our identities – that is, who we truly are – there are two inquiries that beg for our careful attention. First, the question our Lord Jesus Christ asked his disciples in Matthew 16:18 is the same question I pose to you: “Who do men say you are?” Like the disciples, you will likely answer this question by telling me the nice things students, clients, and colleagues have said about you.

The majority of us most often define our identities by our “flesh and blood” answers, that is, our academic, and/or, professional qualifications, which unfortunately are irrelevant to our divinely appointed identities. Jesus Christ told his disciples that our true identities are revealed by our Father who is in heaven.

The second question is: “Who does God say you are?” Answering this question, and understanding your God-given identity, helps every Christian social worker to know who they truly are, as well as the specific assignments to which they are called. We find some examples of this in the Scriptures. For instance, the revealing of the identity of Peter as a rock, and his apostolic role in the future of the Church of Jesus Christ. This example clearly indicates that our God-given identity is not the same as our “flesh and blood” identity, and the revelation of who God says we are is what we should build our professional calling on.

As we continue to serve as Christian social work professors and practitioners, it is important to pause and ask ourselves: “Is who men say I am the same as who God says I am?” I pray the Lord will give you an answer of peace.

Christson Adedoyin, MSW, PhD is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. He has been a member of the NACSW since 2007.

God’s Great Gift: Redeeming Missed Opportunities

Rhonda-HudsonI have had the honor and privilege of serving on the praise team at my church for many years now. As I was ministering one week ago, my eyes looked out, and I saw a man who I knew; for some reason, I focused on him, realizing I had not had a conversation with him in quite a while. He was serving as an usher at the back of the church. I meant to say hello to him at the end of the service, but by the time I exited the stage, he had already left.

On Saturday, less than a week later, I walked a 5K. When I opened Face book, I learned that he had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly  very early that morning. He had traveled out of town for the weekend, become ill, and died of a pulmonary embolism. What was even more shocking was that he was only 39 years old.

As I read the flood of posts remembering him, I learned about  the tremendous impact he had, not only for so many in our church, but also in our community. He had been a large, teddy-bear sized man who had a great big heart for children. He would fit his large frame into the primary chairs in the 1st -3rd grade room, and was an expert in relating to his pupils, and they loved him! He even took some of the boys fishing, and acted as a father figure to those who had no dad in the home. Indeed, he was also a great fisherman, and he shared his sense of humor and skill with a group of guys who loved him as much as if they were his natural family. He shared the fish he caught in an excellent gumbo with many in our church. He was a great man of God, full of integrity and fun.

On Sunday, the day after I learned of his death, I looked back in the direction that I had seen him last week. I realized the magnitude of the missed opportunity to talk with him to say thanks for all that he has meant to so many.

Although I am not able to do that with him, this missed opportunity has taught me to become more intentional about speaking my formerly unspoken genuine thoughts of my appreciation, love and support to those in my world. I have committed to using my voice more to express my genuine appreciation and encouragement, and trust God to remind me of how important it is.

I am thankful that God’s mercies are new every morning, and we all have an opportunity to share our genuine inner-most thoughts of appreciation and love to those who bring meaning to our lives.  Let’s all commit to take advantage of every opportunity the Lord allows, and not take this great gift for granted, as I did less than a week ago.

Rhonda is a professor in the School of Social Work at Union University, in Jackson, TN. She teaches several courses in the curriculum, including Human Behavior in the Social Environment, and Research & Statistical Methods. She formerly worked with HIV+ clients in Miami, FL before earning her PhD, and serving in academia. She is mom of three young men, Percy, Ronald and Ryan.

Sharing thoughts for Christians in Social Work