Spiritual Leadership

In my 22 years as a professional social worker, I have benefited from the friendship, wisdom, and mentoring of Catholic sisters who are among the most credible and authentic witnesses to the transformative power of God’s love and action in the world.

Last summer I attended  a conference entitled “Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times” to celebrate the release of a new book of the same title from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). In addition to leading their own congregations, Catholic sisters lead social service agencies, advocacy organizations. universities, hospitals, schools, and many other initiatives which typically address very complex social challenges within an institutional-context. They walk a similar path to social work (many of them are social workers), and have much to offer to our profession in terms of models of organizational leadership. Given their objective to further the mission of the gospel in today’s world, their way of leading has particular resonance for Christian social workers.

Exemplifying humility in her keynote address, Sr. Marie McCarthy, SP shared that “Women religious did not set out to develop a way of doing spiritual leadership. [They] set out to live their lives with authenticity – faithful to our call, rooted in prayer, and deeply grounded in gospel values.” So for Christians, spiritual leadership requires living our call as fully and authentically as possible, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-4).

Sr. Marie noted that this way of leading is not really a model or style of leadership. She said it is “a set of dispositions, a way-of-being-in-the-world that, when fostered in the leader, contributes to creating an organizational environment in which deep, authentic transformation of the individual and of the whole is possible.

This set of dispositions includes:

  1. Taking a contemplative stance or “taking a long a loving look at what is.” A contemplative stance lays aside seeking, grasping, and prejudging. It can awaken us to in new ways of seeing and give authenticity to how we assess and respond to a range of situations, contexts and challenges. Sr. Marie says that a contemplative stance is “the heart of a leadership that is both spiritual and transformative.”

  1. Centrality of relationship: Conjoined with a contemplative consciousness is a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of everything , and the importance of being in right relationship to self, others, God, and all of creation. If we take the centrality of relationships seriously, we will better tend to the interpersonal dynamics in our organizations, task groups, communities and staff teams. We will see the role of leadership as a function of the whole and may be better able to practice inclusivity, collaboration and collegiality where “the group leads together, and the leader helps the group articulate and tend the vision. ” 

  1. Solidarity with those who are poor and marginalized: In her 2012 Presidential Address, Sr. Pat Farrell, OSF identified solidarity with people who are poor and marginalized as crucial to the prophetic voice of leaders. She offers that standing in solidarity with the poor situates us in the truth, keeps us honest, and gives us hope as we live in exile. (Leaders, especially prophetic leaders, often find themselves in exile.) When speaking of those in poverty, she asks rhetorically “Have they not taught us… resiliency, creativity, solidarity, the energy of resistance, and joy?” Being in solidarity with people who are poor informs how we engage as leaders with our organizations and communities; it calls forth the prophetic voice in each of us.

  1. Seeing Process as Fundamental: Taking a contemplative stance, the centrality of relationships, and standing in solidarity with people who are poor make clear that process should be central to our work. This can be particularly challenging for leaders who need to “get things done.” But part of leadership involves “living the questions in a discerning way.” And we can live these questions together in the community of our agencies, staff teams, task groups, or wherever two or more of us are gathered to help build God’s Kingdom on earth.

These four pillars of spiritual leadership deeply resonate with me as a social worker who strives imperfectly to live life, both personally and professionally, that is faithful and authentic God’s call for me. In this fast paced, technology-driven world, it is challenging to slow down to take a long and loving look at what is, to make space in our day to tend to relationships, and to take time to process with others our experience and direction going forward. For leaders who may be removed from the day-to-day experience of people in poverty, it is challenging to be intentional about making these connections and experiencing people who are poor and marginalized as partners in healing the brokenness in our communities and our world.

The articulation of these elements as components of spiritual leadership offers an important reminder (and pathway) for leaders that following basic Christian principles in our professional spaces (e.g., all people have dignity, the relational aspect of God, preferential option for the poor, the importance of prayer), will help us walk the talk of justice and leadership in the workplace.

Linda Plitt Donaldson is an Associate Professor at the Catholic University of America, National Catholic School of Social Service (see her faculty profile). She teaches courses in social policy, macro practice, homelessness, and social justice. She has been a member of NACSW since 2008.

No Fear of Bad News

Sherri S.Two days ago I was caught off guard by a post about ISIS putting men in a cage and lowering it into a pool to drown them. They made sure to have underwater cameras to film the agony and fear of their final moments of life. I am appalled and sickened – and if I’m totally honest, I am also afraid. There is no end to the horror and I sometimes wonder if the entire world has finally lost its collective mind.

As a social worker I know I need to be aware of what is happening in the world around me. After all, these are the things I am called to address. As a human being, however, I often find myself wishing for that one little corner of the world to which I can escape and never have to hear another news broadcast for the rest of my life. In my fantasy this is a little island in the South Pacific where the weather is always perfect and the sharks are well-fed and friendly. They bring breakfast to your little hut every morning in a canoe and there is nothing to do all day but swim and sun and fish and eat and sleep. Anyone want to book that vacation with me?

Do you ever look around you and think, “What is the point? I’ve spent ten (or twenty or thirty) years working to make the world a better place and it’s just getting worse every day.” Or, “What difference have I really made?” If we’re realistic, though, we know we’ll never change the whole world. I’m not sure we’re actually called to do that. We are called to the work for which God has equipped us. For some of us that is policy reform and change at a macro level. For others, it’s one-on-one work – the kind  that transforms the world for one person. That may not seem like much, but when you consider the potential ripple effects of a transformed life, it is staggering.

God’s plan to redeem the world has been in place since before he created it. Nothing in history has been able to derail that plan. Nothing. No insane, sadistic leader. No war. No natural disaster. No falling away of God’s people. There has always been a remnant that holds fast to the hope they have in Christ. Hebrews 11 is testimony to all those who trusted and believed.

This is all stuff we know and have heard our entire Christian lives, so why write about it now? Because if you’re like me, sometimes even when we trust in the promise, we get tired and overwhelmed. Sometimes we need to be reminded that in the grand scheme of things our job is not to change the world in our own power. Our job is to stand in the gap and stay faithful even when things seem hopeless. Even on days when we view the horror that people inflict on one another.

I believe that God often lets us view the fruits of our labor so we don’t become discouraged. I also trust that while we work in this earthly realm, God and the forces of heaven are doing battle in the heavenlies to bring about his purpose.

We must keep working, yes. But we must keep our focus on the One we serve. When I focus on the news and the things meant to strike fear into our hearts, I become afraid. Those forces of evil can begin to seem unstoppable but God has not given us a spirit of fear. In fact, the most frequently given command in scripture is “Do NOT be afraid!”  There are no extenuating circumstances where that command does not apply. None. Not poverty, not hunger, not homelessness, not cancer or AIDS or Ebola. Not even ISIS.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the scripture in Romans 12 that tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. If you are struggling with something right now, I urge you to camp there for a while and let God do His thing. For me, the transformation comes when I take my focus off those fear-inducing things for a while and instead of dwelling on defeat and despair,  I let God draw me to worship and praise. God is busy in the world, never caught off guard, and He is the unstoppable One!

Thank you for your service, wherever you are. Thank you for standing in the gap even when you get tired and discouraged and afraid. God esteems that and will bless you for it. Let’s remember to pray for one another. That is the foundation of all we do. As for all that bad news…

“He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.”  Psalm 112:7

Sherri Stone is a hospice social worker in the panhandle of Florida. She blogs about hospice at hospiceheartbeats.com and about life at sherristone.net. She is also a writer with a book about hospice and grief in the works. Her debut fiction novel, Sacred Ashes was released in May and is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Book two in the series, Secret Sins, is due out later this year.

Growing Use of Technology in Social Work: What Do Ethics Have to Do with It?

Nick Cross

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) last updated the Social Work Code of Ethics in 2008. As a point of reference (1, 2) that was when the Wii Fit and iPod Touch were released and the year Hulu launched. It was also the year that the Apple App Store was created and the year the Android operating system launched.

Yes, a lot has changed in 7 years.  And at a rapid pace. A document like the Code of Ethics is supposed to transcend time and be applicable in a variety of settings.  At its core, the Code does provide the ethical standards needed to thrive in today’s social media and Internet crazed society.  However, reading through the Code of Ethics, there are very few references to anything “electronic.” In the edition of the Code prior to 2008, there was one reference to technology in the Informed Consent section, and another in record keeping. Nothing has been added since.

As with other areas of social work practice, NASW created a “Standard of Practice” for technology.  The NASW & ASWB Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice was published in 2005.  I highly recommend reading through it at some point.  NASW has published many blog posts and other articles related to social work practice and technology, but nothing that would carry the same weight as these Standards or the Code of Ethics.

To me the below quote from the introduction really summarizes the entire document:

“Social workers should acquire adequate skills that use technology appropriately, and adapt traditional practice protocols to ensure competent and ethical practice. “

Below I’ve written a one sentence summary of each of the 10 Standards of Practice.

Standard 1 – Ethics and Values - Social workers should act in an ethical manner abiding by the NASW Code of Ethics.

Standard 2 – Access – Social workers should advocate for clients to have access to technology.  This also means that social workers need to present their services in an accessible manner.

Standard 3 – Cultural Competence & Vulnerable Populations - Remember that when you can’t necessarily see the client you are serving, you might not see the nuances of non-verbal cues and/or cultural barriers to treatment.

Standard 4 – Technical Competencies - Social workers should “become proficient in technological skills and tools required for ethical and competent practice.”

Standard 5 – Regulatory Competencies – Social workers are liable for laws governing their home state and the client’s home state relating to practice and any laws governing your method of communication.

Standard 6 – Identification & Verification – Make it easy to verify your identity.  And obtain offline contact info for your client.

Standard 7 – Privacy, Confidentiality, Documentation, and Security – Make sure you get informed consent related to technology usage in your agency and takes steps to safeguard data.

Standard 8 – Risk Management – Have proper infrastructure in place to protect yourself and clients.  Risk management, document everything and backup your stuff!!

Practice Competencies

Standard 9.1 – Advocacy & Social Action – Use technology to help advocate for clients, both collective advocacy and case advocacy.

Standard 9.2 – Community Practice – Social workers should be aware of technology and advocate for its use when it could improve the community or their client’s situation. “Social workers should strive to ensure access to technology and the benefits of technology for all members of the community.“

Standard 9.3 – Administrative Practice – Social workers should be aware of and implement technologies that can improve the administrative functions of an organization/agency.

Standard 9.4 – Clinical Competencies  - Social workers should understand how the dynamics of the Internet are impacting their clients, including feasibility for online interventions. How does using technology impact (good or bad) the client?

Standard 9.5 – Research – Research using technological tools should follow ethical standards and use informed consent to ensure privacy, and use technology tools that allow for high credibility.

Standard 9.6 – Supervision - All rules and laws governing supervision remain in place if using online supervision.  Supervisees should be aware of licensing requirements and standards for online supervision.

Standard 10 – Continuing Education – Online continuing education is valuable but participants should be aware of rules related to continuing education credits and verify validity of hours. Providers of continuing education should take steps to verify identity of practitioners and accessibility of content.

There is a lot to think about and dig through within NASW & ASWB Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice. I hope you take some time to dig deeper on your own. How have you applied these Standards within your current practice? What are some areas that you have questions about?

This post was edited from a published article by Nick Cross in NACSW’s July, 2014 issue of Catalyst. Nick Cross, LGSW, is a School Social Worker in Minneapolis and Social Media Consultant. He has been a member of NACSW since 2003 and can be found on Twitter at @mps_crossSSW.

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.

Sharing thoughts for Christians in Social Work