table of contents | abstracts

Spiritually Sensitive Social Work: Key Concepts and Ideals
Edward R. Canda, Ph.D.


Social work is in the process of recovering from collective soul loss. Compassion, justice, and helping with are traditionally spiritual ways of living. Spirituality is soulful living but social work has largely become disconnected from its spiritual roots. Spirituality involves understanding the interconnectedness of all people; compassionate concern rises from soulful awareness of interconnectedness and the realization that self and others are inseparable. Compassionate help is a natural way of life, and human birth right. Attempts to formalize, systematize and employ natural compassion through large scale social institutions is a dangerous undertaking that has cut social work off from the traditions of healers and helpers of all cultures. The move towards technocracy has divorced social work from natural helping. But the renewed interest in spirituality suggests that social work maybe rediscovering its soul. Spiritually moves us towards the realization of integration of all our aspects while being in connection and communication with all others. Spirituality inspires a sense of mutual responsibility. The spiritually sensitive social worker is in harmony with the many stages and types of changes in human existence and is not close minded or confused by conflicting ideas. He/she realizes one must take responsibility for the effects of one’s actions. Spiritual sensitivity fosters an ethic of mutual benefit and social justice rather than selfish one sided gain. The spiritually sensitive social worker is socially active and lives and acts in harmony with the processes social change.

This article will focus on the development of spiritually sensitive social work in the United States. One of the distinctive characteristics of the American situation is that people from many different religious and nonreligious spiritual backgrounds interact within the social service systems. No one religion is promoted by the state and all people are given the right to free exercise of religion. The social work profession has come to realize that we need an inclusive understanding of spirituality that respects its diverse religious and nonreligious expressions. Further, insights for theory and practice of social work come from many different secular and religious perspectives.

In part one, I will give an overview of historical trends in the connection between spirituality, religion, and social work in the United States. Then I will give brief definitions of the terms religion and spirituality, as commonly used in American social work, and some implications for creative revisioning of the mission of social work. In part two, I will draw on key ideas about the nature of social change in Western and Eastern philosophies in order to provide a view of a person who is personally prepared to provide spiritually sensitive social work and social activism. This is not meant as a rigid prescription or sectarian belief. Rather, it is meant to serve as a thought provoking set of ideals and possibilities.

Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.

2001 Copyright BSU/IUC Journal of Social Work Theory & Practice