As a Christ follower, it was my faith that drew me to the social work profession. However, I obtained my Master of Social Work (MSW) degree at a secular university and was disappointed by how often I had to live a dual life. I was a social worker during the week and a Christian on nights and weekends. It was rare that I was able to bring my faith into the classroom and never once had a professor address the importance of faith in the work we do, or with the clients we serve. Because of this limitation, I struggled in my career to find my place and meet the needs of my Christian clients. I just had never seen faith integration done before.
It turns out my experience is not unique. Over the decades the social work profession has grown increasingly secular, and in some cases, hostile toward the Christian faith. However, the social work profession has deep roots in the Christian tradition. Many of the first professional social workers were connected to churches and faith-based organizations. Their actions were motivated by Biblical mandates to do justice and to care for the widow, orphan, and stranger (e.g., Exodus 22:22). Scriptures like Matthew 25:40 and the parable of the Good Samaritan inform the social work mission to advocate for the basic human needs of all people, especially those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.1
Now, to be completely fair, some of the separation between Christianity and social work is both understandable and justifiable. In the US, mainstream Christianity has not always been synonymous with justice, equity, and care for the oppressed. Instead, individuals and institutions that proclaim to be Christ-centered and guided by biblical principles have too often initiated (or at least been apathetic towards) violence, oppression, racism, misogyny, colonialism, and white nationalism.2
Despite this complex, and sometimes conflictual, historical context of the social work profession Christian social workers maintain that our faith is a central factor that motivates our commitment to the profession. Nonetheless, Christians in social work continue to struggle with practicing and teaching faith integration. In too many cases social work students have never seen what it looks like to be both fully Christian and fully social worker. Although textbooks and research articles can help us teach faith integration concepts, real faith integration must be modeled and experienced.
As I am now a faculty member and director of a social work program in a Christian institution, I have discovered that I can be my full and authentic self and bring social work and my Christian faith together. Not only is this fulfilling for me personally, but I have been able to bring students along on this journey so that they too can experience what faith integration looks like. Here I would like to share one example of faith integration in action.
Church-Based Suicide Prevention
I am a member of a local non-denominational Black-majority congregation and the leader of our mental health ministry called The Bridge. In September 2023 I led our congregation in hosting a half-day suicide prevention workshop for congregants and the community in general. The topic of suicide prevention is deserving of increased attention as current statistics suggest that rates of suicide among African Americans (youth in particular) are on the rise.3 Although this event was something I was personally invested in, I knew that my social work students would benefit from the experience and exposure. I highly encouraged (and incentivized) some of my MSW students to attend and a handful took me up on the offer.
The workshop started with a catered breakfast and icebreakers to allow attendees to connect with one another. There was prayer, worship songs, and warm welcomes by the ministry team. This was followed by a Suicide 101 presentation that I led which included scripture and Christian concepts throughout. The base content for the presentation was provided by the Know the Signs Campaign which is an innovative approach to reducing suicide deaths in California.4 The presentation material started with an overview of depression, causes of suicide, and suicide terminology. Further, information on suicide prevalence statistics and risk and protective factors was provided. However, the Know the Signs presentation content was generic and lacked any cultural or religious relevance. Thus, I spent weeks prior to the event adapting the content to be more relevant to African American Christians. These adaptations included a video testimonial from an African American suicide survivor, increased focus on religious coping skills, and specific suggestions for what ministry leaders can say and do to respond to suicide in the congregation.
After the Suicide 101 presentation a panel consisting of clergy, mental health professionals, and suicide survivors shared their stories and answered questions from the audience. The questions were sincere and direct including “Is suicide an unforgivable sin?” The panelists shared their perspectives, lived experiences, and scriptural references to back up their points. The workshop ended with me leading attendees in exercises to practice strategies to recognize suicide risk and initiate conversations about suicide. All attendees were asked to practice making the statement “Are you thinking about suicide” to reduce their fears and discomfort with having direct conversations about this difficult topic. The congregation was captivated. Many took copious notes while others were in tears. The day ended with trained intercessors praying with those who needed spiritual support while mental health professionals consulted and provided resources to those ready to get help for themselves or a loved one.
At the end of the event, I checked in with the MSW students about their experience. One student commented “I’m so glad you invited us. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” She shared that she was raised in a Catholic family but has never considered how her faith and profession could intersect. She shared about her Hispanic family and the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide. She reported being more interested in learning faith-integrated approaches to mental health. Another student shared that she is a church-attending Christian, but she too had never seen mental illness or suicide addressed in her congregation. She was inspired to consider the ways that she might one day bring her faith and profession together. Altogether the students seemed engaged in the event and were moved to think differently about the connection between their faith and profession. Several students asked me to mentor them and help them navigate the profession as emerging social workers.
Days after the event as I reflected back on the suicide prevention workshop, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude that God had finally allowed me to bring my faith to my vocation. Even more, I wondered how different my career would have been if I had been exposed to faith integration experiences when I was a student. As a researcher, my hope is to begin to formally evaluate and understand the impact of these immersive experiences on social work students. Further, I hope to continue to encourage faculty to invite students into the process as they demonstrate how to engage in the profession within the context of their faith.
- National Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics, (2021), https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics
- Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019)
- Deborah M. Stone, Karin A. Mack, Judith Qualters, “Notes from the Field: Recent Changes in Suicide Rates, by Race and Ethnicity and Age Group — United States, 2021,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 72, no. 6 (2023):160–162, http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7206a4.
- Ashwood, J. Scott, Brian Briscombe, Rajeev Ramchand, Libby May, and M. Audrey Burnam, Analysis of the Benefits and Costs of CalMHSA’s Investment in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1115.html.