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Exploring the Spiritual Dimension of Social Work


Michael McKernan, MSW
Director of Operations,
Catholic Family Service,
Calgary, Alberta




Social work’s response to the rising levels of public and professional interest in spirituality poses some important questions:

i.Why is this important to social work practice?
ii.What do we mean by spirituality?
iii.What are the obstacles posed by religious and spiritual traditions that must be overcome to honor social work values and wisdom?
iv.What research is available to help us understand the value of spirituality to clients?
v.How can spirituality help us to serve our clients?

Based on research conducted as a Muttart Fellow, the writer uses these questions as a framework for exploring the role and significance of spirituality in social work. The article ends with specific, applied benefits that a credible spiritual perspective brings to social work practice.


Exploring the Spiritual Dimension of Social Work

To be human means to be spiritual. Human beings have longings and aspirations that can be honored only when the person’s spiritual capacity is taken seriously. (Gratton, 1995)

Popular interest in spirituality has experienced a rapid growth in recent years. This subject has occupied the top of the bestseller lists in bookstores, become a common theme of entertainment media, and is featured in many professional conferences and training programs for human service workers. Notice of this trend prompted well-known journalist, Bill Moyers to comment, “Any journalist worth his salt knows that the real story today is to define what it means to be spiritual. This is the biggest story—not only of the decade but of the century.” (Keen, 1994, p.22)

The demographics of this popular interest in spirituality is revealing as well. A 1996 survey by the Fetzer Institute and the Institute of Noetic Sciences lead to the conclusion that there were 20 million Americans referred to as “cultural creatives” concerned with psychology, spiritual life and self-actualization. (Simpkinson & Simpkinson, 1988) Research conducted by Reg Bibby (2002) found that while the vast majority of Canadians believe in God (86%), a very small number actually attend church regularly (17%).1 These figures represent a sharp drop in the past 40 years prompting Bibby to observe: “Something is wrong. Canadians are asking religious questions at a time when the nation’s churches have never been emptier.” (Bibby, 1995, p. xviii)

By the figures above, many of our social work clients have spiritual beliefs of great importance to them. It is not much of a leap, then, to suggest that human services, including social work, psychology and psychiatry have become the place most commonly turned to in times of crisis – we have inherited a role that was once reserved for priests and ministers. Like it or not, social workers are being challenged to honor the spiritual issues woven into the concerns clients bring to us. Yet, it is my impression that we currently lack the credible and accessible means of integrating spirituality into social work practice. This has implications for client engagement as well as access to the resources that a client’s spiritual beliefs and experience can offer.

This article summarizes findings from a one-year fellowship that explored the spiritual dimension of family service work (McKernan, 2004)2. The discussion that follows identifies the challenges that current spiritual trends present to social work, the task of building a bridge joining the wisdom of social work and spirituality, and a list of some advantages for spiritually integrated social work.

What we understand as the “modern helping professions” are relative new comers to the business of serving human needs. While social work and psychology have been reckoning with human experience for a little over a century, spiritual traditions (including major organized religions, shamanic, esoteric or hidden and mystical traditions) have been refining their grasp of the cosmos and human healing for millennia. We cannot ignore the potential richness that this can add to current social work practice. For example, while modern social work presses for empirical validation, the scope of our inquiry into human experience is limited to what is rational, logical and empirical. This fails to do justice to the full human experience in the same way that dogmatic religion rejects empirical and rational inquiry. In recent years, the work of many writers and practitioners of healing have sought to create a credible connection between spiritual experience and empirical research.3

There are three important factors that I believe are allowing spirituality to become more accessible to the business of social work today. First, our connection to spirituality is changing. In addition to the information about spiritual practice being more accessible in many different forms, we are discovering new words and metaphors for speaking of the transcendent and mystical. Spiritual perspectives arising in science (quantum physics, chaos theory, creativity studies, biology, ecology), and other bodies of learning including art and alternative healing, are enriching our understanding of the spiritual dimension outside of traditional religious formulas. We need no longer to see spirituality as an arbitrary set of beliefs held by a select group.

A second factor helping spirituality to be more accessible to social work is that we are living in times of pervasive anxiety that is calling for a new vision of life. The dominant current outlook based on the myth of “scientific progress” and control is simply not adequate to the challenges of global issues of terrorism, the ecology crisis, and astounding levels of strife including genocide and global poverty. In our local communities we observe the crisis of housing shortages, loneliness, and high rates of relationship breakdown, loss of confidence in institutional leadership and crippling poverty that exist in the midst of very wealthy communities. The ethic of individualism, with its claims for freedom and privacy, has lost its counterbalancing principle of connection that joins people to each other, to the earth, and to the cosmos as a whole. As Joseph Campbell puts it:

The psychological dangers through which earlier generations were guided by symbols and spiritual exercises of their mythological and religious inheritance, we today… must face alone… This is our problem as modern “enlightened” individuals for who all gods and devils have been rationalized out of existence. (1968, p. 82)

These unstable times are calling for a new worldview, a new paradigm that can assist us. Marilyn Ferguson argues that this new paradigm must include the “insights of breakthrough science and the insights of earliest recorded thought” (1980, p. 68). William Harman, President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences contends that this shift includes the creation of:

…a body of knowledge, empirically based and publicly validated, about the realm of subjective experience. For the first time in history we are beginning to create a growing, progressively funded body of established experience about humanity’s inner life—and particularly about the perennial wisdom of the great religious traditions and Gnostic groups. For the first time there is a hope that this knowledge can become—not a secret repeatedly lost in dogmatization and institutionalization, or degenerating into manifold varieties of cultism and occultism—but rather the living heritage of all humankind. (as cited in Ferguson, 1980, p.27)

A third factor that makes spirituality more accessible to social work is found in its origins. Social work’s roots in the Christian and Jewish charity movements of the 19th century; reminds us that the bridge to spirituality/religion is part of its foundations (Barker, 1992). For social work, it will not be enough to merely introduce greater and greater levels of regulation of practice or greater levels of results oriented research. If I were to speculate about how this new paradigm were to arise in social work, I believe it will not come from official leadership (universities, professional associations, major employers of social workers) but rather from a progressive consensus of social workers invested in the spiritual perspective. This may be particularly true amongst those in the private practice community and marginal organizations that embrace a spiritual mission. This will create a new path joining spirit to social work that will eventually become a well-traveled road (Ferguson, 1980).4 There will come a time, I believe, when the spiritual dimension of social work will seem a self-evident truth and excluding it from practice will seem inappropriate and even unprofessional.

Two Levels of Integrating Spirituality in Social Work

Addressing spirituality in social work can happen on two levels. The first order of integration sees spirituality as a more superficial issue of information about client experience. When a client speaks about their relationship with God or wonders about life after death following the loss of a parent or spouse, we are faced with questions about how we understand and respond to this issue. This level of spiritual work does not require the worker to have a spiritual perspective for him/herself and requires that they view spirituality as an important factor of client experience in the same way that we would see gender, race, or culture. Through understanding, we can use language, employ strategies and adjust our approach to the way that spirituality is presented. It encourages us to ask questions about how spirituality matters to our clients and how it is a resource for their success. Again, it does not imply a “buy in” on the part of the therapist. Instead, a professional may adopt a “politically correct” stance that is sensitive to the client’s spiritual perspective.

The second order of integration assumes that spirituality is a subjective experience that includes the experience of the worker. Like attending to the process of a client interview, it is subtler because it is focused not merely on content but on the experience itself. The social worker is not separate or neutral about what is taking place. The insights of quantum physics tell us that we cannot measure things in absolutely objective ways – the act of measuring changes what we measure. In this sense, the initiative for addressing spirituality in social work practice is shaped by the worker’s beliefs and experience. This is a much more challenging, subjective and controversial area yet it is also the richest place of inquiry; it requires that we bring our fullest and deepest grasp of our selves into the work we do - no holds barred.

Working with Spirituality on the Content Level

On the content level, issues of spirituality applied to social work can include: i) the use of prayer and meditation with clients; ii) reckoning with research that highlights the power of prayer for healing, and the health effects of spiritual practice; iii) the implications of non-local healing (from a distance), energy work, explorations of consciousness including transcendent experiences, dissociative phenomena, mystical experience, altered states of consciousness; and iv) viewing agencies and communities as fields of creativity imbued with spiritual purpose.

Until recently, these areas of attention were a marginal aspect of social work practice. This is not to say that many social workers have not held their own personal spiritual perspective - simply that professional associations and schools of social work have not officially addressed it.5 This is changing. The questions are being shared more overtly, the information and research more pervasive and compelling, the spiritual ideas more informed. There is a call to acknowledge these issues in such a way that we can bridge the rigors of good social work practice with the enriching dimension of spirit. It is also true that as we explore spiritual matters more freely, our confidence and vocabulary for dealing with such matters grows.

Creating a Bridge Between Spirituality and Social Work

The challenge to create this bridge between the wisdom of social work and the wisdom of spirituality brings up certain basic questions:

i.What do we mean by spirituality?
ii.What are the obstacles posed by spiritual traditions that must be overcome to honor social work values and wisdom?
iii.What are the important factors necessary for spirituality to be accessible to well grounded social work?
iv.What research is available to help us understand the value of spirituality to clients?
v.How can spirituality help us to serve our clients?

The remainder of this article will use these questions as the guiding structure for exploring the spiritual dimension of social work.

Defining Spirituality

A broad definition of spirituality arising from this writer’s research is “Searching for a trust worthy wisdom that will connect us with the larger purposes and meaning of everyday life.” (Gratton, 1995, p. 6) This definition does not specify a particular belief but rather focuses on the action of seeking and experience. It addresses the bridge joining our particular experience with “the larger purposes of every day life.” This definition supports an expansive notion of spirituality that is not limited to a particular creed or institution. This more general sense of spirituality implies less concern with regulation, tradition or dogma and a much greater attention to experience. Spirituality may draw from more than one tradition or from no tradition at all. The weakness of this approach is in its lack of built in self-criticism – the absence of a specific belief reference allows for “beliefs of convenience” , “smorgasbord religion” or ,as singer Tom Cochrane mentions in his liner notes to Songs of a Circling Spirit, “fast food religion” (Cochrane, 1997). Spiritual ideas are not all equally valid and, like other perspectives to social work, must stand up to the scrutiny of the most informed thinking we can bring to the topic in addition to our intuition and experience. Wilber defines credible spiritual truth as something that touches on three vital criteria: subjective experience, objective study and community/reference group discernment (Wilber, 1996, p.120). To ignore any of these three is risking distortion that is dominated by the strengths and blind spots of the others.

Organized religion has been the dominant carrier for spirituality in the West but it has not been the only one, and not necessarily the dominant source of spirituality and spiritual practice today. Besides organized religion, spirituality is also informed by: mystical traditions from the East and West, shamanic traditions, aboriginal spiritual practice, art, various yogic practices, scientifically based explorations of quantum physics, New Age literature, poetry, and esoteric spiritual traditions (such as mystery schools, theosophy, and the Masonic movement). These examples cite a wide range of spiritual practices, some that qualify as religion in the sense of their degree of organization and exclusive adherence to core beliefs. It is more realistic to see a continuum between less formalized and more individualistic practices of spirituality, and the more formal and communal ones of religion. It is possible to see how spirituality is more “bendable” to the values and practices of social work.

The following table helps to define the difference between spirituality and religion as adapted from the work of Jack Hawley (1993, p. 4):

  • Product of a certain time or place
Broadly inclusive of many eras and traditions
  • Meant for a group
More private, personal
  • Focus more on prescribed beliefs
Contains elements common to all religions
  • Codes of conduct
Methods of practice
  • A system of thought
A body of practice
  • A set of beliefs, to move along the path
A state beyond the senses (beyond even thought)
  • Institutions and organizations
Networks of like minded seekers
  • A way of life
A practice

What Are the Obstacles Posed by Spiritual Traditions That Must Be Overcome to Honour Social Work Values and Wisdom?

The obstacles to incorporating spirituality in social work practice are many. Some arise from irrational prejudice within social work that is based on ignorance or fear. For example, I have spoken with work groups expressing concerns about exploring spirituality based on the assumption that speaking of spirituality would require them to join a particular religion. Unsubstantiated biases against the spiritual perspective deserve to be challenged in the same way that our profession felt free to challenge workers reluctant to screen for domestic violence issues in their practice. It is no more acceptable for professional social work to tolerate fear based, irrational perspectives about spirituality than it has been for many religious traditions to defy good science.

There are, on the other hand, substantial concerns about admitting the spiritual perspective into social work arising from personal and historical experience: the devastating abuse of power by ministers and leaders of different churches including physical and sexual abuse, injustice to aboriginal cultures, women and gays, sectarianism, fear based teaching, rigid dogma that prohibits intelligent discussion, and judgments and rules that seem at times more important than the love they proclaim.

Contrary to the notion that spirituality and psychology oppose one another, an integrated perspective on spirituality views them as complimentary aspects of health. The professional grasp of the dynamics of relationships (both community and personal) and our understanding of psychological functioning is vital to healthy spirituality. Without this, spirituality can be corrupted by a lack of psychological integrity. Jack Kornfield, a leader in the Buddhist Vipassana movement in the United States, cites examples of spiritual leaders from the East who have fallen prey to addictions and sexual acting out because they failed to come to terms with their own psychological and relationship issues. Others have used meditation as an escape from facing the practical issues of their lives.6

It is crucial here to not get swept up in the trend to see religion as negative and spirituality as positive. Both have risks of abuse, distortion, hypocrisy, etc. Huston Smith contends “Religion shows an ugly face to many contemporary eyes …” however, “these crude surfaces often blind us to the liberating wisdom that courses far below” (as cited in Novak, 1994, p. xiv).

What Are the Important Factors Necessary for Spirituality to Be Integrated into Well Grounded Social Work?

Productive professional explorations of spirituality work best, I believe, when certain factors are present:

  • Tolerance based on core values of respect for difference, the conviction that we can learn from one another’s experience.
  • That there is a serious commitment to make spiritual beliefs accountable to the standards employed in best practice social work including intellectual and research integrity.
  • That any belief is open to challenge when it contradicts the professional ethical codes of social work.
  • Beliefs, rituals, and interpretations – regardless if we are dealing with social work research or sacred text - are best understood in tentative terms. Just as in all aspects of social work, this attitude to beliefs keeps social workers open to others and to new and different ideas.7
  • The greatest part of professional effectiveness lies with the ability to be authentic within ourselves and therefore authentically present to clients.8 Quality spirituality exhorts us to the kinds of discipline and lifestyle that supports openness and authentic presence. In fact, this is a crucial factor distinguishing effective social work and spiritual practice from bogus and unethical practice. This can be seen in cultism and dogmatism (in social work as in spirituality) where compulsive belief replaces authentic presence.
  • It should be as appropriate to ask about a worker’s spiritual practice, as it is to ask about their theory base.

What Research Evidence Is There about the Value of Spirituality to Clients?

Research about the health benefits of spiritual practice draws from studies of religious groups as well as surveys that focus on the broader phenomena of spirituality. In a recent survey, Jeff Levin found more than 200 “peer-reviewed articles reporting the statistical findings on the impact of religious9 involvement on health and illness” (2001, p.6). Some of these findings include work from leading universities such as Michigan, Yale, Duke, Berkeley, Rutgers, and Texas. These findings are summarized as follows:

  • People who regularly attend religious services have lower rates of illness and death than do infrequent or non-attenders.
  • For each of the three leading causes of death in the United States—heart disease, cancer, and hypertension—people who report a religious affiliation have lower rates of illness.
  • Older adults who participate in private and congregational religious activities have fewer symptoms, less disability, and lower rates of depression, chronic anxiety, and dementia.
  • Religious participation is the strongest determination of psychological well-being in African Americans—even more important than health or financial wealth.
  • Actively religious people live longer, on average, than the non- religious. This holds true even controlling for the fact that religious folks tend to avoid such behaviors as smoking and drinking that increase the risk of disease and death.

According to a team of British scientists who researched the topic closely, religious and spiritual beliefs “may be at least as important as the more traditional psychological and secular social factors in the illness process.” (Levin, 2001, p. 102) Dr. David Larson, National Institute of Health Research president contends that:

While medical professionals have been privately assuming and publicly stating for years that religion is detrimental to mental health, when I actually looked at the available empirical research on the relationship between religion and health, the findings were over-whelming positive. (2001, p. vii)

Larry Dossey adds a final conviction arising from his research that, “Future historians of medicine will describe the 20th century as a period in which spirituality, after a long absence, began to return to healing….” (Levin, 2001, p.vii).

How Does Spirituality Help us to Serve our Social Work Clients?

This question asks about the way that spirituality alters the world, client experience and the social worker. Here we begin to bridge the spiritual dimension with social work in a more applied way. It is my sense that the rising interest in spirituality is connected to an increased awareness of the essential energies that inform our being but lie beneath the radar of an “objective, professional” perspective. Hameed Ali asserts, “The effectiveness of psychotherapy has been limited by its ignorance of essential states, so that resolutions occur on the levels of ego and emotions, which are not the level on which we are ultimately satisfied” (cited in Schwartz, 1995, p. 412).

The insights of quantum physics, the perceptions of subtle energies shaping our experience discerned by alternative medicine, chaos and field theories, and the wisdom of eastern and western mystical traditions have pressed for a richer appreciation of healing. In fact, Carl Jung writes in Modern Man in Search of a Soul that it is our spiritual needs that produced the discovery of psychology in our time (1955). Social work’s access to credible spiritual exploration is being made remarkably easier by the work of pioneers in many fields of inquiry.10

Eight Applications from the Spiritual Dimension of Social Work

Let me jump to some specific implications for social work practice that arise from this richer perspective. It is important to recognize, as these points are offered, that many already have a place in the practice of some social workers. There are many spiritually attuned social workers – with or without a specific religious affiliation or practice.

i) It is not the worker but the conscious facilitation of life energy that leads to healing. Gerald May, psychiatrist and long standing pioneer in integrating spiritual perspectives into his work, suggests that “with progressive appreciation for the spiritual dimension, we move from working on the client to working with the client to facilitating the spiritual energies or expressions of grace for each other” (1992, p.8). This role of facilitation moves away from technique and focuses on the quality of presence a worker brings to the healing relationship. Eckhart Tolle describes this as “a state of intense conscious presence” that helps to “accelerate things” (Tolle, 1997).

Social work can utilize the techniques of many spiritual traditions, which offer practices for cultivation of greater maturity of self-management or mindfulness that enables individuals to become more fully present to others and ourselves. This can be a powerful social work tool. This point is echoed in the research on therapy effectiveness (Lebow, 2001).

ii) Moving from ego to soul. While psychology and social work tend to focus on support of ego (our particular self) spiritual attention enriches the perspectives of social work by inviting us to see the soul (in transpersonal psychology “Self” is an alternative term) - a deeper, more connected dimension of human experience. This calls attention to the abiding mystery of our essential natures and innate reverence warranted for each human being. Just as important though, is the attention to a notion of foundational energies that shape our experience. This perspective is echoed in the words of a desert hermit, Monoimus, a 4th century Gnostic teacher:

Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as a starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, “My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body”. Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, and love, hate… If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself (Keen, 1995, p. 2).

The soul’s divine calling and its connection to larger purpose reminds us of a larger system of energy that is shaping both the client’s vital core and the context for social work interventions.

iii) Ritual and myth as guides for managing life transitions. The work of Freud and others (see Bakan, 1975), Jung (1955), Joseph Campbell (1968), Mircea Eliade (1959), have shown how religious and spiritual traditions contain a storehouse of symbols, myth and ritual enactments that have served as guides through life’s developmental transitions. Certain schools within psychology and social work have worked with this wisdom to great value (work with dreams, explorations of the unconscious, ritual practices in family therapy, and narrative therapy to name a few) for they contribute a vital piece to our work with individuals, families and communities. When social workers facilitate community celebrations, or support couples to ritualize their time together to get past conflict, we are drawing upon wisdom from our spiritual traditions. Social workers need only to read sympathetically the stories of different mythic traditions without the prejudice of modernity, to see the rich teachings on love, facing death and loss, coping with despair and transformation. These are gifts to all of us seeking our own richest path.

Myth and ritual, properly understood, cultivate reverence and connection that combats loneliness and nihilism. Joining our sense of who we are with the stories and rituals invites us to discover how our life and its tribulations are part of the story of all life. In this we find instruction and solace.

iv) Expanding the social work toolbox to include energy work. Spirituality challenges us to value all aspects of experience and to realize that we are not mere physical beings; we are not merely the product of our minds and intentions. The medium for work that includes the spiritual realm is one of energy – the non-visible life force that is foundational to thoughts, feelings and physical experience. Social workers are challenged, in direct practice, to engage in the experience of creative mystery that exceeds understanding yet also is accessible to rational and subtle intuitions. As demonstrated with such approaches as Integrative Body Psychotherapy (IBP) (Rosenberg, Rand & Assay, 1985) and Eye Movement, Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), (Shapiro, 2001), dream work, and altered consciousness work, the subtleties of energy work reach beneath words addressing the formative influence shaping thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Work with energy includes clearing of energy blockages and thought forms as well as the cultivation of higher levels of energy associated with psychological and physical health. Known variously as: spirit, chi, Qui, baraka, hosero, morphogenic field, implicate order, light, prana, soul and so forth, this field of energy is held to form the foundation of being, more fundamental than physical being. – a powerful intervention to help our clients.11

v) Prayer has power to heal. Spiritual traditions such as Buddhism and Christianity teach us to revere the power of thoughts and intentions. On the more subtle levels of consciousness thoughts and intentions are seen to affect others and ourselves in ways that exceed notions of perception and “self fulfilling prophesy.” How might we include a careful and reverent attitude to the intentions we bring to our work with clients? How might prayers become a powerful means of clearing intentions and introducing another kind of healing force to our work?

It never occurred to me that religious practices such as prayer could be assessed like a new drug. At the time, I did not pray for my patients, and soon I found myself facing an ethical dilemma. If this study was reliable, how could I justify not praying for my patients? (Dossey as cited in Levin, 2001, p.9).

vi) The powerful examples of spiritual leaders. These examples offer encouragement and vision of life’s possibilities. The lives of holy persons, saints, avatars, shamen, revered leaders and great teachers from all traditions offer much to teach and inspire us in our work (Schwartz, 1996 and Yancey, 2001 are wonderful summaries of great spiritual leaders). More than mere devotion, attention to the stories of great leaders brings to light the struggles, achievements and the acts of courage implicit in inspired lives. The encouraging examples of these leaders demonstrate the great potentials available to human beings.

vii) Understanding spirituality as quality of our outlook rather than the content of our beliefs. It is a common misunderstanding that spirituality is a set of particular beliefs. However, it is my impression that spirituality is defined more by the quality and degree of awareness or consciousness than by the content of belief. This insight helps get past the idea that integrating spirituality into social work practice involves adopting specific beliefs – this can be a real problem for individual and professional sensitivities.

Spirituality offers a perspective on human consciousness that is not merely a function of our conscious thoughts or even our unconscious ones. It includes experience that is drawn from what has been called transcendent states or non-ordinary states of consciousness, such as those common to clients facing distressing life situations.12 A spiritual perspective in social work invites us to discover the hope and power of endurance that arises when life is faced with an expanded sense of what we see our life to be. This includes understanding healing on a soul level. (Targ & Katra, 1999).13

The understanding of extraordinary consciousness and its role in healing is found particularly in the mystical traditions of East and West, and in Shamanism. While consciousness studies are certainly found in psychology and psychiatry, much of this is tentative, limited and relegated to the less well-accepted realm of parapsychology.

viii) Moving from power based on mastery to power based on “dynamic connectedness.” Spiritual consciousness employs paradox as a way of linking the contradictions of life. Our professional schools teach us to think in terms of “right outcome,” mastery of technique, and being a case manager. Spiritual awareness sees beyond assumptions about mastery based on control. Erich Jantsch, a neuroscientist says it this way: “In life, the issue is not control but dynamic connectedness.” (1980, p. 196) This is not a great reach for the profession of social work - so intricately familiar with systems theory.

W.N. Murray, a member of a Scottish Himalayan expedition offers this testimony regarding this kind of openness to the “dynamic connectedness” that defines spiritual consciousness. When we take great risks for things we believe in “…all sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way” (Jaworski, 1998, p. 137). My sense is that many seasoned social workers have been witness to such synchronicity in the factors that lead to change for clients. In more traditional spiritual terms we might call this “grace”, “the Tao” or the “hand of God.”

Final Comments

In a creative dialogue amongst social work professionals, there is much we can learn from each other’s experience in matters of spirituality. I encourage the reader to do their own research with colleagues, with the literature, in their work with clients and in their personal growth work. The rigors of social work, the noble goal of service and the wisdom that clients bring with them makes social work a privileged opportunity for this exploration.

I believe that reckoning with the spiritual dimension of social work is a necessary stage of growth for social workers as professionals and for the profession as a whole; not everyone will agree but many do. We live in a world of rapidly changing paradigms. Recognizing the dimension of spirituality in social work, I believe, is moving rapidly from being regarded as a completely outlandish and even offensive notion, to one that is a self-evident truth. For both the well-being of clients and the creative health of the profession, social workers must be willing to engage the spiritual dimension of our work.


1. Alberta sociologist Reg Bibby reports that 86 per cent of all Canadians surveyed report that they believe in God, that 74 per cent believe in miracle cures, that 61 per cent believe in angels and, surprisingly, 25 per cent believe in reincarnation. This same survey notes that only about 17% of Canadians attend any formal religious gathering on a regular basis (Bibby, 2002). These figures are echoed in the work of George Gallup and Michael Lindsay (Gallup and Lindsay, 1999).

2. This was research conducted as a Muttart Fellow. It involved extensive interviewing, literature review, workshops, and time spent in monasteries, ashrams and spiritual centres in North America and Asia. This research is presented in Radical Relatedness: Exploring the Spiritual Dimension of Family Service Work (available through the Muttart Foundation and the Volunteer Calgary).

3. See end note 9 (below) for a listing of these integrative researchers.

4. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, also discusses this notion of change in the highly regarded work. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

5. There are exceptions to this including two organizations in the United States and one in Canada: The Society for Spirituality and Social Work, The North American Association of Christians in Social Work (NAACSW), and The Canadian Network on Spirituality and Social Work (CNSSW).

6. For a well grounded and sensible exploration of spiritual practice used for neurotic avoidance, I recommend Jack Kornfield, “Even the Best Meditators Have Wounds to Heal” found at

7. I refer the reader to the work of Eckhart Tolle, Ken Wilber and to the great poets such as Rumi, Rilke and D.H. Lawrence for a fuller exploration spiritual experience distinct from ideas of spiritual experience. I wish to add here that what I am sharing here is not spirituality but information about spirituality. This is a crucial distinction for, as I will point out later, these ideas are merely abstractions pointing to what is ultimately an experience beyond information and thinking. Gregory of Nyssa, a Cappadocian monk of the 4th century says it elegantly: “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”

8. An excellent article summarizing research on psychotherapy effectiveness is found in Lebow, 2001.

9. In this context, the use of the term “religious” is generally referring to church based activities which is not the same as “spiritual” (not necessarily involving a church). The importance of these findings is the recognition that there are important overlaps between spirituality and religion in the realm of practice and its impact on the health of the individual.

10. I would refer the reader to some of the real pioneers of re-integrating the spiritual perspective in their respective fields. Besides those cited elsewhere, I recommend: Will James classic work Varieties of Religious Experience; David Bohm (a renown quantum physicist’s perspective outlined in Wholeness and the Implicate Order), explorations in chaos theory by David Peet (Seven Life Lessons in Chaos Theory);work on leadership and spirituality by Margaret Wheatley (Leadership and the New Science) and Joseph Jaworski (Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership); alternative health perspectives and research (Deepak Chopra,)Marilyn Ferguson (a brilliant overview of social change arising from her work on brain research), Rupert Sheldrake (exploring the biology from a spiritual perspective), Matthew Fox (a prolific theologian and teacher responsible for remarkably integrative perspectives on spirituality and science and the arts); Greg Braden (scientist with remarkable insights into the science of spirituality); psychiatrist Gerald May’s integration of spirituality in the treatment of addictions; Carolyn Myss – combining her skills as an intuitive healer, her studies in theology:; the work of David Whyte (poet); Joseph Campbell (the great mythologist); Jean Houston (psychologist), Sam Keen (philosopher, psychologist); Huston Smith (world religions expert). We are now beginning to also see writers bridging spirituality and the helping professions such as Ann and Charles Simpkinson, Froma Walsh, James Hillman, and Otto Rank.

11. I learned to appreciate this through study with Robert Detzler (Spiritual Response Therapy), training in cranial sacral energy work and meditation practice.

12. In my research, reported in Radical Relatedness, I have spoken of three broad levels of consciousness: physical (world defined by the information of the five senses), psychosocial (awareness based on insights about perception, insight and relationship context); and spiritual (transcendent awareness, innate connection) (McKernan, 2004 pp. 99-132). Transcendent consciousness refers to the experience, usually temporary, when one encounters the spiritual level of consciousness. Trauma and falling in love are two examples of temporary states of transcendent consciousness. The spiritual traditions offer direction and discipline to support a more conscious and sustained encounter with this quality of consciousness. In addition to my discussions about qualities of consciousness in Radical Relatedness, I refer the reader to the incisive exploration of these different levels of consciousness in the work of Ken Wilber (particularly Wilber, 1996) and William James (1982) and the elegant work of Pima Chodren, Buddhist nun (When Things Fall Apart) and Jose Hobday Seneca healer and Franciscan nun (1999). Larry Dossey provides a description of these three levels applied to the practice of medicine (materialistic medicine, mind/body medicine and mind/body/spirit medicine) (cited in Levin, 2001, p.206).

13. See also the work of Norm Shealy, Sacred Healing: The Curing Power of Energy and Spirituality (Boston: Element, 1999). For some scientific explorations about prayer see Greg Braden’s The Isaiah Effect: Decoding the Lost Science of Prayer and Prophecy (New York: Harmony Books, 2000).


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Michael McKernan, MSW can be contacted via e-mail at:


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