Homeless man on street
By Talolo Lepale (Assistant Professor of Social Work and Social Ecology) - June 25, 2020

Social Work Practice and Religiously Affiliated Organizations

Social work practice has a long relationship with religiously affiliated organizations (RAOs) and Christian churches, also known as congregational social work (CSW). Regardless of this long relationship, there is a lack of clear practice guidelines for social workers to follow when engaged in CSW. Without a clear path to walk, these social workers are at risk of violating their National Association of Social Work (NASW) code of ethics and exposing themselves to litigation, especially when fulfilling volunteer roles. Social work field educators can help in the development of practice guidelines that minimize these risks. To do this, practicum opportunities for social work interns within RAOs can be developed to help identify and engage in best practice approaches. (Harris & Yancey, 2016; Bielefeld & Cleveland, 2008)

Social workers most commonly deliver professional services within RAOs through leadership roles in outreach ministries and peer support. Because of their professional training, these social workers are often recruited by their faith communities into leadership roles that focus on providing services for addressing homelessness, the needs of aging members, and mental illness. (Yancey & Garland, 2014) These social workers tend to serve in a volunteer capacity, believing their volunteer status shelters them from exposure to potential malpractice claims. However, unbeknownst to many of these social workers providing services as a volunteer, consumers can claim that these ministry leaders are professionally trained in these service areas and therefore should be held to the social work professions ethical standards of practice. According to Harris & Yancey (2016) there are, "approximately 771 accredited social work programs in the United States…and many of these social work students identify as Christian or a person-of-faith." (p. 5) So once they enter the field after graduation, the potential for social workers exposing themselves to litigation is high. Aside from the social work professional values and code of ethics established by the NASW, there is currently no universally accepted standard specifically for CSW.

Although I have highlighted risks that exist with practicing CSW, it is not my intention to discourage social workers from serving within these communities. On the contrary, I believe social workers should be working with clergy and their congregations to help professionalize the human services being offered there--but how can they both accomplish this and protect themselves professionally? This can be done by establishing clear practice guidelines for them to follow. Because field education is a signature pedagogy for all social work academic programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), they are among those best positioned to help develop these practice guidelines.

As a Christian social worker, my integration of faith and ethical social work practice surrounds the reconciliation of Mathew 28:19-20, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." For many years I found myself wrestling with the question, "How can I accomplish this without compromising my professional ethics?" Early in my career, I had many social workers tell me this was not possible. However, since then I have discovered the opposite to be true. The integration of faith and social work practice can be done in a way that is "…client focused, and client led…" (Sherwood, 2002). According to Sherwood, it is possible to "demonstrate" (p. 329) the gospel without violating our ethically responsibilities to our clients. I have often described it to my students in this way: "We can 'live' the tenets of our respective faiths without compromising our professional ethics." (Sherwood, 2002; Yancey, 2014)

I would like to note here that the integration of faith is not only a concern for Christians; it extends to all faith beliefs, i.e., Islamic, Jewish, Sikh, and Buddhist, among others. As a field educator I have mentored Christians, Muslims, and Jews seeking master's and doctoral degrees in social work, marriage and family therapy, and psychology as they learn to ethically integrate their faith into professional healthcare practice. I have long believed that to successfully accomplish this required the clinician to pursue spiritual development in parallel to their professional development. Sherwood states something similar: "It is important to realize from the beginning what the Bible and the Code of Ethics can do for us and what they cannot" (2012; p. 332). As we continue to grow in our understanding of our ethical responsibilities, we should also grow in our understanding our respective faiths' teachings (e.g., The Bible, Quran, Torah, etc.). I would also argue that it is important for us to seek understanding of our clients' faith as well, so we can ethically integrate that into the care we provide them. For example, in my work with students I will often ask them to teach me about their belief system and the role that it plays in their lives. This not only facilitates a deepened understanding for both the student and I, but it models to the student how this same process can be used with their clients.

Love Your Neighbor Coalition

In 2018 the social work field education programs at Loma Linda University, California Baptist University, and La Sierra University partnered with the City of Riverside, Corona Community AME Church, Faith Lutheran Church, Calvary Presbyterian Church, Hope Community Church, Sandals Church, Riverside Community Church, La Sierra University Church, Faith in Motion, Care Portal, Today’s Urban Renewal Network, 211 Community Connect, County of Riverside, Riverside Community Hospital, and Path of Life Ministries to form the Love Your Neighbor Collaborative (LYNC). LYNC was established to help eradicate homelessness in the City of Riverside by accomplishing three things:

  1. Network CSWE-accredited social work programs with the efforts of public and RAOs working to end homelessness
  2. Establish a social work practice model that helps individuals and families through housing crisis
  3. Provide field practicum opportunities to social work interns within RAOs that will help to develop CSW guidelines and clarify best practice approaches by helping individuals and families through a housing crisis

Each of the LYNC members contribute heavily to the ongoing development of this program. LYNC will spend its first five years engaged in joint research that investigates the impact social work pilot interns have on the congregations they serve and monitor the programs progress towards the eradication of homelessness in Riverside.

Pilot Social Work Internship Program

During the 2018-19 academic school year we enrolled fifteen social work interns from La Sierra University, Loma Linda University, and California Baptist University into the Riverside Mayor's Pilot Social Work Internship Program, subsequently referred to as the Pilot. The Pilot places interns at partnering RAOs to perform the following services for the homeless and near homeless individuals and families:

  • Make them document-ready (social security cards and IDs)
  • Connect them the larger network of homeless services in the City, County, and State
  • Perform mental health screening
  • Provide housing location and navigation services
  • Be the liaison between the RAOs, the universities, and the City
  • Identify and report back any systemic barriers to access health care in the City
  • Take a "Policy in Action" approach to address the macro and micro needs of the homeless population in Riverside
  • Provide valuable outreach services
  • Qualified interns will set up clinical services at internship sites

Program Description

The Pilot is a multi-sector strategy to enhance the organizational capacity of the faith community, nonprofits, educational institutions, and local government, aiming to address the health disparities for the vulnerable population of homeless and near homeless individuals in our city. The Pilot is strategically structured to identify and alleviate systemic barriers and gaps in the delivery of health and social services to the homeless and near homeless population. The following three-tiered structure will ask interns to consider the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of this demographic:

Macro level: Working from the Mayor's Office and in conjunction with various relevant city departments, interns will gain a landscape view of homeless policy and programs through exposure to research, project development, grant writing, communication, community engagement, navigating the legislative/political process, and implementation. Interns will be fully integrated into the city-wide Love Your Neighbor Initiative which will provide a unique vantage point from which to gain a macro level understanding of how policy can have an impact on positive health outcomes for individuals and groups. One such policy is the city's newly adapted Housing First plan.

Mezzo level: Interns will be placed at one of seven partnering RAOs, where they will serve as a liaison between the larger initiative, the faith community, and a local nonprofit. Programming duties will vary from site to site, ranging from participating in existing programs such as feeding programs and outreach services, to, where qualified, starting their own counseling programs onsite. Interns will evaluate the effectiveness of programs throughout the course of the Pilot and provide recommendations for program improvement to the site preceptor as part of an initial mezzo-level project. One notable project in the Pilot involves Calvary Presbyterian Church, which shares a parking lot with Riverside Community Hospital. The plan is to build a bridge through a referral process from outpatient/ER to the social work services. We are hoping to close the gap in the delivery of services from the hospital to the wider network of services in the city, and in doing so create access to a comprehensive and coordinated system of care across the behavioral and social healthcare continuum within the city. One of the questions that we will explore with this project is the impact that psycho-social distress has on hospital readmission rates for homeless.

Micro level: Under the supervision of the Field Supervisor, interns will work with community members of various race, ethnicities, and poverty levels who seek assistance for various needs, such as housing, mental health services, medical services, utility assistance, drug or alcohol rehabilitation, and job readiness assistance.