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Social Science or Proselytizing?

April 23, 2009

It may not matter how clearly social workers explain informed consent to recipients of social services in a religiously affiliated organization - not if the recipients believe getting food to feed their family depends on their agreeing to an explicit or implicit religious message. That's the finding of a study published in the April issue of Social Work: Journal of the National Association of Social Workers (Vol. 54, No. 2, pp. 157-165) co-authored by three Baylor School of Social Work professors.

The intersection of faith, social services and professional ethics has always been a slippery slope, and according to the findings in "Innovative Service or Proselytizing: Exploring When Services Delivery Becomes a Platform for Unwanted Religious Persuasion," there are good reasons for the social work profession to be concerned about its footing regarding this issue.

"If clients are in such a desperate position that they equate being selected for

services as a part of their sustenance for survival, the context of desperation and unequal power calls into question the degree of consent that is possible," said Michael Sherr, assistant professor and lead author of the article. Co-authors are Jon Singletary and Robin "Rob" K. Rogers, associate professors.

The authors present an in-depth case study of a stand-alone non-deno-minational nonprofit agency that collaborates with congregations to establish spiritual families in a midsize city. The agency employs six social workers, all of whom have independent clinical licenses.

The study provides additional support to the perspective that the discomfort some social workers have with religion may have more to do with a justified concern about providing ethical practice and less to do with a hidden agenda to eliminate any influence of religious involvement in social services, the authors state.

"The role of spirituality in clients' lives was not even addressed in social services until relatively recently," Sherr said. A few articles in the 1980s set forth the possibility that social workers should at least recognize and appreciate spirituality as a component of client functioning. An article in Clinical Social Work Journal in 1985 (Vol. 13, pp. 198-217) urged the profession to include spirituality as a major factor of individual, family, and community functioning.

Since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, with its "charitable choice" section, more and more social service provision is provided through religiously affiliated organizations. As a result, the social work profession finds itself navigating these waters with very little literature on the subject to guide its course.

"The Baylor School of Social Work is known for its integration of faith and professional social work standards, and we need to continue to address these issues so that we can gain further insight into how this manifests itself in the workplace," Sherr said.

The Baylor authors say that their study further emphasizes the need for more substantive and broader research, but they conclude with guidelines for ethical social work in religious organizations:

• clarify roles up front

• avoid opportunities for unethical practice

• acknowledge the potential for unethical practice

• create a mechanism for ongoing confidential review with clients

"We need to both appreciate the efforts of religious organizations to address social problems and provide services," Sherr said, "but also recognize the power differentials involved in these relationships, intentionally or unintentionally, and maintain the integrity of professional helping relationships."

To purchase the full article online, visit the NASW web site at:

Author contacts:

Michael Sherr,, 254-710-4483

Jon Singletary,, 254-710-4819

Robin "Rob" K. Rogers,, 254-710-4321