In social work, many of us work with troubled clients or students. Often they come with very traumatic stories that can disturb and unsettle us. Over time, we risk becoming resentful of the person or our job. So, I know that we must encourage the well-identified practices of self-care that can reduce the risk of compassion fatigue or burnout. As a Christian, I also know that my spirituality motivates and sustains me. Often it is what gives meaning to much of what I do. At the same time, I wonder whether is it possible to have a spirituality that makes taxing work nourishing.
I think that one entry point to making our work nourishing is a realisation that every meeting has the potential to be a moment of grace. In Merton’s memorable phrase, every event and every moment plants something in our soul. Sometimes what is “planted” may be poignant and evoke feelings of deep sadness and compassion. Other times, I may find myself experiencing negative feelings such as distaste, anger and even boredom. I need to be aware of my feelings and alert for possible outcomes such as rescuing the victim or judging the client.
For me, awareness is only the first step if the encounter is to be a nourishing moment of grace. The next step is to hold the person in silent, interior prayer. While listening, I will place us both in the Father’s hands. This helps remind me that what is happening is God’s work and the client’s work; I am only an “earthen vessel” (2Cor.4:7). Given my driven, perfectionist nature, this helps slow me down and decentres me! I become able to sit with the person and let them find their way.
Of course, such practices do not mean that I don’t get hooked regularly. Indeed, I find myself needing to hold the person in prayer precisely because I find myself in a negative stance towards the other. Good spiritual practices do not make us invulnerable to our sinful side, but they do give us a way of addressing that side. This addressing can take place during the meeting, but often I find that such negative reactions need to be brought to prayer later and even discussed with my soul friend.
I offer this as just one practice that has helped me integrate my Christian faith with my social work practice. I look forward to hearing what others have done in their journey of integration. As a wise colleague pointed out, “Given our human nature, and our hubris, we all will overstretch ourselves from time to time. None of us will be immune to some form of burnout, compassion fatigue or simple exhaustion.” Our Christian faith does not inure us to the suffering we witness as social workers, but it gives us a way to make it a moment of grace. I think that in sharing our journey with each other we may teach and learn from each other how to integrate our faith and our practice.
A website that helps ground me is http://www.sacredspace.ie/. It has a daily meditation based on the scriptures as well as other resources. And, it’s Irish!! It’s well worth a visit and is offered in a variety of languages.
Denis is Director of Clinical Programs and Services at Catholic Family Services in Toronto and has been a member of NACSW since 2004.