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Let’s Dialogue, Not Debate

The most dangerous ideas in society are not the ones being argued, but the ones that are assumed.” – C.S. Lewis

Life is full of risks whether or not we take them on fully, directly, and consciously. There are a number of actions that can contribute to the fear of being judged, of having our private thoughts and feelings exposed, or of being known but misunderstood by others. Then there’s also the fear of hurting or offending people. When we dialogue about important issues, we are taking risks. Not everyone is comfortable with or prone to being vulnerable and transparent. Personally, I’m not comfortable with discussing controversial ideas in public; personality-wise, I’m more apt to engage with action.

Almost forty years ago, my family and I were boat people fleeing the former South Vietnam, which was taken over by Communism. It was a conservative Christian church in a small White town in Texas that sponsored my homeless family to immigrate to America. Less than two decades later, I became a born again Christian while in college. Despite majoring in Biology, I was always drawn to the helping profession as my family and I had been helped by progressive social workers at several touchpoints in our lives. So after college, I pursued and obtained my MSW degree. I had no idea at the time that one role was going to put me on a traditional, conservative route, and the other role was going to take me in a more liberal direction.

In grad school, I thought I would go into the mental health specialization and work as a therapist in private practice one day. That “one day” came, but only after first working in various settings including a school, a county mental health facility, a community mental health agency, and then a homeless shelter. Next I worked 7 years as a clinician at a foster/adoption agency, followed by a brief stint as a “stay at home mom.”

As a Christian wife and mother, I felt called to help my husband with earning a living for our young family. So a year after our third child was born, I took the risk to go into private practice, fraught with so many unknowns. I was lured by the flexible schedule hoping that being a sole business owner would accommodate my family’s needs. Since 2009, part time practice has allowed me to work with diverse client populations that I had not previously known. Not only was I working with children and families considered “indigent,” but now I was also accepting clients with private insurance and for private pay.

Since entering private practice, I’ve worked with families that are black, brown, yellow, white, and mixed-race. Roughly half of my clients are supported by some version of  Medicaid or CHIP. Some of my clients come from a higher socioeconomic bracket than I do, while most are in the same bracket or lower. The majority self-identify as Christians, but I’ve also worked with agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, and Muslims in the office. My clients come from all walks of life, from successful leaders in their fields to unmarried moms or dads with criminal records struggling to become good parents. 9 out of 10 children that I see do not live in a nuclear family with their (married) biological moms and dads, but rather are in kinship or foster care, have been adopted, or live with single parents, co-habitating couples, or blended families. These statistics reflect the trend in postmodern American society at large.

Working within the confidentiality of the office setting sometimes gives me the false notion that I’m not doing anything risky. For the most part, many brave individuals and couples willingly come to receive validation, education, encouragement, and guidance. So I don’t see my work as involving a political exchange of ideas, but more clinical intervention based on my growing competence as a social work practitioner. Yet in reality, each client presents not only an opportunity to connect and “help,” but also a risk to be rejected as personality differences and deeply held worldviews undoubtedly come into play in the therapist-client relationship. I’m proud that I have not “refused” to work with any clients based on superficial differences.

Striving to connect on a human level allows me to relate and empathize with various clients despite the fact that their backgrounds, cultures, and lifestyles offer differ from mine. Probably because of my open, accepting, Christian attitude toward God’s creation, the vast majority of people whom I meet at intake willingly return as clients.

I desire to have this same mutual connection with the other helping professionals I meet at the NACSW conventions. Despite all of us being Christian social workers, we are a diverse group differing in age, ethnicity, work experience, specialty fields, and even socio-political worldviews. At a workshop that will be presented at this year’s convention in November, six NACSW members (myself included) will be taking risks to share our thoughts and feelings on topics that divide us in America, such as racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, immigration policy, religious freedom, American exceptionalism, white supremacy, etc… The goal of this workshop will not be to divide the body of Christ, but to begin a dialogue to increase understanding between Christians in social work that bring different perspectives to these issues, to seek “unity in the midst of diversity.” As Christians in social work, we each have the ability to show respect, listen empathically, ask clarifying questions, affirm and validate, reframe or encourage, research and provide psychoeducation, and establish mutual goals. We can even learn from one another in the process.

This is what I have learned in working with clients the last 20 years — that behavior is intimately linked to feelings and thoughts. Our political views are deeply personal. Personal experiences influence political viewpoints. Indeed, as Christians and professional social workers, our goal is not to win debates but to increase mutual understanding with dialogue. When Christian social workers can make the change within ourselves, there’s a greater chance that we can affect the rest of the world in a positive, God-glorifying way.

Will you join us at the NACSW convention in Charlotte, North Carolina this November? Bring your open mind, desire to connect, to reach out in compassionately, and to make a positive difference in this world. And please come to the workshop I described above if you don’t mind engaging in respectful dialogue with us, or just listen in as we risk exchanging our diverse ideas with one another.

Kim Parker is a wife, mother of three, licensed clinical social worker since 2003, and private practice therapist since 2009. She is also the author of a new memoir and self-help book, East Meets West: Parenting from the Best of Both Worlds.  Check out more of Kim’s work at www.kimparkerlcsw.com.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Dialogue, Not Debate

  1. Kim, your article is well written. I am unable to attend the NACSW conference, because of my health. I will pray that the discussions go well!

  2. Thank you much for your article. I am so glad you will be on the panel at the convention. Yes, listening and learning from one another are so very important. Social workers do have widely varying opinions on some controversial issues, and we need to be together to seek the wisdom and discernment that only our God can give. Blessings in your work and ministry!

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