The Integration of Faith and Learning in a Professional Program by Rachel Slaymaker

When reflecting on the integration of faith and learning, it is important to recognize that an institution’s mandate to integrate faith and learning into the classroom can become more complex for professional programs, including social work. This has required me, as a social work faculty member, to reflect on how a professor’s mission and philosophy of teaching impacts the integration.

When exploring faith and spirituality in professional practice, my students spend significant time distinguishing “proclamation versus demonstration of the Gospel” after reading an article by David Sherwood, the founder of the North American Association of Christians in Social Work. Sherwood (2012)[1] states, “It is always ethical and appropriate to demonstrate the gospel to our clients, but it is seldom ethical to proclaim the gospel to them in our professional role as social workers” (pg. 229). This resource has been extraordinarly helpful in identifying ways students may integrate faith without violating ethical codes. Examples have included: incorporating religious tenets of social justice at the level of macro practice, using scripture within their own internal dialogue when dealing with frustrating situations, praying for clients privately when clients are not present, and emphasizing one’s own need for spiritual disciplines and/or self-care when working with vulnerable populations. Barsky, Sherman and Anderson (2015)[2] also describe these types of integration within the social work classroom among faith-based institutions. The authors identify two types of social work educators in faith-based institutions: those using an explicit approach and those identified as demonstrationists. I would most identify as a demonstrationist since they “model and communicate the underlying values, beliefs, and teachings of the religion, but they do not identify these factors as particular to their own religion…an educator can promote charity, good will, respect, and a commitment to social justice without referring to particular religious scriptures” (pg. 79). I find this particularly relevant and ethical since I believe my theology aligns well with the ethical values of the social work profession: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.

Ultimately, I struggle with the concept that my responsibility within a Christian institution is to integrate MY faith in the classroom. This is especially difficult for me because my own student experience within academia occurred within public universities and there was no recognition of how integration might be role-modeled. Also, given my education in social justice specifically relating to power and oppression, I realize my authority and position of power over students. I recognize that my opinion on a particular topic, especially those highly controversial in nature, may sway students without allowing them the opportunity to struggle or live in the tension for themselves. This is true when discussing societal, political, or spiritual issues. Truthfully, on my best day in the classroom, I never want it to be about me; about my truth or my opinions. I want to facilitate discussion around the students’ views, experiences, and integration of faith and learning. Many students in my classes do not identify as Christian, and while we talk about faith and spiritual beliefs, I am very overt to remind them that not all in the class identify as a Christian. I do facilitate discussions in which our Christian students discuss their perspectives, but I feel called to provide a level of consistency and fairness to all students in the classroom. I consider our students who do not identify as Christian brave when they choose to disclose their beliefs within a Christian university and I am proud when our Christian students listen intently and accept others’ views on faith that are not their own. We then use those diverse views to apply how each student may work with clients with very different views.

There are many definitions of faith. For me, the components of faith that I strive to elicit from my students are: compassion, service, and respect for human dignity. These components can be seen in students regardless of spiritual beliefs. The integration of faith and learning still remains a complex issue for me. I do believe that with additional classroom experience and my ongoing quest to seek what is true, and right, and noble, I will continue to learn alongside my students in this area.

[1] Sherwood, D. (2012). Ethical integration of faith and social work practice: Evangelism. In Poe, M.A. (Ed.) Instructor’s resources for Christianity and Social Work – Fourth Edition. Botsford, CT: North American Association of Christians in Social Work.

[2] Barsky, A., Sherman, D., & Anderson, E. (2015). Social work educators’ perceptions of faith-based BSW programs: Ethical inspiration and conflicts. Journal of Social Work Values & Ethics, 12(1), 77-87.

 

Rachel Slaymaker, LMSW began teaching at ACU in 2011. Additionally, she serves as the Director of Field Education within the School of Social Work. Her practice experience includes child abuse prevention and foster care/adoption. Prior to teaching, she also held a staff position within Student Life. Much of her research has focused on working with Millennials in higher education from a strengths

 

We believe that learning is a lifelong process and that those of us who teach make a commitment to continue our learning throughout our lives. The Adams Center exists to promote the lifelong learning of Abilene Christian University’s faculty as they strive to integrate their faith and their discipline.

About CHARIS

CHARIS hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. The website is intended to support education for Christian life and community through contemporary discussions and historical sources that variously witness to the gifts (“charis”) of God among Churches of Christ, especially their plea for visible unity among Christians through ongoing renewal and restoration of Scriptural beliefs and practices among God’s people.

The CHARIS website is supported by Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX, USA), the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The purpose of CHARIS at ACU is to seek God’s blessings for a healthy relationship between the Christian college/university – its faculty, staff, and students – and the church heritage that gives identity and meaning to such a school. This underlying concern for Christian colleges/universities, and their relationship to the churches, is reflected in the form and content of the CHARIS website.

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