Front Porch Essay #4

A Joyous Collaboration? Social Workers and Clergy Working Together
Marion Bilich, MSW, Ph.D and Susan Bonfiglio, MSW

Before you read any further, grab a piece of paper and make three columns. Write down the following three words: "Religion," "Spirituality," and "Clergy." Now, for each word, list everything that comes into to your mind--everything you associate with each word. Do not censor yourself. When you are done put this list aside.

What if we gave a party and nobody came? That is what happened in a mid-western town a few years ago, when a group of social workers and psychologists invited the clergy from the community to a get-together--a meeting aimed at giving mental health professionals and clergy an opportunity to learn more about each other. Only one member of the clergy showed up, and he only came there to complain about secular psychotherapy!

The rift between mental health professionals and clergy continues, but it is not only clergy who are wary. While social workers have become more aware of the valuable role spirituality and religion can play in the lives of their clients, few of us have reached out to the clergy in our efforts to bring a spiritual dimension into their work. Collaboration with clergy is a largely untapped resource, one that can enrich our work with a variety of clients--survivors of severe childhood abuse, people facing chronic and severe mental or physical illness, the dying.

Benefits of Social Worker/Clergy Collaboration

The benefits of social worker/clergy collaboration are many, among them, 

Consultation can bring a much-needed spiritual or religious dimension into therapy

Collaboration with clergy can broaden the client's social support network

Collaboration with clergy minimizes some problems associated by managed care

- Often managed care insurance programs offer inadequate psychological services for people with chronic mental and physical disorders. These individuals often require long-term therapy, well beyond the twenty or thirty sessions allotted to them each year. Collaboration alleviates the social worker's burden of providing all the care for the client. - Social isolation is a serious problem for many clients, especially those with severe mental or physical disorders. The inclusion of clergy and other resources from within the client's religious community helps broaden the available support networks.- Our clients hunger for spiritual direction, yet few social workers have had the training (or until recently, the encouragement) to bring religious and spiritual issues into psychotherapy. Sometimes, clergy can educate us about our clients' religious belief systems. Other times, we may turn to clergy to provide the spiritual direction missing from the psychotherapy sessions.

Types of Collaboration

Social workers and clergy can work together in a variety of ways.

Minister as Consultant

Social Workers as Consultants

Limited Collaboration

Full Collaboration

- This type of collaboration is most appropriate for clients with serious, chronic mental and physical illnesses--people whose lives have been so damaged that they require the resources of a wider community to heal. For the religiously oriented client this may involve utilizing their religious community. In this type of collaboration, social worker and clergy member are copartners. They not only meet regularly, but also meet with the client. Therapy sessions can sometimes include the clergy member. A full collaboration takes much time and energy, and unless both parties are willing and capable of making the commitment, other forms of collaboration should be considered. - In such cases, the client sees the social worker for therapy, and the clergy member for spiritual or religious guidance, and both clergy and social worker maintain regular contact. This type of collaboration requires a greater degree of mutual involvement by the social worker and clergy. - Clergy generally have little time or training to minister to the mental health needs of their parishioners. Ongoing contact with a social worker can provide the minister with much-needed information and suggestions on how to best serve the mental health needs of the congregation. Again, phone contact is often all that is needed. - When working with a deeply religious client whose faith system is unfamiliar to the social worker, consultation with clergy can be invaluable. This can be done on the telephone and with minimal time constraints.


Overcoming Roadblocks to Collaboration

Preconceived Notions

Turf Issues

Ethical Issues

The most important guideline we can offer is to always put the needs of the client above all else. No matter what the obstacle--be it a turf issue, a different value structure, a difference of opinion--all issues can be resolved as long as both clergy member and social worker keep this principle as their guide.

Interdisciplinary collaboration can be fraught with difficulties, but the benefits far outweigh the problems. We can learn so much from each other--and in turn add so much to the lives of our clients--through collaboration with clergy. With persistence and some reaching out, we really could look forward to an era of joyous collaboration.

- Informed written consent is essential. The client must be made aware of any potential problems that could arise out of involving clergy in the therapy. It is essential to discuss issues of confidentiality with your client and with the religious professional. - Territorial and power issues endanger any effort at interdisciplinary collaboration. The collaboration must be an equal partnership with each professional having his or her own area of expertise and specialization. Equally important in minimizing potential problems is that each recognizes the limitations of his or her expertise. Early on, ground rules should be established about how turf issues will be handled as they arise. - One of the first roadblocks with which we must deal is our own preconceived notions about religion, spirituality, and clergy. Take out the list you put aside earlier. Some of the words on your list may point to potential problems in your interactions with religious professionals. What does your list tell you about your own prejudices and judgments that will impact on your work with clergy? For instance, if the word "rigid" appears on your list in association with the word "clergy," this may suggest past experiences with clergy which must be worked through so that you can work together successfully in the present.

 The authors can be reached at

Marion Bilich, M.S.W., Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Hewlett, NY. She is the author of Weight Loss From the Inside Out: Help for the Compulsive Eater (Wellness Institute, 2000) and co-author of Shared Grace: Therapists and Clergy Working Together (Haworth, 2000).

Susan Bonfiglio, M.S.W. is a social worker in Woodmere, New York. She directs a psychiatric rehabilitation program, and is a co-author of Shared Grace: Therapists and Clergy Working Together (Haworth, 2000)