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Spirituality, leadership and social service in the church



The work of Catholic social service agencies should be celebrated within the church. Its peak body, Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA), which has been savagely cut recently, has successfully matched wits with governments for over sixty years and its member agencies continue to serve the community selflessly.

Two hands in geometric patterns (Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

Yet it is a success story not widely enough recognized and most Catholics probably still do not comprehend just how much its highly professional caring workforce are operating on the edges of society. Some parts of its mission would shock the average Catholic in their rawness and in the personally threatening nature of its challenges. Who would have thought that vicarious trauma, the absorption by staff of the trauma of those being served, is a major problem among the social services workforce? Working in this field takes empathy, understanding and courage despite its immense personal and organisational rewards and blessings. They are always client focused.

Learning to address such trauma is at the heart of a fine little book, Spirituality, Leadership and Sustaining a Caring Workforce, edited by Dr Brenton Prosser, a former CSSA director of research (Connor Court Publishing 2020). At its most practical it means to show how to retain and nurture staff and how to celebrate the benefits of spirituality. While it may be primarily directed towards, and generated by, leaders and staff in social services and, more broadly those in the caring professions, it should resonate with a much broader audience, including all Catholics concerned about their church. CSSA CEO, Dr Ursula Stephens, argues cogently that: ‘If we are burned out, crushed or dispirited, we cannot fulfil God’s work’.

That truth is surely a metaphor for life today, including life in a church burdened by grief and shame over child sexual abuse and its cover up. It is not too much of a stretch to say that this discussion and its remedies could apply to the whole church. As Belinda Clarke and Kylie Burgess (p. 110) write:

'The question for us is not only how to connect people to the relevant and meaningful aspects of the Catholic tradition but how to do this in a manner that is inclusive, affirming and nurturing. If we do not get this part right, if how we do this excludes people, or it leads to judgement, then we demonstrate a lack of understanding of the human person, relationships and respect, and risk doing further damage. The Catholic tradition that we bring forward… needs to embody its theological worldview through fostering and supporting an environment of belonging, trust and positive relationships.'

Many of the themes explored in this book have both a particular and a general application. These include working through the idea of Catholic identity in a multicultural and secular age, seeking to accommodate professional and secular concepts, like stress, resilience and emotional labour, with religious terminology, the internal dynamics of Catholic agencies and the needs of their workers and clients, the inspirational and calming contribution of Indigenous spirituality, and the impact of government regulations on working life.


'Stick with this book when the concepts get tougher, just as social services staff hang in there in working with clients with complex needs.'


The language used in all these contributions is accessible, while not dodging hard questions or dumbing down the discussion. It includes several conceptual discussions, like those of Prosser himself and Frank Brennan SJ as well as empirical studies, like those of Jonathan Louth from South Australia and Robyn Miller from MacKillop Family Services.

Louth draws on his study within Centacare Catholic Family Services. It is an empirical snapshot, based on a survey of frontline workers and follow-up interviews, of the impact of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma on the social services workforce. Among its conclusions is that for emotional health and wellbeing staff and clients need their voices heard, both directly and through advocates. This need also applies to the wider church.  

Miller, speaking as an agency CEO, explains the successful application of the Sanctuary Model in changing organisational culture from the coalface to the upper echelons in order to respond to vicarious trauma. The particular setting is the provision on a 24/7 basis of homelessness services and residential care for young people. The needs of the clients are complex and the mental health risks for staff are extraordinarily high. In addressing the goal of a safe environment built on respectful relationships the key values, according to Miller, are justice, hope, collaboration, compassion and respect.

Stick with this book when the concepts get tougher, just as social services staff hang in there in working with clients with complex needs. As Dr Stephens wisely reflects:

'Spirituality is idiosyncratic, it is individual, and it is personal — we come to it differently but ultimately it makes us richer, soothes us and has the capacity to calm our worried mind.'

More still needs to be done in exploring these themes, and the year of the Plenary Council is a perfect time for the church to do so. The lessons of this book, such as learning from the science and taking professional advice, deepening and broadening our spirituality, and recognizing that tradition and modern society can learn from each other, apply widely. 



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, the Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and a delegate to the Plenary Council.

Main image: Two hands in geometric patterns (Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Catholic social service, CSSA, Spirituality, Leadership and Sustaining Caring Workforce



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Existing comments

Recently, I had an interesting discussion with my female doctor about the fictional TV doctor, Doc Martin. Doc Martin's bedside manner is brusque, he has a severe reaction to the sight of blood, and he has an air of remoteness. Yet his patients (and viewers) love him. My real-life GP thought Doc Martin's idiosyncratic persona was appealing and we let the matter rest there. Working with traumatised people presents challenges of a particular kind and calls for a stripping away of ego and self-confidence to 'meet' the other person - this territory can be a minefield. The church could benefit from apprehending that there is a lot to learn about integrating recognition of trauma into spirituality.

Pam | 15 December 2020  

CCSA are empire builders John . Its just a business like the Mater hospital with its prize homes, clinics with their bulk billing, after hours call centers begging for donations. Mater Private with its high cost medical care. CCSA took over the after hours school care that we built at Jubilee at our cost. They took over the child care centre at Assissi as well. We had a much better remuneration plan for St Mary's with Hutchinsons which would have paid off the new church much quicker. As for the Plenary Council, given the dictatorial attitude of the Bishops and their complete contempt for the laity, women's rights, victims of abuse rights, their recommendations will be self serving and designed to preserve their power and control over the silent majority.

Francis Armstrong | 15 December 2020  

John, While I very much applaud the workers at the coal face,dealing with the dysfunctional element of our society, which governments refuse to deal with.Also like our teachers and even lay staff in parishes , Diocesan Offices etc. these enterprises have become businesses.For example I spent about 30 years in teaching, then a year in Parish admin. I soon learnt that 'bums on seats' in our schools and a' good plate' on Sundays was a major preoccupation of the leadership . All other activities were a distant second. I have to agree with Francis Armstrong.

Gavin O'Brien | 15 December 2020  

Catholic Social Services' mission, based as it is on the Church's understanding of the inviolable dignity of human life, particularly the right to life - should the current raft of abortion and euthanasia law reforms prevail - will ensure the Catholic Church continues to "operate on the edges of society", remains "client focused" and stands as a beacon of inclusivity, affirmation and nurturing as Belinda Clarke and Kylie Burgess advocate.

John RD | 17 December 2020  

It is hard to be a Christian. I don't think Jesus tried to soften the image or sugar-coat it to potential disciples. The first thing to do is to forget your personal feelings and not to judge other people by your personal attitudes or beliefs. To give you an example, some years ago when I visited the church in Darwin before Easter, and there were only two people in the large church- an old man carrying a paper bag and myself. I judged that this man was poor, and in need of help. So, I asked him if he needed any help. He replied, "why do you ask?" I was embarrassed and said nothing, and left the church. That incident was over 35 years ago, and I have never forgotten it. So I wont preach or pry when I meet people- that's a lesson I have learnt. Now I try to think of what Jesus would do in any situation- and the only way to learn His methods is by reading what he did in his Ministry during his life on Earth. Putting His teaching into action is what I have to do, and that starts with showing love.

JOHN WILLIS | 18 December 2020  


EDITORS | 22 December 2020