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Spirituality, leadership and social service in the church

  • 15 December 2020
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.

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