Saturday, August 22, 2020

Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Interview with Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D.

[Episode 128] Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is a conversation with Dr. Holly Oxhandler ( 

I speak with Holly about the definitions of religion and spirituality,  similarities and differences in religious and spiritual affiliation between social work professionals and their clients, how to address religion and spirituality in practice, and her experience as the co-host of the CXMH podcast (  

Download MP3 [45:05]


Holly K. Oxhandler joined Baylor University’s Garland School of Social Work in 2014 upon completing her PhD at the University of Houston. She studies the intersection of ethical and effective integration of clients’ religion/spirituality (RS) with the evidence-based practice process in mental and behavioral health treatment. She developed the Religious/Spiritually Integrated Practice Assessment Scale (RSIPAS), which assesses mental healthcare providers’ (social workers, psychologists, counselors, marriage and family therapists, and nurses) attitudes, perceived feasibility, self-efficacy, behaviors, and overall orientation toward integrating clients’ RS in practice. She has also developed other instruments related to this area of practice, including the RSIPAS-Client Attitudes, the Social Workers’ Integration of their Faith – Christian (SWIF-C) Scale, and most recently, the Relevance of Religion/Spirituality to Mental Health to measure clients’ perceived relevance of religion/spirituality and mental health. 

Dr. Oxhandler cohosts the weekly podcast, CXMH: Christianity & Mental Health, has clinical and research experience working with older adults with anxiety and depression at Baylor College of Medicine, and often consults with other helping professions on the ethical integration of clients’ religion/spirituality. Though the integration of clients’ RS in mental health treatment is her primary area of interest, her scholarship also includes evidence-based practice, serious mental illness, anxiety disorders, virtual reality, mentoring, and social work practitioners’ professional identity. Dr. Oxhandler teaches across the BSW, MSW, and PhD programs in courses primarily related to research and statistics.

Dr. Oxhandler’s research and training have been generously supported by the John Templeton Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Baylor University and others. She is grateful for these sources of support but is especially thankful for the invaluable mentoring she has received over the years. Because of her exceptional mentors, Dr. Oxhandler deeply enjoys paying it forward by mentoring students outside the classroom with regard to professional development and supporting faculty in her role as associate dean for Research and Faculty Development.



Jonathan Singer: In today’s episode of the social work podcast, I talk with Dr. Holly Oxhandler about religion and spirituality in social work practice. Long-time listeners of the podcast will know that I’ve done several episodes about religion and spirituality, starting with Episode #2, back in January 2007, talked about the role of spirituality in the biopsychosocial spiritual assessment. 2010 was a banner year for religion and spirituality on the podcast. I first spoke with Nancy Boyd-Franklin in episode 59 about incorporating religion and spirituality into social work practice with African Americans. Later that year I spoke with author Eileen Flanagan in Episode 61 about the Serenity prayer. Yes, I did an entire episode about the serenity prayer. It was fascinating. In 2012 and 2014 I had episodes about religious child maltreatment, which encompasses religiously motivated physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and medical neglect. And along the way, many of my guests have talked about the role of religion and spirituality in various facets of social work practice. 

So, why another episode? Well, social work has an uncomfortable relationship with religion and spirituality. We’re required to assess for religion and spirituality, but most social workers have no training in what to do when people say that religion and spirituality is important. As Holly mentions in this interview, social workers as a profession are much less religious and much more spiritual than the general population. And when social workers are religious, their affiliations are very different from the general population. So, even though social workers don’t have to share a faith tradition with their clients, or have any faith tradition at all, I still have questions about the role of religion and spirituality in social work. So I turned to my friend and Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development and an Associate Professor in Baylor's Diana Garland School of Social Work, Dr. Holly Oxhandler. 

Dr. Oxhandler’s research focuses on the ethical and effective integration of clients’ religion, spirituality in mental and behavioral health treatment, and she's received funding from the John Templeton Foundation and Spencer Foundation. She developed the Religious Spirituality Integrated Practice Assessment Scale for mental health care providers and a number of other scales to better understand clients’ and social work educators’ views or experiences with this topic. Dr. Oxhandler also serves as the cohost of the CXMH, a podcast at the intersection of faith and mental health. You can find Dr. Oxhandler on social media @hollyoxhandler ( and the CXMH podcast at

Before we get to the interview, let’s get some definitions out of the way, and these come from Holly via Ed Canda’s work: 

Religion is an institutionalized pattern of values, beliefs, symbols, behaviors, and experiences that are oriented toward spiritual concerns that are shared by a community and transmitted overtime in traditions. For example, every Friday night my family and I say prayers as we light candles, drink the fruit of the vine and eat bread. This shabbat tradition is shared by the community of Jews all over the world. By participating in this weekly tradition, we are passing along the symbols, behaviors and experiences to our children.  

Spirituality, on the other hand, has some overlaps but is distinct in and of itself. Spirituality is said to be a universal and fundamental human quality involving the search for a sense of meaning, purpose, morality, well-being and profundity in relationships with ourselves, others, and ultimate reality, however that might be understood. And spirituality can be expressed in various religious forms, or it can be separate from them. 

Until he died, we celebrated shabbat with my wife’s grandfather every Friday night. My wife would call him, first over Skype and then with Facetime. In the beginning, shabbat was an excuse for us to show Irv our first born - his great-granddaughter. But, over time shabbat became a way for our children to get to know their great-grandfather. The ritual of celebrating Shabbat had little to do with religion. We didn’t talk about the meanings of the prayers, the symbolism of the candles, bread or wine, or anything that could be considered remotely theological. And while Irv was a religious man, I also wondered if this was a spiritual experience for him. I wondered if seeing our 5-year olds reminded him of the 1920s when he was 5, living in Sancti SpĂ­ritus, Cuba, celebrating shabbat with his family. Hearing his voice as he sang the prayers compressed hundreds of years of family ritual into a single, often time chaotic, 5-minute Facetime. Now I’m not saying it is spiritual to yell at your kid to put down the matches, but I know that shabbat will always mean something more to my kids because of the time they spent with their great-grandfather. May his memory be a blessing.

And now, without further ado, on to episode 128 of the Social Work Podcast: Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Interview with Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D. 


APA (7th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2020, August 22). #128 - Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Interview with Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D. [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from

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