Frontline Initiative Spirituality

Spirituality and spiritual connections:
Assess it, train it, and practice it


Reverend Bill Gaventa is the director of Community and Congregational Supports at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School/ UMDNJ.

In the last two decades, health and human services have worked hard to determine appropriate ways to discover and support individuals’ spirituality and how it can improve their healthcare and/ or quality of life. Assessing spiritual needs and interests is not the same as asking how religious you are or what/whether you believe.

There are many forms of spiritual assessments. (See Erik Carter’s book, Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations, from Brookes Publishing). Each agency needs to decide how to use or design a spiritual assessment that fits into their person-centered and/ or IHP planning. One format that is easy to adapt and remember is called FICA. There are four areas of questions to be answered by the person receiving support.

FICA Spiritual Assessment Tool

Faith: What is your preference, choice, tradition, or identity?

Influence and importance: How important is it? How does it influence your life?

Communal expression: Is there a group or organization in which it is expressed? For example, a congregation or organization? Are you part of one? Would you like to be? In what ways?

Assistance: How can I/we help you with this?

It may help to involve family members or friends in this discussion. Just don’t stop with the question, “Do you go to church or synagogue?” People with intellectual disabilities often have not had the opportunity, or they did so as a child but not as an adult. And if your agency does not have a chaplain or professional who works in spiritual supports, think about inviting an interfaith group to help you plan how to do this.

Assessment is the first step. Next is training. Develop an in-service to help staff become comfortable with asking these questions; they can practice with each other. The training should allow time to talk about how our attitudes are impacted by our experiences and traditions, the appropriate staff roles (guiding, facilitating, supporting, but not proselytizing), the policies and supports needed to carry this out, and the skills needed to connect with clergy and congregations. Finally, consider inviting people from congregations who welcome people with intellectual disabilities to explain how DSPs can work with them to honor and respect individuals’ choices and dreams. The biggest complaints I hear from people with disabilities and congregations are about lack of staffing on weekends or staff who don’t see this as their jobs. But it is everyone’s responsibility: the person receiving support, DSPs, and faith communities. DSPs can help make it happen, transforming individuals and congregations in the process. It does not mean DSPs have to believe or practice the way someone else does. Rather, it is an opportunity for DSPs to demonstrate the best of their professional role and commitment: helping the people they support to connect meaningfully with people in the community. In fact, like a good job coach, DSPs can work themselves out of the “faith connector” part of their jobs. And when they do, everyone wins.