“The Limits of Love: Perplexity, Exhaustion & Prayer”

“In the everyday interactions of helping relations, Christian caregivers puzzle over asymmetries of power and their own exhaustion, leading them to ask how Christianity not only exhorts love but also may aid the discernment of love’s limits. ”

Team Members/Contributors

Emily Dubie Duke University Contact Me

About this dissertation fellowship

My dissertation examines the moral life-cycle of the Christian caregiver, specified in the case of social work. Drawing upon interviews with thirty-five Christian social workers, I explore their moral and religious motivations to care for others, their perplexities within the helping relation, and how they draw upon professional and religious resources to cope with exhaustion. This examination contributes to scholarly understandings of religion in public life, feminist ethics of care, critical accounts of power in social services, and prayer as a form of moral action.

While my participants become social workers largely because of Christian love, they labor in conditions of insufficient resources, unmanageable caseloads, and persistent structural evils. Moreover, they bear power over their clients, acting as gatekeepers to medical treatment, shelter or, paradigmatically, another’s children. Compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary trauma ensue.

Facing the twin perplexities of asymmetrical power and exhaustion, my participants search for criteria to distinguish between good and bad care, as well as to mark care’s appropriate limits. Professional remedies include codes of ethics, boundaries, and self-care. But given their religious motivations to care for neighbors, they also engage in theological reflection and spiritual practices. They cite Jesus as a model for the appropriate use of power, and they pray for divine assistance. Infusing their avowedly secular workplaces with confessions of their hope in God’s care, these caregivers illuminate religious and moral innovation in bureaucratic settings.

In doing so, my participants illuminate what I take to be a juncture of moral distress in contemporary social practice: the intersection of love, help, and power. What are love's appropriate limits? How can the offer of help not injure but heal? My ethnographic interviews illuminate these questions and suggest possibilities for more faithful action.