Last week my family celebrated the graduation of my youngest son with a Master’s degree in social work from the School of Social Work of Virginia Commonwealth University. The School of Social Work is large enough to require a separate commencement. I expected to experience all the typical sensations and emotions: pride in my son, a touch of melancholy that his would likely be the last such graduation that I would attend until grandchildren (of whom I have none so far), amusement at the antics of graduates and their families and friends, and, inevitably, boredom somewhere around surnames beginning with “K.”
I did not expect the fervor. The program featured four principle speakers, an elected official to deliver the formal address and one student representative each of the PhD, Master’s, and Bachelor’s graduates. All four delivered moving speeches emphasizing the values that guide the profession. They spoke of a commitment to the poor, the underserved, those on the margins of society, the powerless, and the voiceless. They challenged graduates to fight for justice and positive change. They used words like hope, love, and calling. All four clearly displayed the drive to make a difference. The graduates responded with cheers and applause.
In sum, it sounded to me like a seminary graduation exercise, except that no one mentioned God or Jesus and there was no hymn. It looked like one, too. Apart from the gender differential (my guess is that about two-thirds of the graduating class was female), the demographics corresponded to those of the population that once attended seminary. That is to say, that unlike current seminary students, most of these social work graduates were of what one might consider “traditional” age.
I do not intend to criticize social work as a discipline and profession, any school of social work, and certainly not social work students and social workers. I am thankful that the discipline exists and, above all, that people enter the field as a vocation. After all, my son chose it with my blessing. I am proud that he has chosen to give his professional life in the service of others. The experience has raised a number of questions for me, however.
First, I wonder whether I was watching the graduation of students who would have been my students in an earlier generation. The decline in the numbers of seminarians in recent years is well-documented and its causes often the subject of discussion and debate (see my blog post “‘Study to show yourself approved unto God…’” (2 Tim 2:15),” posted 2/24/16). Whatever the causes of the shrinking population of seminarians, the size, demographics, and enthusiasm of my son’s graduating class discount any explanation that attributes the decline to the attitudes of the current generation of potential seminarians. This generation has clearly produced numbers of young men and women eager to invest their lives in the lives of others.
Second, since a sense of calling to any work implies someone to do the calling, I wonder whether there were believers among those graduates who feel called to this work, but who do not recognize such a calling as a calling to ministry? Seminary faculties throughout the country struggle now with questions of identity and purpose. Surely, seminaries exist to serve the church. Is God working in the world only in the church? If seminaries expand their understandings of their mission and purpose to focus on serving the kingdom of God, would they be better equipped to help people to recognize social work as ministry and to prepare ministers to society?
Third, the ratio of women to men in this class of social work graduates resembles the ratio of women to men in theologically moderate and liberal seminaries today. Women have long constituted the majority of those who chose the professions of teaching and nursing, to name but two. It seems that people are coming to view the “helping professions,” including ministry, as the domain of women or, stated conversely, that men tend to shun these callings. One could speculate that the unreasonably low incomes earned in these ministering vocations may be a factor.
Finally, of course, I wonder what provides the core of the values celebrated by everyone who stood at the podium to speak. The discipline of social work is, after all, based on the social sciences. It is empirical and pragmatic. How does one derive “ought” from “is,” however? I suspect that many of the faculty and students present last week find that core elsewhere – perhaps in faith.
Taken together, my surprise at the tone and substance of my son’s graduation has highlighted for me the need for the church – and for seminary faculties – to take stock of the fact that professions have arisen that do work that would once have been considered ministry, the work of the church. To the extent that the church has failed to do that work, I am grateful for the structurally religionless ministry of social workers, counselors, psychologists, and others. To the extent that the church has failed clearly to recognize this work as a ministry and to assist believers in responding to God’s call to it, I am troubled. To the extent that seminaries have begun to grapple seriously with the question of how to support the whole mission of God in the world, I am hopeful.