Religionless Ministry

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.

5 thoughts on “Religionless Ministry

  1. Religionless Ministry.

    In my opinion (please) todays needs in social work are far different than those of years ago. There is no comparison. There is no way that a seminary can educate ministers in social work as well as teach them Bible and do a good job in both.

    Your son got a Masters Degree. That is a lot of study in the field of social work. If a ministerial student were to spend that much time in the Bible he would be better prepared for the ministry.

    If a seminary strays just one iota from educating students in the Bible and teach them how to present the word of God then they will not be doing their job.

  2. There may have been a few dual Master of Divinity/Master of Social Work students graduating that day, too, as many BTSR, VUU, and Union students have done.
    I wish the seminary had more discussions (when I was there) about the intersection of professional ministry and professional social work.

    1. I completed the BTSR half of my degree first and then went into the MSW degree at VCU. When you are in your last semester of the dual degree program, they teach a capstone course that ties together both degrees. It was terrible. I don’t even know who the professor was that had the MDIV / MSW students together, but we met once every couple of weeks. Sometimes not at all. We had to turn in a few one page papers about social justice and ministry, but it obviously didn’t stick with me. I remember thinking at the time, it was such a waste. Also, when you finish BTSR and go to VCU for the second half of the dual degree, it feels that you are no longer apart of the BTSR community. I completely felt like I was a stranger at my BTSR graduation. I had been away for two years completing the MSW part and it felt isolated and weird.

      Once you register as a dual degree, then there are certain classes you can’t take that regular BTSR students are required. I couldn’t sign up for the mission emersion experience. If I did, I would get bumped from the list if a BTSR student needed that credit. I don’t understand why they made that a rule, but I would have loved to have been apart of the mission emersion experience. When you become a social worker, you train annually on cultural diversity and yet, I couldn’t experience that as a seminary student because I registered as a dual degree. Hopefully that has changed since I graduated in 2010.

      There is a need for more discussion because it feels that I completed two very different master programs and yet they go together so well as a ministry, but yet its treated as if it is all separate.

      1. wolfred,
        I did the same–both degrees– and agree with you 100% regarding the disconnect between the two degree programs. The Capstone class was not helpful, poorly organized, and I did not feel it served to strengthen my understanding of the two degrees; it felt a little like busy-work.
        Whereas my fellow seminary cohorts had mentors and leaders guiding them in their internships, I had supervisors for my internships. I wish the seminary could have worked with VCU School of Social Work Internship Office to help with offering more faith-based internships too. This may have guided me in a path of options for future careers.

  3. When I was young I sensed a call to ministry and my faith practice has continued to be important for me. One problem I faced in my years-long testing of my vocation was a limited imagination within the church as to how to respond to a “call to ministry.” Back in those days in my Baptist faith, a “call to ministry” was typically seen as a vocation as pastor, a “call to preach.” I did not really get a lot of guidance in discerning my call, most of what I got was encouragement to preach the Gospel. I completed seminary, taught school overseas as a missionary, and put my name out in my denomination for pastoral ministry.

    I began to see that social ministry was what I was more at home with rather than traditional “pulpit ministry.” My inquiries into the possibilities for a position in social ministry were met with quizzical looks from pastors and Directors of Missions in my denomination. While I was in my state of quandary, an opportunity arose for a social worker position at an Episcopal Church which had an outreach to many community needs. I changed denominations and enjoyed 12 years serving the developmentally disabled while I stood alongside other colleagues who feeding the poor and providing other services for the needy.

    My life took another turn when I needed more income for a growing family, so I re-tooled by going to nursing school. My original intent was to use my nursing degree to stay in the field of services for the developmentally disabled, but at things played out I worked instead in psychiatric nursing with adolescents and later moved into medical nursing in cardiac surgery (I now call myself a “heart-and-soul nurse”).

    I guess I have spent my life in states of conversion and discernment. My faith has served me well in the process, even when the institutional church was lacking in imagination and short on vocational guidance.