Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

6/29 2016

Pastoral Care and Counseling to Navigate Social Services

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tips for pastors to help congregants navigate social servicesAs clergy, we find that we are constantly asked to be experts at tasks and we’re unprepared—plumber, roofer, fundraiser, cleaner, social media expert, copier repair person, barista. Tasks we spend years preparing for in seminary revolve around divinity and theology. Tasks many of us hope we are prepared for revolve around care and counseling. Theology and counseling. We desperately want to make a difference as pastors. We are called by God to spend our lives and our careers telling people about the love of Jesus Christ. It just so happens that nearly all of the people we tell are hurting. And we desperately want to pour ourselves into fixing that hurt.

Pastoral Care

There is a difference between pastoral care and counseling. Pastoral care is walking with someone in their time of trial, hurt, or misfortune. Counseling is problem solving. Counselors have a care plan and a care team to make sure that they are meeting the goals of their plans with their clients. Counselors have brief relationships with clients. Counselors do not walk through life with their clients like pastors do.


Counseling is a brief (a few months or years) relationship with someone focused on a malady in their family system or their emotional state. Counseling is seeing tangible results. And it is incredible to see results. These are results that often evade us in parish ministry.

As a pastor and a counselor, I have found both relationships extremely rewarding, though they have remained separate. I have never been a counselor to a parishioner. The roles are so different. Breaking bread with someone, baptizing their children, being present as they die; this is the role of pastor. This is the honor of walking with someone in the ups and downs of daily life and proclaiming “God loves you!” “Jesus is here!”

As a pastor walking with congregation members, we naturally come in contact with a variety of social service systems. Hospitals, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, suicide hotlines, nursing homes, schools, child services, and the justice system to name a few. Because of our exposure, people oftentimes look to clergy as experts in a subject that we are learning to navigate ourselves. Here are some tips for congregation members as they navigate unknown social service systems.

Six tips to help your congregation members navigate social service systems:


1. Stay calm.

Most people encounter social service systems, whether for children, adults or the elderly in times of stress. If the person in need of the service is under great stress, is too young, or is ill, it is important that someone who can be calm stay a part of the conversation. You must be able to listen, not just hear what the services are saying.

2. Get a buddy.

Even the most competent social service employee will miss something in a conversation regarding a system. Bring someone along with you to your appointments; have someone with you when you register online. Don’t do it alone. You will miss something.

3. Take notes.

When meeting with a healthcare, financial, social security, or child welfare system, take notes. Date your notes. Document what you are to do next and what the system is to do next. Follow up if things are not acted upon as you expect.

4. Come with questions written down.

Spend three minutes before your appointment, discharge, etc. and list questions that you have. Write them down. When the doctor, social worker, or case manager asks, “Do you have any questions?” say “YES.” Everyone should have questions when heading into an unknown system or situation. If nothing else, ask for information on who to contact when you have questions after leaving the appointment/hospital.

5. Advocate.

Be your own advocate and advocate for your friends and loved ones. The only way we can advocate for one another is if we let each other into our health, financial, and social needs. Trust your neighbor, mother, child, or friend when they tell you something is wrong. And do everything you can to work out the problem with them.

6. Connect with a social worker.

Find a local social worker who can be on call for your congregations needs. Most congregations have a social worker who attends, or someone will have a connection. The social worker will be able to help congregation members navigate the systems.

The role of pastor is so unique. No counselor, social worker, or social service is invited into the fullness of life in the way pastors are. In this unique role it is important to know our limitations and lean on experts who can help us and our congregants navigate some of life’s most frustrating and frightening moments. It is part of the honor and responsibility of walking with others and pointing to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute.


6/13 2016

Theological Values of Social Work

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theology and social workThe theological values of social work can be summarized by two of my husband’s phrases, “God loves us no matter what” and “be a hard worker.”

God Loves Us No Matter What

Scripture tells us: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” Rom 8:38-39.

A social worker might say, “For I am convinced that neither hunger, nor thirst, nor mental illness, nor physical illness, nor abuse, nor homelessness, nor wealth, nor government, nor violence, nor poverty, nor injustice, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In a nutshell social work is seeking justice for the “least of these.” It is working for change in social institutions that are decaying and unhelpful. It is working for change for children and the elderly. It is working for change for the abused. It is advocating. It is being nimble. It is listening.

The theological values of social work are actually quite simple—God love us no matter what.

Be a Hard Worker

Social workers actively live out this belief that God loves us no matter what. Believing that all human beings need to know, and deserve to know, that they are a beloved child of God.

What I most like about the term “social work” is the word WORK. That is absolutely part of the theology. That God wants us to work. Changing social norms, society, government, or the life of just one child takes an enormous amount of work. It takes time, dedication, knowledge, and wherewithal to get the job done.

Social workers are typically underpaid work horses. They are in the background of the story, receiving little to no glory for their hard work. But they do see results.

They get to see children succeeding in school, they get to see behavior management techniques working, they get to see adults discharged home from the hospital with the skills and care they need, they get to listen to couples and see reconciliation, they get to be in the tender moments of life, and they work to get beneficial results for all involved.

The Core Values

The National Association of Social Workers, of which I am a proud member, gives the following definition of the core values of social work:

The mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values. These core values, embraced by social workers throughout the profession’s history, are the foundation of social work’s unique purpose and perspective:

  • service,
  • social justice,
  • dignity and worth of the person,
  • importance of human relationships,
  • integrity, and
  • competence.

You can find more information on these core values and the NASW code of ethics at their website.

Social workers are hard workers. Social workers believe that all humans deserve dignity, service, justice, integrity, and competence. In theological terms, “God loves us no matter what.”

For more information on programs in social work and theology, visit the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary MDiv/MSW joint degree program page.

The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute.


1/25 2016

Reconciliation Through Social Work and Theology

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MDiv-MSW Program StudentI love making phone calls. I always jump at the chance to make phone calls to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary alums and friends. While talking with people on the phone, they always ask, “so, what degree program are you in?” As a graduate student, I get asked this question quite frequently. My answer, however, is unexpected and different from most seminarians. Not only am I getting a Master of Divinity from PTS, I am also getting a Master of Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, I am in my third year at PTS and my first year at Pitt.

I initially decided to start the MDiv/MSW dual degree program because I want more practical knowledge and skills for pastoral care. I feel called to be a hospice chaplain, and I figured that completing the MDiv/MSW dual degree program would give me extra preparation for chaplaincy. I was surprised after I started both degree programs that social work and theology work well together. Completing both degrees has helped me to understand the world and myself in a different ways.

Through classes in both programs, I have learned what it means to serve “the least of these.” From classes at the Seminary like “Church and Society” and classes at Pitt like “Diverse Populations,” I’ve begun learning about the vast number of cultures and influences in different groups of people. I’ve learned about the need for cultural competence and understanding in ministry and social work practice. In ministry, it is essential to understand your own culture as well as the culture of the people you are working with.

The MDiv and MSW programs have led me to have a better theological understanding of Christ’s mission of reconciliation. In my “Diverse Populations” class, I learned about the different types of oppression people experience in the world. Being a part of Christ’s mission of reconciliation means breaking down systems of oppression in society and internalized oppression. The MDiv and MSW programs have forced me to step out of my comfort zone and see what personal biases I have and need to overcome. These programs have stretched me and encouraged me to work with people who experience oppression. Most of the clients I work with at my MSW internship are older adults who experience ageism and have a lack of resources. All of my field work in the MDiv and MSW programs continue to prepare me for working with a wide variety of populations.

Being a graduate student at two schools comes with a lot of stress and a heavy course load. Many people have asked me, “is it all worth it?” I personally believe that getting these two degrees is worth it. Just in this short amount of time, I have learned so much about theology and how it applies to everyday life. I have learned concrete skills and techniques that can help me be a part of Christ’s mission of reconciliation. Whether I am a chaplain or social work practitioner, I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to learn so much about God, the world, and myself.

Annamarie Groenenboom is a senior MDiv/MSW student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. She is a Hartford Fellow at Pitt and focuses on gerontology. She is completing her internship at Harmar Village Care Center and looks forward to using her joint degree to be a hospice chaplain. When not studying she likes to spend time with her husband, read Harry Potter, and crochet.

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