Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

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.


1/19 2016

Non-Traditional Ministry: Preaching in a Nursing Home

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Nursing-home-chaplaincy-quoteAfter graduating with my M.Div./MSW from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2005 I was excited to see how I would use both degrees. I discovered that my passion and degrees aligned in continuing care/nursing home chaplaincy. The ministry for which my M.Div. prepared me theologically coupled with the skills gained through my masters in social work program was a perfect fit. I spent the next five years engaged in ministry that shocked, excited, frustrated, and empowered me. And I saw God at work in powerful ways in the staff and residents of my community.

Preaching in non-traditional locations, like nursing homes, prisons, hospitals, and businesses, gives pastors two different opportunities. If you are called in as a virtual stranger to offer a message to virtual strangers, you are called to offer hope from outside of their normal daily routine. But if you are the pastor/chaplain who is present daily, preaching becomes like breathing to your congregation. It is a natural outpouring of the week and time you have spent together.

I spent the first year of my ministry trying to fit traditional preaching into my time at the continuing care community. I led three-five worship services a week. These worship services ranged from a memory support service to a service with our independent living residents weekly. Learning as I had in seminary that preaching was the most important part of worship, I spent time researching and writing as I was taught. But the more involved I became in the life of the residents and staff, I realized something was changing.

As I spent eight hours a day five-seven days a week in our residents homes, apartments, and rooms my ministry began to radically change. I began to understand that I was sharing the word of God with people constantly. I began to see that my presence reminded those who often feel forgotten that God loves us no matter what. It became clear to me that preaching was happening every moment of every day-in each family meeting, staff meeting, visit, and worship service. Preaching was not an isolated event that happened three-five times per week. Preaching occurred constantly and our times of worship were all of us gathering together and remembering all the ways God had been faithful to us throughout the week. The words I preached each week, were reminders of God’s faithfulness and a call to do it all again, together.

So, my preaching and worship preparation changed. I began to understand that spending hours in my office preparing was not a faithful use of my time. I needed to be out, with the residents and staff. I still was faithful in my preaching, I still spent time, but not in the manner that was prescribed to me in seminary. I read to them from the children’s Bible. I told them the stories they loved and needed to hear. I met them exactly where they were, and I knew that place so well, because I worked to engage all the staff and residents daily.

Non-traditional ministries and locations often allow pastors to engage with their congregations more often and more intimately. This provides for an exciting opportunity to share the gospel and sermons in a more personal way.

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


11/11 2015

Counseling Through Spiritually Integrated Treatment

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theology and mental health counselingShannon is having sleepless nights, is short with her kids, and has even scared herself from time to time as thoughts of suicide have floated across the landscape of her mind. As a minister in a respectable denomination, she realizes that the words of grace and pardon she proclaims week after week don’t seem to penetrate her own soul even as she hopes them for her beloved sheep.

Michael is in a 12-step program where he is trying to “fake it until he makes it” and is working diligently to change his “people, places, and things”. But try as he might, he can’t quite believe in the higher power that is supposed to be keeping him sober. That higher power of his youth, that pie in the sky Santa Clause figure with a disapproving glare who rains on the just and who has let him down one too many times. Like that time that his father left his mother to raise three small children on her own in spite of Michael’s desperate, but futile, cries to God that his father would return. Michael believes that his very sobriety depends on an embrace of that God and yet he finds himself no longer able to go there.

These people are fabricated in my mind. Or more accurately said, they are bits and pieces of the 100 different people who grace the halls of the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute (PPI) every day, wrestling with the very place that theology and mental health meet. People often ask us what “spiritually integrated treatment” means. They wonder what PPI does that is unique from secular or Christian counseling. It’s a terribly challenging question but one that I believe finds its focus in the dual MDiv/MSW degree program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work from which I (and many of the other therapists at PPI) have proudly graduated.

Through my seminary education, I learned how individuals construct their understanding of God even as my own thinking about God was challenged to be bigger and more expansive than I previously knew possible. Seminary grounded me deeper in my sacred tradition and deepened the value I place on the power of ritual even as I learned to embrace the traditions and rituals of others. My social work education taught me how our lives are lived in systems, how change comes about in the human psyche, and how human services can function as agents of grace in the world in ways that most churches currently only dream about. The unique coupling of these disciplines creates therapists and practitioners like myself who can journey with people from despair to hope as they weave in and out of the personal and conceptual landscapes of life, and family and sacred community, and faith and social action, and responsibility and connectedness.

People of all colors and stripes, with a vast variety of faith orientations, bring their journeys of brokenness and resiliency, faith and fear, desperation and hope, to the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute. This is spiritually integrated treatment. Thanks be to the joint MDiv/MSW degree program for equipping me so well to live out this call to the world.

Michelle Snyder, LCSW is a 2009 graduate of the joint MDiv/MSW degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She currently serves as executive director at Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute and oversees The Center for Clergy and Congregational Care.

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