Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

6/13 2016

Theological Values of Social Work

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

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.


10/19 2015

Combining theological counseling and social work for hospice care

theological counseling and social work for hospiceWhen I first started my chaplain training, I treated social workers as rivals. They seemed never to understand exactly how chaplains served patients and their families. The fact that I did not understand the role of social workers didn’t help much, either.

Perhaps this animosity came from the fact that our roles seemed so similar. Like social workers, chaplains offer counseling to those in crisis. We use similar listening skills, similar approaches to getting to the root of problems, and hold similar ethical values such as confidentiality, professional boundaries, and creating a safe space for healing conversations.

Like chaplains, social workers use community resources to provide assistance to those in need. Social workers provide access to services provided by government agencies, nonprofits, and even churches in order to find solutions to crises. Often, social workers are motivated from deeply held faith and religious beliefs. This only adds to the ambiguity and temptation to rivalry. “Look, we don’t need you,” a social worker once told me. “I can pray with the patient if she wants prayer!” My response was equally harsh.

Thankfully, both time and job experience have changed my understanding of the relationship between social workers and chaplains. As I progress in my field, I realize that while yes, there are similarities between the two fields, and they often appear to be asking the same questions, the strengths of one complement the limitations of the other. By working together, the two fields bring far more benefit to the patient than they ever could by themselves.

I experienced this firsthand while working for a hospice agency. Whenever a new patient is admitted to hospice care, several assessments are required from medical, social work, and chaplaincy departments. As our social worker was new and did not know the area where our new patient lived, I offered to drive her to the location. We could then do our assessments simultaneously.

The assessments required both of us to ask questions about the funeral arrangements of the patients. But here our fields diverged. Our social worker wanted to know if arrangements had been made with a funeral home. Was there a burial plot purchased, or was the patient to be cremated following her death? Was everything paid for? Was there a will written and power of attorney named so that her plans would be honored? The goal here was to make sure that important details were not overlooked and to avoid the added pain that this would cause during a time of great grief. And if there were problems with planning, or affording the needed services, our social worker provided details and possible solutions.

While these issues are extremely important, the chaplain approaches this situation differently. One question I always ask is, “How does talking about all of this make you feel?” Although one might think the response would be a sarcastic version of, “How do you think it makes me feel!?!” I find that asking open ended questions not necessarily centered around the primary illness sheds light on the patient’s concerns. “Where is God for you in all of this?” or even “What do you believe happens to us when we die?” are other questions I use to open up end-of-life discussions. My role is not to gather information; my job is to be present and listen to the concerns of the person in front of me. The social worker’s questions also open up possible avenues of conversation regarding the patient’s relationships. A question about wills or power of attorney might result in the patient naming a previously unmentioned relative. This in turn might lead to the patient telling a story of family conflict. As the role of the chaplain is very much involved in stories and reconciliation, this information might illuminate an unhealed wound that needs tending.

Whereas I once was irritated when I visited a patient and found the social worker already there, I now see these moments as opportunities. Both fields are concerned with the care of the patient; both fields are concerned with healing and well-being. And both fields, I believe, are at their best when they work together, sharing and using information to illuminate needs that have not been given voice. There is great healing that can take place during the last days of a patient’s life, be it reconciling with family and friends, facing fears regarding the dying process, or having someone be present to hear and honor one’s life story. These are powerful and holy moments, and are best facilitated when social workers and chaplains work closely together.

The Rev. Scott Fuller is a D.Min. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is a chaplain at Life Pittsburgh.

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