Well-Being Redefined

Traditional social work courses can be combined with theology and spirituality studies

How do you define well-being?

If you ask most social work professionals, you’ll probably get an answer focusing on optimal physical and mental health.

But social workers from academics to agencies are beginning to take a new look at how they define well-being for their clients.

Seeking to fill a need created by this trend, a series of collaborative programs are inaugurating this fall that combine traditional social work coursework with advanced study of theology and spirituality studies.

These programs have earned the title "dual degree programs" and allow participants to prepare for licensure as a social worker in Minnesota while completing a master of arts in theology, divinity or pastoral studies from the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, Luther Seminary or the College of St. Catherine.

"Historically, the social work profession has always had a philosophy of the separation of church and state. Spirituality was an area you stayed away from as a social worker," explained Dr. Barbara Shank, dean of the School of Social Work. "Now there is a very large group of people within the social work profession that are part of a movement that won’t ignore religion, but instead are addressing it in a professional respectful manner."

Shank is one of a core group of individuals who are implementing these new graduate level social work preparation options that encompass the full range of a client’s well-being — body, mind and spirit.

This new way to train social workers is an innovative set of degree programs that allow students to finish both degrees in less time than if they were taken separately and have the added benefit of integrating their social work studies with spirituality studies for either professional or personal enhancement.

Spurred by demands within the profession, as well as interest from aspiring social workers, social work academics and professionals have made a shift toward recognition of spirituality as an integral part of comprehensive well being. Conferences and organizations have developed as a result of this shift concerning spirituality and social work practice. An international organization, the Society for Spirituality and Social Work, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and held its annual, international conference at the University of Kansas at Lawrence last summer.

Are there ethical concerns surrounding these new program options for would-be social workers? Shank remarked, "The purpose of academic preparation for social workers in the spiritual aspects of their clients is not to convert a person, but instead to understand more of what may be affecting the well being of that person and address the issues. Spirituality can be a major influence in well-being."

Can this new degree sequence really make a difference in preparing social work practitioners? Shank said, "Absolutely. Not only for those with a professional interest in becoming a well-rounded social work practitioner, but also for those with a personal interest in theology and spirituality."

In the traditional master of social work degree program offered through St. Thomas and the College of St. Catherine, students have the option of taking one elective spirituality course called Spiritual Dimensions of Social Work Practice. Enrollment in this course has increased nearly 50 percent between 1995 and 2000, according to Melanie Guentzel, student services coordinator in the School of Social Work.

"The field of social work and the care of lives from a Christian perspective are inseparable," remarked Dr. Paul Berge, a professor of New Testament Studies and director of the master of arts degree program at Luther Seminary. Berge oversees Luther Seminary’s theology programs that are combined with the St. Thomas-St. Catherine master of social work degree. He has had an extensive career in parish ministry as an Air Force chaplain and later as an educator. Berge said, "It’s exciting to see the disciplines of social work and theology coming together."

Berge sees an intense interest in the type of dual degree program that is being offered: "Students have been interested in bringing together the study of theology with the practice of social ministries, and they have been disappointed that we could not offer such a program."

Berge has more in common with St. Thomas than at first meets the eye. "I began my studies at what is now the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. I used to live on Stanford Avenue and walked to the seminary. I spent one whole summer researching the letters to Paul with Father Jerry Quinn." Berge also taught at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity from 1985-1990.

Initial discussions for the dual degree program sequence began in 1996. When the decision of whether or not to initiate the dual degree program was put to a vote, it was a unanimous decision to move ahead. "This says something about how the Luther Seminary faculty saw the importance of such a program," quipped Berge.

This fall, four students entered the social work dual degree program. One of those is Deborah Anderson, 49, originally from River Falls, Wis., who recently completed a master of divinity degree at Pacific Religious College in Berkeley, Calif. Anderson received her undergraduate degree in communication from St. Catherine in 1989 and returned to Minnesota in May this year to pursue a dual degree and hopefully become a licensed social worker.

"I got my feet wet in corporate America. I worked at 3M for a few years in several departments, including human resources," Anderson explained. "After those initial experiences, I had a strong sense of call to ministry … it wasn’t just a nudge for me, it felt more like a push."

What appealed to Anderson about the dual degree program is the more comprehensive curriculum that will prepare her to do more professionally. "In most master of social work programs, you focus on traditional social work areas and usually end up working in a government or private agency. If you want to work in a church or a pastoral setting, you’re often times left unprepared. The dual degree programs prepare you for both."

Nationally there are less than 10 institutions that offer this type of advanced combined degree. In the Midwest, the closest program is at Loyola University in Chicago. "I looked at most of the programs available nationally and had narrowed my search down to Chicago or the Twin Cities. Looking further into the program I found there were deficiencies at Loyola that weren’t apparent in the St. Thomas program," Anderson observed.

What are the career opportunities for someone with advanced degrees in social work and religious studies? According to both Shank and Berge, the future looks promising for people interested in this type of social work practice. "There have always been social work positions in larger churches. What’s happening now is that welfare reform has created a shift in social welfare from less reliance on federal and state support to more reliance on private sectarian and non-sectarian providers. Social workers in churches are one way of providing these services," Shank said.

How do you define well-being? If you ask soon-to-be dual degree program students and many within the social work profession, you’ll undoubtedly receive a more enlightened answer. It is an answer that encompasses a person’s total well-being of mind, body and spirit.

Note: The School of Social Work provides admission to the dual degree programs anytime during the year. For more information call the School of Social Work at (651) 962-5810 or e-mail at msw@stthomas.edu.