Posted by Paul Baker on May 4, 2017
AURORA, Ill. — Social work has deep roots in religious doctrine. But since the late 19th century, as social work became less of a calling and more of a profession, the spiritual component of the practice has largely disappeared.
“That’s been especially true since about 1920,” said Bill Ressl, the director of Aurora University’s new master’s degree specialization in faith-based social work. “Even today, the vast majority of social work — I’d say 90 percent — is primarily secular in nature.”
Such resistance is decreasing, however.
Since the 1980s, he said, some practitioners have begun to recognize that sensitivity toward human spirituality and religious faith play an important role in social work. Recently, even the National Association of Social Workers, long a bastion of the theoretical approach to social work, has acknowledged as much.
Even so, according to Ressl, Aurora’s year-old program remains a rarity in higher education today. “We’re very much on the cutting edge,” he said.
“Our program is designed to help students integrate faith, theory and ethical practice as well as understand how their own faith contributes to their work,” he said. “We don’t evangelize or proselytize.”
AU’s MSW faith-based specialization consists of one required course — “Spirituality, Meaning Making and Faith-Based Practice” — along with two approved electives and a field placement of up to 600 hours in a faith-based setting. Students can focus in individual and family counseling or social group work.
Deb Farnsworth, 46, of Lee, enrolled in the program in the fall of 2016, after several years of managing a bookstore. After the book store closed in late 2014, she worked briefly at a school for children with autism, and a year ago began in her role as the Christian education director at First Lutheran Church in DeKalb.
She discovered AU’s MSW program serendipitously. After working through the exercises in the career guide “What Color is Your Parachute” and exploring likely career paths online, she realized that every career she could see herself pursuing would require a master’s degree in social work.
Aurora University’s location plus the reputation of its social work program made it an easy decision.
“AU seemed to be very active throughout the community,” she explained, adding that many of the practicing social workers she spoke with had obtained their own degrees from AU.
As a Christian herself, Farnsworth believes her faith drives her desire to practice social work, and her social work education informs her congregational work.
“Many Americans today describe themselves as ‘spiritual,’ but don’t subscribe to any formal religious beliefs,” she said. “In a therapeutic context, a person’s spirituality and way of thinking about God, or a higher power impacts their health whether or not they consider themselves religious.”
“It’s a way to talk to a person not just clinically, but also to recognize that individual’s spirituality, whatever that might be,” Ressl said. “Faith-based social work bridges both worlds in a way that tries to help them understand their lives, to help them in some way.”
For students interested in delving more deeply into theological aspects of social work, AU, in conjunction with the McCormick Theological Seminary, also offers a combined MSW degree and Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree. The dual degree prepares professionals to work in a number of secular and faith-based settings in leadership, community organizing, counseling, pastoral ministry and teaching to name a few.
For more information about Aurora University’s MSW programs, please contact the AU Center for Adult and Graduate Studies at 630-844-5294 or AUadmission@aurora.edu.
Editor’s note: Bill Ressl developed the faith-based specialization and will serve as the first coordinator of the specialization until May 17, 2017. Ressl continues as the advisor for the School of Social Work Theological Seminary Affiliation Effort developing dual MSW/MDiv degree programs. As of May 17, 2017, Larry LeSure is the new coordinator of the faith-based specialization and faith-based internships.