Both Roads Taken Now: A Clergyman's Journey into Social Work

MAR. 08, 2016

By Peter Bauer

My personal and professional life have centered on helping others and making our world a better place. Thus, I now find myself being a hybrid of a clergyperson and mental health provider. This combination of two disciplines seems to many not to have a naturally congruent relationship. Many clergy and mental health providers are quite leery of each other. If you minister in both realms, you can feel like an outsider.

I once had a social work supervisor ask me “What do you want to be, a chaplain or a social worker?“ I had long ago come to terms with the fact that Christian clergy were about the business of proclaiming the kingdom of God, ministering to others in Christ through preaching, performing the sacraments, teaching, providing pastoral care and counseling, among other things. Social workers provided care for others through assessment, education, referrals, psychotherapy and community organizing. It did not appear to be a stretch that one could assume both roles. They seemed at that time, and still do appear to me as complementary.   

Both pastoral care and counseling and clinical social work embrace an understanding of the whole person: body, mind and spirit. clinical social work emphasizes the dignity and autonomy of every human being. Pastoral care And counseling emphasizes that humans are unique creatures created by God, who deserve to experience the absolute fullness of life. I have learned by both incorporating clinical social work and pastoral care and counseling that the helping professional can be sensitive to the individual autonomy of all persons and at the same time pay attention of the internal life of the spirit.

When I attended Princeton Theological Seminary, I thought I would be spending my ministerial career serving small or perhaps large churches. Initially, I did serve two small rural parishes in Missouri and then a relatively small Japanese-American congregation in San Diego, Ca. Both congregations were unique in terms of their composition, history and culture. During this time, I could see instances of mental health needs emerging with my parishioners. I worked with a relative of a parishioner who was not in control of his drinking. I had to help him get admitted to a state hospital in Missouri where he received inpatient care for alcoholism. I also provided supportive counseling for his sister and other members of his family.

In 1984, I was commissioned as a Navy Chaplain representing The United Church Of Christ, my denomination. For seventeen and a half years, I ministered in a variety of settings—military medical centers, training education commands, Naval Air Squadrons, Marine Units, a large Coast Guard District command and a Naval Minesweeper. Again, in all of these settings, there were not only pronounced spiritual concerns, but also equally important mental health needs.

From 1988 through 1991, I attended the University of Illinois at the Chicago Jane Addams School of Social Work.  I became a psychotherapist, studied individual and group psychotherapy, family therapy, performed internships at a women’s residential treatment facility and at an outpatient mental health clinic. Here in these settings as well, I noticed a strong convergence between psychological and spiritual needs. The residents at this treatment facility needed skills in their recovery from substance abuse that would help them with regard to their self-esteem, to becoming more effective parents, etc. They also needed assurance that God loved them and by others and that spiritual resources could become an important element of their recovery.

Throughout my ministerial and clinical career, I have worked with people who struggled with what it means to be human, what it means to love, to experience loss of love and relationships, to experience grief and death. I have also worked with people who have experienced trauma, especially war trauma.

Embedded in all of these realities is the question of meaning.  As the character in the movie Alfie asked “What’s it’s all about?” These questions have to do with morals and values—what theologian, Paul Tillich, referred to as “ultimate things or the ground of being.”

The whole examination of moral injury resonated with me—considering how to help those who have experienced trauma. Trauma can shatter your world. You can feel differently and perceive yourself as being different.

The journey of healing can be accessed through resources of moral beliefs, whether its religion, philosophy, beauty, art or nature. All of these avenues can provide profound reservoirs of calm and regeneration. Luke Timothy Johnson recently wrote in The Revelatory Body: Theology As Inductive Art, "Theology is an inductive art rather than a deductive science. Theology, or our understanding of our relationship with God or a higher being, is realized in our human bodily experience."

My journey as minister and mental health provider has not been predictable. It has been filled with many surprises, twists and turns. I could have made a choice between one of the two paths—faith or social work. But I chose instead to embrace both paths. I have not regretted my decision. This path has helped me, as Van Morrison said, move “from the darkness of the street to the bright side of the road.”

Rev. Peter E. Bauer is a United Church of Christ minister, ordained for over 35 years. Peter is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Licensed Marriage And Family Therapist, Board Approved Supervisor for both disciplines. Peter teaches as Adjunct Professor in the Department Of Social Work University of Texas, San Antonio. 

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