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. 


APR, 14, 2016 01:21:18 PM
Lisa Crummett
I am a licensed minister who is working in the mental health field. I find that having the spiritual component in the support is needed. I just wish that the jobs would reflect this component and allow us the freedom to express this with the clients. I am careful here not to say anything that could create a problem from my employer. I think minister's should be hired on to help people stay on the spiritual pathway of their recovery.

MAR, 30, 2016 07:57:36 PM
Cassandra McClain
Rev. Bauer,
Your story was very encouraging to hear, especially as I struggle to write my Ph.D dissertation on Spirituality and Women Veterans with PTSD, living in rural communities. My focus include a focus group with chaplains using the Building Spiritual Strength (BSS) Model.
Thanks for sharing!

MAR, 17, 2016 07:26:34 PM
Steve Pitman
My father took the same road. While a Chaplain, he developed a program that allowed active duty chaplains to attend graduate school and become MFT or LCW's. He was of too high of rank to benefit but Chaplain Bauer may have been one of many that did.. My father and mother attended graduate school and become MFT's after he retired from the Army.

Seminary has traditionally not been a place that offered the training necessary to serve the counseling role in which many ministers find themselves.

MAR, 10, 2016 12:29:04 AM
doris wight

MAR, 09, 2016 09:09:38 PM
Thank you so much for the beautiful work you are doing but also in sharing your journey. I too have felt torn between the two worlds of social work and my faith. I have worked in the social service field for over 10 years as a Case Manager in a variety of settings and have recently earned my MSW. I currently work as a Clinical Case Manager serving Veterans, however have truly felt a pull to enter in the religious side of things. I also currently serve as a Chaplains Assistant in the Guard which is a role that let's me have a mix of both worlds to a degree. A friend sent me this post after many discussions she and I have had on this very subject and in how torn I have felt over it.

I also wrote my Capstone paper on the role of Spirituality and Religion in Social Work. This is such a key component of the human spirit and is often not trained on in Social Work and therefore can get left out, however there is so much healing that can be found through it.

I also appreciate that you mentioned moral injury and I agree it is so prevelant in both the civilian and military culture. Do you ever offer any online trainings or webinars as I would to be a participant and to hear more of your experiences.

Again, thank you so much for sharing some of your story and for the wonderful work you are doing!

MAR, 08, 2016 07:27:39 PM
Jeff Simpson
I'd love to read any of Peter's writings. Does he have any books out?

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