Why not both? Getting a dual degree in theology and social work

A couple of months ago, I wrote about vocation and how ministry happens in unexpected places. It’s not just pastors who pursue a calling—anyone can do it. You’ve just got to match your natural talents with what the world needs from you. That means that anything can potentially become a ministry.

Some vocations are similar in a lot of ways to the role of a pastor. Social work is an example. For students who don’t want to choose between the two professions, quite a few schools now offer dual degree programs where you can study both. Often, a seminary or divinity school that offers theological education will partner with a college or graduate school that offers a social work degree. Students attend both institutions concurrently and graduate with degrees from each.

I decided to get information first-hand about dual degrees from a recent graduate of this type of program: Amy Gillespie, who just earned her Master of Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), and her Master of Social Work from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service and Administration (SSA).

Amy’s interest in both social work and ministry began when she got her start at a nonprofit agency. Knowing she wanted to work with older adults on a professional basis, she enrolled in the dual degree program at the recommendation of her pastor.

“I found that the older adults had resilience that was rooted in their faith, but they also needed social services galore. So it was interesting to see how I could be a comfort in both of those ways, getting what they needed with their electric bills and not getting their power shut off, as well as talking to them about their faith,” she said.

Pursuing one master’s degree is a challenge, but working toward two is even harder. Though schools intend for the two degrees to be earned side-by-side, Amy admits it can be a heavy workload to undertake the dual degree. She found that self-advocacy and flexibility is key for these kinds of students.

“Since I did this degree, I’ve talked to more people who have gone their own way, which is encouraging because I felt like I was the only one leaving my class behind [going between the two schools],” she said. “It’s so confusing because I had to write diagrams for myself to figure out how it was all going to work.”

During Amy’s time in school, a particular difficulty for her was the lack of coordinated scheduling between the two institutions. Because the seminary and graduate school were on different academic timelines, Amy sometimes found herself with large workloads or conflicting obligations. To manage this, she leaned on her ability to stay organized and was able to graduate without issues.

Despite the complications of the program, Amy had a positive experience. She especially appreciated the unique opportunity the dual degree offered.

“I was able to see a different perspective and become a part of spirituality at work. That gave me the opportunity to have a faith perspective within a diverse group. … It was hard to leave my class [to attend the other school] but it was also a good thing for me to give new direction and shape to my own path,” she said.

For Amy, it was important to be aware of her goals. Though the program was right for her own talents and career aspirations, she acknowledges that it isn’t for everyone.

“I would recommend this to somebody that would be interested in having some versatility and is excited about parish ministry but also in nonprofit work or something similar. You have to be able to wear many hats and decide when you’re being in what role,” Amy said.

She does want to provide a word of caution for those considering the dual degree program. Now that she has graduated, her student loan payments are coming due for both degrees. Unfortunately, social work and parish ministry are not known for their hefty paychecks (though this isn’t true for every single job in those fields).

Amy feels that managing finances and expectations is important for dual degree students, saying, “[Schools] have to work with [students] to make sure it’s financially possible and that there are scholarships and other avenues for doing it and paying down debt easier.”

To be successful as a theology and MSW student, she also suggests building relationships with other students in the same program. She and her peers were able to help and support one another. “I’m seeming negative but I want people to know that it’s hard,” she added.

Though it took a lot of effort and commitment, the dual degree has already been a useful investment in Amy’s ministry. Her denomination requires that pastoral candidates for ministry complete a yearlong, full-time internship in a church, which Amy did during the 2013-14 academic year. During this time, she preached a sermon on domestic violence. Afterward, a parishioner came to her seeking help with her abusive boyfriend. Amy hadn’t realized what an impact the sermon made on the woman.

“I proceeded to help her with an acute counseling session as I drove her to safety. So seeing [social work] in the vein of spirituality and applying that to a situation that was much more rooted in the need for counseling, that was when I felt affirmed in both calls,” she said.

As a new graduate, Amy is a licensed social worker who is in the call process for starting her first full-time job as an ordained pastor, where she will be able to draw on her social work expertise. She plans to do parish ministry for at least a few years, but is considering someday working for a social services organization where she can further draw on both degrees.

If you’d like to do social work, but would love a theological background, or if you hope to do some kind of ministry but could benefit from social work education, maybe this is the right program for you. Best wishes to those of you who are making this decision.