When I graduated from Washington University’s George Warren Brown-School of Social Work (class of ’76), I never dreamed that five years later I would accept God’s call into ordained ministry.
Working as a medical social worker with several Renal Dialysis Clinics in the St. Louis, MO area, it was my goal, my desire to provide the best service I could. But I found myself working with people who had a lot of questions for God and about God that their pastors could not comfort nor answer, Sunday school teachers could not comfort nor answer, and nomadic faith healers could not comfort nor miraculously heal.
Daily, my clients would ask me questions about God, questions that were not part and parcel of my training at GWB. I was not academically trained to respond to the religious and spiritual issues raised by my clients. This made me feel inadequate as a professional Social Worker. However, in an effort to avoid the subject in good social work fashion, I asked my clients if they had spoken to their pastor. Most often the answer was yes. The answer most often given by pastors was, “go pray”. While I believed that prayer was a place to start, Christianity offered the suffering and hurting more than, “go pray”. Many of my clients would seek out the “faith healers” that came to town.
These were the precipitating events that made me want to be more responsive to the religious and spiritual issues my clients were challenged with. I felt that challenge and accepted the call to ordained ministry. I resigned from my job and enrolled into Eden Theological Seminary with the intention of combining the theory and practice of social work with the theory and practice of theology.
The critical study of the bible opened my mind to the many similarities of social work and theology. My understanding of the compatibility of faith and social work was cultivated during my years in Seminary. The communal sharing embodied in both the Old and New Testaments and the liberating social justice message of the Gospels, (Luke 4:16-21) were calls to prayer with action.
My faith and social work interact by doing social ministry. My faith and social work interacted when I was asked to help a church resolve a major conflict between members. After meeting with the congregation on two occasions, I was eventually asked to become the Senior Pastor of the church. My faith and social work interact for me as a call to prayer and action. Therefore, as pastor of several churches I have written grants for approximately $1.5 million that provided mental health, drug counseling, and social services help for those in need. My approach to pastoring and working with the people in my church and community is from the strengths perspective. My faith and social work interact when I pray. My faith and social work interact when I preach. My faith and social work interact when I participate in church and community meetings. My faith and social work interact when I am speaking with individual members or groups of members. By combining my faith and social work I believe I am a more effective pastor and social worker!
The Reverend Tenolian B. is currently the pastor of First Baptist Church in Herkimer, NY. He has been a member of NACSW since 1998.