One trend that is on the rise, at least anecdotally, is students that are interested in ministry pursuing a graduate degree in social work instead of ministry or theological studies. For those that don't know, the field of Social Work encompasses a wide range of skills that usually deal with improving the quality of life of people. This can be done through crisis intervention, participation in social programs, fighting hunger, or addressing social injustice. The ones that I've known that have gone this route fall into the following three categories:
1. They Are not traditional Church Leaders
Folks that I've known that have gone this route aren't the ones that are called to be senior pastors or some full-time position in a local church. These are ones that for a while didn't know exactly what God was calling them to (mostly because their spiritual mentors hadn't heard of this route). They are ones that are usually drawn to the humanitarian-aid side of ministry.
2. They are not afraid of being labeled
Conservative Christianity utterly failed in the last half of the 20th century in reaching others through social programs, like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other related programs. Many groups saw more liberal denominations doing these as part of a 'social gospel' strategy. Well - they were right. Social work isn't the good news of Christ's redeeming work. However, in the last 10 years theologically conservatives have been entering the social work arena with a correct view of the gospel plus a desire to help those that are in most need in our society. This sometimes mean that some in the church have hurled "churchy insults" at them or tried to dismiss them as being a proponent of the "social gospel" philosophy.
3. They have a Different Idea of 'Mission'
In addition to this, the ones that I've known that have gone this route have a different idea of 'missions' than I grew up with (but one I'm trying to emulate). I was always taught that missions happened in places - sometimes here but mostly overseas. We even had a sticker above our church doors as we went out that said "You are now entering the mission field." As I read the New Testament and as I see those around me that are being effective witnesses, I realize more and more that 'missions' is our entire life. It's wherever we are and we often don't think about the gospel throughout the day because we are not in the mindset that wherever we are is where we need to be sharing. This concept of course isn't limited to those going into social work, but it does seem to be a common hallmark of those that are.
Why a MSW Degree?
For those that are called to ministry and evangelism through social work, a Masters in Social Work could help you towards that goal. Another reason to go this route is that it is a very marketable degree that can support you as you're planting a church or helping in other types of ministry. Non-profits, which are being increasingly used in evangelism, also need people with this type of advanced training to help run their programs.
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.