I had no idea why I was coming to seminary, I really didn’t. Being a parish minister, spiritual director, or pastoral counselor was never attractive, so why seminary? I knew that I was called to nonprofit work, specifically administration and program development, and that—for some reason—I was going to need a theological education to complement a social work degree. So, I looked for programs that allowed me to earn both a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Social Work concurrently, and finally settled on McCormick Theological Seminary. Thank God I did.
McCormick has designed a dual-degree program for students like social work education, those of us who know we’re going to be bi-vocational and me, who want to pursue theological. We spend our first year at McCormick, taking foundational courses and beginning spiritual reflection on our vocational callings. During this first year, we apply to one of the many social work schools in Chicago, including the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration (one of the top five in the country). Our second year, we take all of our classes in the social work program, taking introductory courses and completing our first field experience internship. Our third year, we take a mixture of theological and social work classes, finishing up our internships and coursework for the social work degree. Our fourth year, we return to McCormick full time to finish up the Master’s of Divinity, and at the end we have two Masters Degrees. We are able to balance education and field experience with both seminary and social work courses, which complement each other extremely well. We graduate qualified to pursue vocations in two fields.
I attended the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, which is located about a mile away from McCormick. There, I was challenged to engage with pressing social issues, learned how to research and evaluate programs to improve service delivery, how to develop and design programs for agencies, and the basic theories of the helping profession. At McCormick, I learned how to process my experiences in the field through a theological lens, which helped me to discern where, exactly, I was called in the professional field. I also learned how to translate the education and experience of a social worker into a language that would be easily understood by faith communities, which is helpful for congregations and denominations in developing social service programs.
In this dual degree program, students are required to have two years of field experience, meaning that I had two opportunities to learn about how faith and social service interact in the “real world.” My first internship was with the Salvation Army’s Mobile Outreach Program, traveling through Chicago delivering food and substance abuse counseling to homeless and other vulnerable individuals. I learned a lot about the nature of counseling, about a ministry of presence, about meeting people where they are, and about the connections all humanity shares. In my second year of internship experience, I worked with the Southwest Organizing Project, doing community organizing around immigration reform, housing justice, and violence prevention. I learned about the strength of individuals and communities, the power of collective action, and how to speak truth to power. Additionally, I took a research internship between my second and third years to do research in Ethiopia, exploring the resiliencies and vulnerabilities of orphaned youth as they become independent adults. Not only did I collect valuable data for program development for these young people, I also was able to better analyze and evaluate models of international mission and service work.
In my experience, faith and social service are inextricably linked. My understanding of God and the world has been the lens through which I view individuals, communities, and nations. I thought that I would have to alternate wearing two different hats–the social worker and the minister—during my educational journey. Surprisingly, I often found that these two “different” vocational skills were being brought to bear in every classroom and internship experience. Having a basic grasp of liberation theology gave me a helpful foundation to learn and absorb the social work code of ethics, my skills in qualitative research have been instrumental in designing Christian education curriculum, my community organizing experience was invaluable when I stepped into a leadership role in my local congregation as a committee moderator and board member. Instead of two different vocational hats, I have been constructing one that can be easily adapted to different situations (reversible, with ear flaps that could be tied up).
Now, as I enter my final semester of my final year of graduate school, I look forward excitedly to the future. I will graduate with two degrees, the vocational skills and experience to get a job in the field(s) that I love, and a profound theological and ethical understanding of our contemporary social issues. I cannot imagine how I would have been able to live into my calling without the dual degree program that McCormick and the University of Chicago offered to me.
To learn more about McCormick’s Dual Degree Programs, visit the Admissions Page.
Sarah Jones is a fourth-year dual degree student at McCormick Theological Seminary and the University of Chicago. She works with the Loyola University Transitions Project, the UCC Radical Peacemaking Initiative, and serves on the board of her local church. After graduation, Sarah hopes to continue her work in the non-profit world, developing intervention programs for underserved adolescents.