What Do Social Workers Actually Do?

Exploring the Ethos of Social Work

Social work is a unique and multifaceted discipline, one that is not easily summarized in a few paragraphs or pages. The reason for this is because, at the heart of the discipline, social work is about people and every person is different, with their own unique story and needs. Individuals and the help that they need to live healthy, successful lives, are not easily summarized — and therefore, neither is the profession that seeks to serve them at their most vulnerable.

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Social workers strive on a daily basis to establish trusting relationships with individuals and groups in order to make a difference in their lives. The job of a social work professional is to help bring about healing, justice, protection, empowerment, and to equip their clients with the tools to help themselves. Social work is a profession of ideals — equality, harmony, healing, safety — but it is equally rooted in tangible action, using housing, mental health, food, and medical resources to help clients attain those ideals.

Social worker’s actions and interactions are governed by a code of ethics, or a set of professional guidelines, that is set forth by the National Association of Social Workers. To define the ethos of social work in more concrete terms, the code of ethics describes the mission and pillars of the profession in its preamble:

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The Essential Characteristics of the Social Work Profession

One of the benefits of the social work profession is the vast array of responsibilities, specializations, and areas of practice. Compassionate and service-oriented students are often drawn to social work because of the many different types of work they can engage in once they enter the profession. Social workers play a valuable role in the government sector, school systems, health services, nonprofit sector, for-profit sector, and even in entrepreneurial work.

Because of the endless combination of roles and areas of practice, no two social workers do the same thing on a daily basis, but there are several common duties that social workers perform regularly. The majority of a social worker’s day will be spent meeting with clients, either in one-on-one or group settings. During these meetings, it is a social worker’s job to listen to their client, evaluate what their needs are, help them to identify areas where they are struggling or vulnerable, and make suggestions to improve their current situation.

During and after meetings with clients, social workers take detailed notes. In some areas of social work, these notes are used for reporting purposes and evaluations — like determining if a parent is fit to care for and be a guardian of their child. In other areas, a social worker relies on their notes to obtain the correct services and resources for their client, like connecting a homeless person with food, housing, and employment resources.

Some social workers also spend their time working to change laws and policies that keep disadvantaged or vulnerable populations at risk. In these cases, social work professionals liaise with local, state, or federal government officials, advocating on behalf of communities and groups, in an effort to secure certain human needs, rights, and opportunities for them.

The Roles of a Social Worker

In addition to the many regular duties that they perform, social work professionals implement their training and in-depth education on a regular basis to fulfill several key roles within the field of human services. According to the National Association of Social Workers, social work practice consists of the professional application of social work values, principles, and techniques to one or more of the following ends:

  • Helping people obtain tangible services
  • Counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups
  • Helping communities or groups provide or improve social and health services
  • Participating in legislative processes

In addition to accomplishing these four ends through their practice, for social workers to be successful, responsible, and effective they must have an in-depth knowledge of human development and behavior, of social, economic, and cultural institutions, and of the interaction of all these factors.

Learn What Social Work Is Really Like from Baylor Faculty

Click the Images Below to Read Their Interviews

dr-preston-dyer

Dr. Preston M. Dyer,

Professor Emeritus and Founding Chair

What course(s) do you teach at Baylor and how long have you been teaching here?

I joined the Baylor University faculty in 1969 as director of the social work program. Thanks to a federal grant, Baylor had one of the early undergraduate social work programs in the nation. Except for statistics, I taught all the undergraduate courses (now called foundation or first year). I also taught the Marriage and Family course, a course cross listed with sociology. I taught that course from 1969 to 2008. After my wife received her Ph.D. in family studies in 1991 she joined me in team teaching the course until 2007 when she retired. During those years we taught about 200 students per semester. As far as we could determine, we were the only married couple teaching the course in an American university. In sociology, I also developed and taught a graduate course, Evaluation Research.

After I retired in 2008, I taught a section every semester of the Field Seminar course and pioneered in teaching a section that included BSW seniors and first year graduate students. I turned in my last set of grades spring semester, 2019.

Did you always want to work/study in the field of social work, or did you have other plans? What sparked your interest in social work?

I came to Baylor in 1956 to study for seminary. The pastor of the church I grew up in had a profound influence on me in the way he pastored his congregation. I wanted to help people in the way he did and had no other role models such as a social worker, counselor, etc. My interest in ministry was not so much religion, although I was religious, as it was service. In my senior year at Baylor, I took a course from one of my favorite sociology professors entitled “The Field of Social Work”. A whole new avenue of service was opened to me, one in which I did not have to preach a sermon every Sunday. I canceled my acceptance to seminary and enrolled in a social work program. Ironically, I ended up having to prepare 12 hours of lecture every week.

What area of practice do you specialize in within the field of social work?

I identify most strongly with the mental health field. My first professional job was in a state psychiatric hospital in Louisiana as a staff clinical social worker. My responsibilities included assessing men and women in the forensic unit, mostly people charged with murder and who were claiming an insanity defense. I learned a lot about psychopathology, case management, group therapy, and the criminal justice system. I also work on the intensive treatment ward where I learned about schizophrenia and depression and sharpened my skills in psychotherapy. This was also where I began to develop my interest in family dynamics and my skills in family therapy and work with couples.

My second job was in a Veterans Administration psychiatric hospital in Georgia. I was a reasonably good clinician when I came to the VA, but it was here under the supervision of a wonderful chief social worker that I learned what it was to be a social work clinician. I directed what was called the Community Care program. With a staff of five, we had approximately 280 former patients in this program in half-way houses, nursing homes, and foster homes. Our clients consisted of everyone from young Vietnam veterans in half-way houses to one man who was a veteran of the Spanish-American war who had been hospitalized for 35 years before being placed in a boarding home. Placing these veterans in the community and keeping them out of the hospital required a deep understanding of the social work concepts of person-in the-environment and treating the whole person.

In 1970, a year after I came to Baylor to start the social work program, I opened a private mental health practice. I saw lots of clients who were dealing with depression often related to relationship issues. In the early 80’s I restricted my practice to working with couples. I saw couples with serious relationship problems who needed intensive therapy, dating and engaged couples who wanted to improve their chances of avoiding divorce, and couples in marriage enrichment groups who wanted to make good marriages better.

In a few sentences, how would you answer the question what do social workers actually do?

Social workers work with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities to help them maximize their social functioning.

If this is vague, here are some concrete examples of how I have practice social work over the last 67 years:

  • I taught psychiatric residents to understand the Louisiana-Cajun culture so that they were more effective in treating patients in a psychiatric hospital.
  • I helped a Spanish-American war veteran diagnosed with schizophrenia leave a psychiatric hospital after 35 years, to live in a boarding home with five other former patients.
  • I helped a mother, whose son had just come out as gay, work through her internal conflict between her love for her son and her religious convictions.
  • I worked with a couple who were on the verge of divorce after their son completed suicide.
  • I provided pre-marriage education for over 100 couples, including couples from the LBGTQ+ community, and trained more than 50 people to use the PREPARE/ENRICH premarital education program.
  • My wife and I have led close to 500+ marriage enrichment events and trained over a hundred couples to lead marriage enrichment events.
  • I’ve helped numerous couples who were considering divorce after an affair rebuild their marriages.
  • I worked with an international nonprofit organization to develop marriage education programs and to distribute them in the USA and several international organizations.
  • I used the criminal justice system to help a young lesbian get out of a forensic psychiatric unit, where her father had her committed just because she was gay.
  • I helped develop a marriage enrichment program specifically for military and first responder couples.

In your years as a social work professional and educator, how have you witnessed the field of social work change?

The field is much more research based today. My research course in 1960 was designed to teach social workers to produce agency annual reports. In the Garland School of Social Work today our students take several research courses designed to teach them to use research but also to contribute to the field by producing their own research.

We are also much better prepared today with knowledge and skills to fight for social justice.

How would you describe the role of a social worker to someone who is just beginning to explore the field/discipline?

Social work is diverse and a BSW or MSW can lead to multiple job opportunities. My experience has been in clinical work with individuals and families, in addition to helping build and teaching in the Garland School of Social Work (GSSW). My brother, also a social worker, was ex-director of a United Way agency in a large city. My son, another social worker, has worked in child welfare for most of his 20+ year career and now is Executive-Director of a for-profit foster care agency. I once introduced him as working withchildren and he corrected me saying he worked for children. Today in the GSSW you can get dual graduate degrees in social work, business, and law — opening the door to any number of possibilities.

Why do you believe social work is an essential profession? In your opinion, how does it add value to the lives of individuals, societies, and the world?

According to NASW, social workers provide 69% of all the personal counseling done in the USA. That is because social workers make up most of the clinical staff of public and nonprofit agencies such as family abuse centers, mental health agencies, residential care facilities, and other such agencies where children and adults receive help with problems that they could not afford from private practice clinicians.

Social workers are also often the voice of those who have no voice in our society: the homeless, the abused, the poor, children, people who have served time in prison, the mentally ill, etc.

What do you see for the future of social work? Are there any emerging trends or developments in the field of social work that you find exciting?

I believe social workers will contribute more to research in many fields.

Why do you believe an MSW is an essential step for those who wish to make a meaningful difference through social work practice?

I do not believe that the MSW is an essential step for meaningful social work practice. The Garland School of Social Work provides three degrees a BSW, MSW, and Ph.D. I believe they all can lead to meaningful practice that contributes to society. The BSW is for social workers who want to practice at the generalist level of social work, the MSW is for those who want to practice at the advanced level, and the Ph.D. is for those who want to practice at the highest level in administration, research, and education.

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Reverend Dr. James Ellor,

Professor 

What course(s) do you teach at Baylor and how long have you been teaching here?

I have been a social worker for 43 years. I am starting my 16th year here at Baylor, I also taught for 4 years at the University of Chicago School of Social Work and 21 years at National – Louis University. Thus, I have been teaching for 40 years in higher education.

During that time I have taught many courses including, Aging and Mental Health (teaching it 36 years total, 15 years at Baylor), Evaluation of Practice I & II (new courses that replaces Research Practice, which I have taught for 15 years), Advanced Clinical Theories & Models (32 years total, 14 years at Baylor), Disaster Crisis Intervention (9 years), Religious Diversity in Social Work Practice (a Ph.D. course that I have taught 3 times before).

Did you always want to work/study in the field of social work, or did you have other plans? What sparked your interest in social work?

I am a 1973 graduate of Kent State University. The student riots and the murder of four students by the Ohio National Guard in 1970 had a significant impact on me. In high school I participated in ten mission trips. When I got to college my friends were killed in the war in Vietnam. I never could connect rioting in Ohio with ending the war, so I worked with Alpha Phi Omega, a National Service Fraternity, to identify a service project and ended up emerging myself in community organization.

An African American community had been denied access to sewer and water for 40 years. I worked with the federal government to bring in the plumbing and to build bathrooms in the homes in the community. I was a sociology major and realized that sociology did not have the skills that I needed to work with real people in the community. I also wanted to be a church pastor. Therefore, when I graduated from college, I went to a combined program with McCormick Theological Seminary and The University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration. At the time the University of Chicago was a hotbed of activity in the field of gerontology. It was the only duel program in the country with this distinction. After working in the community, I realized I wanted to work with older adults.

For my entire career, I have been both a Pastor in the Presbyterian Church, USA, and a licensed social worker. With one foot in both fields, it should be said that my full-time job has always been in social work and I then have a bi-vocational ministry in the church. The heart of my work has always been at the bridge between psychology and theology as it is known in the field. In the 1970’s the fields of social work and pastoral ministry were not considered to be compatible.  This changed in the 1990’s and now my work is focused on the ethical ways to draw faith and social work practice together.

What area of practice do you specialize in within the field of social work?

I work in two areas, older adults and their faith and disaster response. I am deeply invested in both areas. I have written ten books, and I edit the Journal of Religion, Spirituality, and Aging. I have edited this journal for 21 years. I also have over 140 book chapters and journal articles in this field.  I have been working in the field of disaster response for 16 years and have several articles in this area as well. Further, I have been a counselor for the past 43 years and continue to see occasional clients in order to keep my skills current.

In a few sentences, how would you answer the question — what to social workers actually do?

Social workers respond to the needs of the human condition. We are there when people are happy and when they are sad. We support them where they live, in communities, in institutions, in government, and even in prison. Our skills include, counseling, administration, community organization, and advocacy.

In your years as a social work professional and educator, how have you witnessed the field of social work change?

In my part of the field, the largest changes have been in the reception to religion and spirituality. In the 1970’s there was often open hostility on the part of social work to persons who reflected faith. This has been reduced significantly since the 1990’s.

How would you describe the role of a social worker to someone who is just beginning to explore the field/discipline?

Social workers care about people and reach out to support them in joy and in sorrow. We work in a field that is flexible enough to change and expand with the interests of the social work professional. As a helping professional we use a wide variety of tools to address their needs.

Why do you believe social work is an essential profession? In your opinion, how does it add value to the lives of individuals, societies, and the world?

The field of social work is often at the junction between other systems. In counseling, while there are three other professional licenses that are common in the community, statistically more than half of all persons providing counseling are social workers. Yet, we are the only counseling profession also trained in community organization. When I work in the disaster field, I use both skill sets as I work with a community to find their new normal after a disaster, either human-caused or natural. No other counseling profession has both sets of skills, along with the administrative skills to fundraise and administer long term recovery.

What do you see for the future of social work ? Are there any emerging trends or developments in the field of social work that you find exciting?

The cutting edge of social work is found at the combination of skills. The combination of community and clinical skills, the combination of faith and practice, the areas where integration of skills and values are clearly important. Finally, as a helping profession, we are sensitive to multi-cultural needs, an area that is quickly evolving and growing.

Why do you believe an MSW is an essential step for those who wish to make a meaningful difference through social work practice?

The MSW is the entrance credential to the profession. Once accomplished, it allows the person to enter as a competent professional into a variety of aspects of helping people.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I am proud to be a social worker. It is a helping profession that is critical to many aspects of the human need.

helen-harris

Helen Harris, Ed.D.,

Professor 

What course(s) do you teach at Baylor and how long have you been teaching here?

I am beginning my 23rd full-time year at the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor. I taught part-time in Health Education for seven years before that while I was working full-time in hospice.

I have taught across the curriculum in those 22 years including introduction, generalist practice, groups, field seminar, human behavior and the social environment, advanced practice, theory, research, capstone, and trauma/loss/mourning.

My teaching assignments now include Advanced Clinical Practice, Practice in Health Contexts, Trauma, Loss, & Mourning, Capstone, Higher Education Teaching and Learning in Social Work, and The Teaching Practicum. I am also a consultant for the EMDR elective.

Did you always want to work/study in the field of social work, or did you have other plans? What sparked your interest in social work?

I had always planned to go to medical school and was headed to the University of Rochester when I became a Christian and discovered that God’s call for my life was social work. I finished my bachelor’s degree and completed my MSW.  Before heading to college, I had never met a social worker. I discovered that social workers are difference makers who help individuals develop their potential and engage fully in life.

I have worked with families in crisis management, worked at a children’s home with foster care and adoption, and worked in hospice with persons with terminal illness and their families. In every setting, I found people dealing with significant loss and grief and the study of effective helping for grief has been my primary social work focus. Additionally, the ethical integration of faith and social work practice has been central to my work in both public and faith affiliated agencies.

What area of practice do you specialize in within the field of social work?

Each of my practice experiences has included clients with significant exposure to trauma,loss, and grief. Through the years, that has become a primary focus both of my social work practice and my teaching and research. I continue to do volunteer work with my church and at least one local agency and do counseling/therapy for persons experiencing trauma, loss, and grief.  Some of that practice includes providing EMDR therapy for survivors of trauma.

I do research and write in the area of the dimensions of grief, with most focus on the cognitive impact of grief in children.  I am also engaged in research and writing around ambiguous loss and its impact in individuals and in organizations. I am currently working on the experience of persons who identify as LGBTQ and as Christians and the impact of church/denominational inclusion/exclusion on persons, families, and religious organizations. I have also written in the area of foster care and adoption and about the work of Alan Keith-Lucas, a scholar in the integration of faith and practice.

In a few sentences, how would you answer the question — what to social workers actually do?

Social work is a profession with a set of core values, a body of knowledge, and models of evidence-informed practice. Social workers assess and intervene in situations that impact persons and the systems with which they interact. Social workers do case management, therapy, community organization, research, education and a host of other roles and tasks all of which are designed to improve the quality of life of persons and systems impacting them. Whether we are doing home studies for adoptions, providing therapy for persons with PTSD, or assessing the assets of a community, social workers apply knowledge and theory to complex situations to enhance problem-solving and quality of life.

In your years as a social work professional and educator, how have you witnessed the field of social work change?

Social work has, from its beginnings, engaged both with the professional focus of change as individuals and as larger systems like communities. Social workers are now identified as the major mental health providers in the United States with more emphasis on clinical social work. The other significant change I have seen in the last 20 years is increasing conversation about the ethical integration of religious faith and social work practice with continued concerns about the competing premises of religious freedom and social work values. The GSSW has been a leader in the conversation that we can honor both with integrity.

How would you describe the role of a social worker to someone who is just beginning to explore the field/discipline?

Social work is not about fixing problems for others or about being a friendly visitor in hard times. Social work is a profession with knowledge, values, skills, and a commitment to evidence-informed practice. If you believe in the strengths in others and believe in the capacity for change, this may be the profession for you. The application of professional knowledge and skill to facilitate the opportunity of others to engage in change is honorable and difference-making work. It is not a profession everyone understands, but it is one that, more than any other, meets people where they are, explores with them where they want to be, and works with them on their path to change.  

Why do you believe social work is an essential profession? In your opinion, how does it add value to the lives of individuals, societies, and the world?

We live in an imperfect world in which people experience poverty, injustice, trauma, loss, illness, and a myriad of relationship and other challenges. Responding to external challenges including abuse and trauma and mobilizing internal resources and resilience for continued growth is often the area of work for the social worker. It is the profession that values self-determination, that walks the journey of the client instead of making choices for people, and that communicates the worth of others and the possibility of change. Social workers “walk in when others walk out.” We value the person even when we don’t value the behavior. And we don’t give up. Clients and client systems experience our regard and our belief in change.

What do you see for the future of social work? Are there any emerging trends or developments in the field of social work that you find exciting?

The increase in knowledge around neuroscience, attachment, epigenetic trauma, and the interfaces between mind, body, and spirit are all critical in the future of social work. We will need to continue our commitment to both the science and the art of social work. Professional development and life-long learning are essential to this growing body of knowledge. We must continue to develop skills for integrative behavioral health, brief interventions, and the effective and ethical use of technology. We need to be forward thinking while holding on to the essential values of strengths perspective, client self-determination, diversity, and justice. The evaluation of practice and development and dissemination of new knowledge are essential to not only staying up-to-date with the field but leading in the areas of human helping.

Why do you believe an MSW is an essential step for those who wish to make a meaningful difference through social work practice?

I believe there is much good work done by BSW practitioners, particularly in case management and resourcing for clients.  It is important that we not be so caught up in the MSW advanced practice that we forget the fundamental helping that a generalist practitioner can and does provide.

It is, however, important that social workers be at the table for administration, policy making, development and assessment of therapies, and addressing social injustice. MSW advanced practice, whether community or clinical, is the terminal degree and valued in professional settings for decision making, program planning, grant funding, and other essential elements of systemic helping. The MSW degree provides a seat at that table.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Our profession is the closest to my understanding of the ministry of Jesus.  He valued each person, and he loved them. He skillfully facilitated change in their lives, both individually and systemically. There have been times when I thought nothing I did was making any difference.

For example, I worked at a children’s home where the several hours a week I met with each child and family on my caseload seemed a drop in the bucket compared to the hours, days, and weeks of continued challenge they experienced. I wondered if anything I did really mattered in the larger scheme of things. Children came and went and often returned to families still in turmoil, still in poverty, and still without the resources they needed to maximize their potential.

More than 20 years after leaving the children’s home, I was working as a hospital social worker, sitting at my desk at the end of a long day of discharge planning and grief counseling with the family of a dying patient. When the phone rang, I thought for a moment about not answering and just leaving for the day. When I answered, the caller identified himself as a young man I had worked with at the children’s home when he was 8-12 years old. Twenty years later, he was in the military in a high security job. His security clearance included the need for someone who knew him as a child to describe him and his strengths. His words still ring in my ears: “You are the adult who really saw me and believed in me when I was a kid. I’m glad I was able to find you because I want you to know that your confidence in me made a difference and part of who I am today is because of you.”   

Leaving practice to come to the GSSW and teach was a difficult decision. But seeing students commit to making a difference in the lives of clients, taking a stand for diversity and justice, and doing the hard work of self-awareness and skill development is, for me, the sure knowledge that they will be getting one of those calls someday — the call reminding us we are making a difference and that this profession is the profession of hope. Engaging in research that discovers new knowledge and pathways for change will live far into the future. Being part of this journey makes it all joy.  

Those coming into social work have not chosen an easy profession. Social work graduate education is hard work for the mind, body, and soul. But, as Carrie Newcomer says, “you can do this hard thing.” And when God has called someone to the work, the vocation is its own reward.  

What course(s) do you teach at Baylor and how long have you been teaching here?

I joined the Baylor University faculty in 1969 as director of the social work program. Thanks to a federal grant, Baylor had one of the early undergraduate social work programs in the nation. Except for statistics, I taught all the undergraduate courses (now called foundation or first year). I also taught the Marriage and Family course, a course cross listed with sociology. I taught that course from 1969 to 2008. After my wife received her Ph.D. in family studies in 1991 she joined me in team teaching the course until 2007 when she retired. During those years we taught about 200 students per semester. As far as we could determine, we were the only married couple teaching the course in an American university. In sociology, I also developed and taught a graduate course, Evaluation Research.

After I retired in 2008, I taught a section every semester of the Field Seminar course and pioneered in teaching a section that included BSW seniors and first year graduate students. I turned in my last set of grades spring semester, 2019.

Did you always want to work/study in the field of social work, or did you have other plans? What sparked your interest in social work?

I came to Baylor in 1956 to study for seminary. The pastor of the church I grew up in had a profound influence on me in the way he pastored his congregation. I wanted to help people in the way he did and had no other role models such as a social worker, counselor, etc. My interest in ministry was not so much religion, although I was religious, as it was service. In my senior year at Baylor, I took a course from one of my favorite sociology professors entitled “The Field of Social Work”. A whole new avenue of service was opened to me, one in which I did not have to preach a sermon every Sunday. I canceled my acceptance to seminary and enrolled in a social work program. Ironically, I ended up having to prepare 12 hours of lecture every week.

What area of practice do you specialize in within the field of social work?

I identify most strongly with the mental health field. My first professional job was in a state psychiatric hospital in Louisiana as a staff clinical social worker. My responsibilities included assessing men and women in the forensic unit, mostly people charged with murder and who were claiming an insanity defense. I learned a lot about psychopathology, case management, group therapy, and the criminal justice system. I also work on the intensive treatment ward where I learned about schizophrenia and depression and sharpened my skills in psychotherapy. This was also where I began to develop my interest in family dynamics and my skills in family therapy and work with couples.

My second job was in a Veterans Administration psychiatric hospital in Georgia. I was a reasonably good clinician when I came to the VA, but it was here under the supervision of a wonderful chief social worker that I learned what it was to be a social work clinician. I directed what was called the Community Care program. With a staff of five, we had approximately 280 former patients in this program in half-way houses, nursing homes, and foster homes. Our clients consisted of everyone from young Vietnam veterans in half-way houses to one man who was a veteran of the Spanish-American war who had been hospitalized for 35 years before being placed in a boarding home. Placing these veterans in the community and keeping them out of the hospital required a deep understanding of the social work concepts of person-in the-environment and treating the whole person.

In 1970, a year after I came to Baylor to start the social work program, I opened a private mental health practice. I saw lots of clients who were dealing with depression often related to relationship issues. In the early 80’s I restricted my practice to working with couples. I saw couples with serious relationship problems who needed intensive therapy, dating and engaged couples who wanted to improve their chances of avoiding divorce, and couples in marriage enrichment groups who wanted to make good marriages better.

In a few sentences, how would you answer the question what do social workers actually do?

Social workers work with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities to help them maximize their social functioning.

If this is vague, here are some concrete examples of how I have practice social work over the last 67 years:

  • I taught psychiatric residents to understand the Louisiana-Cajun culture so that they were more effective in treating patients in a psychiatric hospital.
  • I helped a Spanish-American war veteran diagnosed with schizophrenia leave a psychiatric hospital after 35 years, to live in a boarding home with five other former patients.
  • I helped a mother, whose son had just come out as gay, work through her internal conflict between her love for her son and her religious convictions.
  • I worked with a couple who were on the verge of divorce after their son completed suicide.
  • I provided pre-marriage education for over 100 couples, including couples from the LBGTQ+ community, and trained more than 50 people to use the PREPARE/ENRICH premarital education program.
  • My wife and I have led close to 500+ marriage enrichment events and trained over a hundred couples to lead marriage enrichment events.
  • I’ve helped numerous couples who were considering divorce after an affair rebuild their marriages.
  • I worked with an international nonprofit organization to develop marriage education programs and to distribute them in the USA and several international organizations.
  • I used the criminal justice system to help a young lesbian get out of a forensic psychiatric unit, where her father had her committed just because she was gay.
  • I helped develop a marriage enrichment program specifically for military and first responder couples.

In your years as a social work professional and educator, how have you witnessed the field of social work change?

The field is much more research based today. My research course in 1960 was designed to teach social workers to produce agency annual reports. In the Garland School of Social Work today our students take several research courses designed to teach them to use research but also to contribute to the field by producing their own research.

We are also much better prepared today with knowledge and skills to fight for social justice.

How would you describe the role of a social worker to someone who is just beginning to explore the field/discipline?

Social work is diverse and a BSW or MSW can lead to multiple job opportunities. My experience has been in clinical work with individuals and families, in addition to helping build and teaching in the Garland School of Social Work (GSSW). My brother, also a social worker, was ex-director of a United Way agency in a large city. My son, another social worker, has worked in child welfare for most of his 20+ year career and now is Executive-Director of a for-profit foster care agency. I once introduced him as working withchildren and he corrected me saying he worked for children. Today in the GSSW you can get dual graduate degrees in social work, business, and law — opening the door to any number of possibilities.

Why do you believe social work is an essential profession? In your opinion, how does it add value to the lives of individuals, societies, and the world?

According to NASW, social workers provide 69% of all the personal counseling done in the USA. That is because social workers make up most of the clinical staff of public and nonprofit agencies such as family abuse centers, mental health agencies, residential care facilities, and other such agencies where children and adults receive help with problems that they could not afford from private practice clinicians.

Social workers are also often the voice of those who have no voice in our society: the homeless, the abused, the poor, children, people who have served time in prison, the mentally ill, etc.

What do you see for the future of social work? Are there any emerging trends or developments in the field of social work that you find exciting?

I believe social workers will contribute more to research in many fields.

Why do you believe an MSW is an essential step for those who wish to make a meaningful difference through social work practice?

I do not believe that the MSW is an essential step for meaningful social work practice. The Garland School of Social Work provides three degrees a BSW, MSW, and Ph.D. I believe they all can lead to meaningful practice that contributes to society. The BSW is for social workers who want to practice at the generalist level of social work, the MSW is for those who want to practice at the advanced level, and the Ph.D. is for those who want to practice at the highest level in administration, research, and education.

What course(s) do you teach at Baylor and how long have you been teaching here?

I have been a social worker for 43 years. I am starting my 16th year here at Baylor, I also taught for 4 years at the University of Chicago School of Social Work and 21 years at National – Louis University. Thus, I have been teaching for 40 years in higher education.

During that time I have taught many courses including, Aging and Mental Health (teaching it 36 years total, 15 years at Baylor), Evaluation of Practice I & II (new courses that replaces Research Practice, which I have taught for 15 years), Advanced Clinical Theories & Models (32 years total, 14 years at Baylor), Disaster Crisis Intervention (9 years), Religious Diversity in Social Work Practice (a Ph.D. course that I have taught 3 times before).

Did you always want to work/study in the field of social work, or did you have other plans? What sparked your interest in social work?

I am a 1973 graduate of Kent State University. The student riots and the murder of four students by the Ohio National Guard in 1970 had a significant impact on me. In high school I participated in ten mission trips. When I got to college my friends were killed in the war in Vietnam. I never could connect rioting in Ohio with ending the war, so I worked with Alpha Phi Omega, a National Service Fraternity, to identify a service project and ended up emerging myself in community organization.

An African American community had been denied access to sewer and water for 40 years. I worked with the federal government to bring in the plumbing and to build bathrooms in the homes in the community. I was a sociology major and realized that sociology did not have the skills that I needed to work with real people in the community. I also wanted to be a church pastor. Therefore, when I graduated from college, I went to a combined program with McCormick Theological Seminary and The University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration. At the time the University of Chicago was a hotbed of activity in the field of gerontology. It was the only duel program in the country with this distinction. After working in the community, I realized I wanted to work with older adults.

For my entire career, I have been both a Pastor in the Presbyterian Church, USA, and a licensed social worker. With one foot in both fields, it should be said that my full-time job has always been in social work and I then have a bi-vocational ministry in the church. The heart of my work has always been at the bridge between psychology and theology as it is known in the field. In the 1970’s the fields of social work and pastoral ministry were not considered to be compatible.  This changed in the 1990’s and now my work is focused on the ethical ways to draw faith and social work practice together.

What area of practice do you specialize in within the field of social work?

I work in two areas, older adults and their faith and disaster response. I am deeply invested in both areas. I have written ten books, and I edit the Journal of Religion, Spirituality, and Aging. I have edited this journal for 21 years. I also have over 140 book chapters and journal articles in this field.  I have been working in the field of disaster response for 16 years and have several articles in this area as well. Further, I have been a counselor for the past 43 years and continue to see occasional clients in order to keep my skills current.

In a few sentences, how would you answer the question — what to social workers actually do?

Social workers respond to the needs of the human condition. We are there when people are happy and when they are sad. We support them where they live, in communities, in institutions, in government, and even in prison. Our skills include, counseling, administration, community organization, and advocacy.

In your years as a social work professional and educator, how have you witnessed the field of social work change?

In my part of the field, the largest changes have been in the reception to religion and spirituality. In the 1970’s there was often open hostility on the part of social work to persons who reflected faith. This has been reduced significantly since the 1990’s.

How would you describe the role of a social worker to someone who is just beginning to explore the field/discipline?

Social workers care about people and reach out to support them in joy and in sorrow. We work in a field that is flexible enough to change and expand with the interests of the social work professional. As a helping professional we use a wide variety of tools to address their needs.

Why do you believe social work is an essential profession? In your opinion, how does it add value to the lives of individuals, societies, and the world?

The field of social work is often at the junction between other systems. In counseling, while there are three other professional licenses that are common in the community, statistically more than half of all persons providing counseling are social workers. Yet, we are the only counseling profession also trained in community organization. When I work in the disaster field, I use both skill sets as I work with a community to find their new normal after a disaster, either human-caused or natural. No other counseling profession has both sets of skills, along with the administrative skills to fundraise and administer long term recovery.

What do you see for the future of social work ? Are there any emerging trends or developments in the field of social work that you find exciting?

The cutting edge of social work is found at the combination of skills. The combination of community and clinical skills, the combination of faith and practice, the areas where integration of skills and values are clearly important. Finally, as a helping profession, we are sensitive to multi-cultural needs, an area that is quickly evolving and growing.

Why do you believe an MSW is an essential step for those who wish to make a meaningful difference through social work practice?

The MSW is the entrance credential to the profession. Once accomplished, it allows the person to enter as a competent professional into a variety of aspects of helping people.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I am proud to be a social worker. It is a helping profession that is critical to many aspects of the human need.

What course(s) do you teach at Baylor and how long have you been teaching here?

I am beginning my 23rd full-time year at the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor. I taught part-time in Health Education for seven years before that while I was working full-time in hospice.

I have taught across the curriculum in those 22 years including introduction, generalist practice, groups, field seminar, human behavior and the social environment, advanced practice, theory, research, capstone, and trauma/loss/mourning.

My teaching assignments now include Advanced Clinical Practice, Practice in Health Contexts, Trauma, Loss, & Mourning, Capstone, Higher Education Teaching and Learning in Social Work, and The Teaching Practicum. I am also a consultant for the EMDR elective.

Did you always want to work/study in the field of social work, or did you have other plans? What sparked your interest in social work?

I had always planned to go to medical school and was headed to the University of Rochester when I became a Christian and discovered that God’s call for my life was social work. I finished my bachelor’s degree and completed my MSW.  Before heading to college, I had never met a social worker. I discovered that social workers are difference makers who help individuals develop their potential and engage fully in life.

I have worked with families in crisis management, worked at a children’s home with foster care and adoption, and worked in hospice with persons with terminal illness and their families. In every setting, I found people dealing with significant loss and grief and the study of effective helping for grief has been my primary social work focus. Additionally, the ethical integration of faith and social work practice has been central to my work in both public and faith affiliated agencies.

What area of practice do you specialize in within the field of social work?

Each of my practice experiences has included clients with significant exposure to trauma,loss, and grief. Through the years, that has become a primary focus both of my social work practice and my teaching and research. I continue to do volunteer work with my church and at least one local agency and do counseling/therapy for persons experiencing trauma, loss, and grief.  Some of that practice includes providing EMDR therapy for survivors of trauma.

I do research and write in the area of the dimensions of grief, with most focus on the cognitive impact of grief in children.  I am also engaged in research and writing around ambiguous loss and its impact in individuals and in organizations. I am currently working on the experience of persons who identify as LGBTQ and as Christians and the impact of church/denominational inclusion/exclusion on persons, families, and religious organizations. I have also written in the area of foster care and adoption and about the work of Alan Keith-Lucas, a scholar in the integration of faith and practice.

In a few sentences, how would you answer the question — what to social workers actually do?

Social work is a profession with a set of core values, a body of knowledge, and models of evidence-informed practice. Social workers assess and intervene in situations that impact persons and the systems with which they interact. Social workers do case management, therapy, community organization, research, education and a host of other roles and tasks all of which are designed to improve the quality of life of persons and systems impacting them. Whether we are doing home studies for adoptions, providing therapy for persons with PTSD, or assessing the assets of a community, social workers apply knowledge and theory to complex situations to enhance problem-solving and quality of life.

In your years as a social work professional and educator, how have you witnessed the field of social work change?

Social work has, from its beginnings, engaged both with the professional focus of change as individuals and as larger systems like communities. Social workers are now identified as the major mental health providers in the United States with more emphasis on clinical social work. The other significant change I have seen in the last 20 years is increasing conversation about the ethical integration of religious faith and social work practice with continued concerns about the competing premises of religious freedom and social work values. The GSSW has been a leader in the conversation that we can honor both with integrity.

How would you describe the role of a social worker to someone who is just beginning to explore the field/discipline?

Social work is not about fixing problems for others or about being a friendly visitor in hard times. Social work is a profession with knowledge, values, skills, and a commitment to evidence-informed practice. If you believe in the strengths in others and believe in the capacity for change, this may be the profession for you. The application of professional knowledge and skill to facilitate the opportunity of others to engage in change is honorable and difference-making work. It is not a profession everyone understands, but it is one that, more than any other, meets people where they are, explores with them where they want to be, and works with them on their path to change.  

Why do you believe social work is an essential profession? In your opinion, how does it add value to the lives of individuals, societies, and the world?

We live in an imperfect world in which people experience poverty, injustice, trauma, loss, illness, and a myriad of relationship and other challenges. Responding to external challenges including abuse and trauma and mobilizing internal resources and resilience for continued growth is often the area of work for the social worker. It is the profession that values self-determination, that walks the journey of the client instead of making choices for people, and that communicates the worth of others and the possibility of change. Social workers “walk in when others walk out.” We value the person even when we don’t value the behavior. And we don’t give up. Clients and client systems experience our regard and our belief in change.

What do you see for the future of social work? Are there any emerging trends or developments in the field of social work that you find exciting?

The increase in knowledge around neuroscience, attachment, epigenetic trauma, and the interfaces between mind, body, and spirit are all critical in the future of social work. We will need to continue our commitment to both the science and the art of social work. Professional development and life-long learning are essential to this growing body of knowledge. We must continue to develop skills for integrative behavioral health, brief interventions, and the effective and ethical use of technology. We need to be forward thinking while holding on to the essential values of strengths perspective, client self-determination, diversity, and justice. The evaluation of practice and development and dissemination of new knowledge are essential to not only staying up-to-date with the field but leading in the areas of human helping.

Why do you believe an MSW is an essential step for those who wish to make a meaningful difference through social work practice?

I believe there is much good work done by BSW practitioners, particularly in case management and resourcing for clients.  It is important that we not be so caught up in the MSW advanced practice that we forget the fundamental helping that a generalist practitioner can and does provide.

It is, however, important that social workers be at the table for administration, policy making, development and assessment of therapies, and addressing social injustice. MSW advanced practice, whether community or clinical, is the terminal degree and valued in professional settings for decision making, program planning, grant funding, and other essential elements of systemic helping. The MSW degree provides a seat at that table.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Our profession is the closest to my understanding of the ministry of Jesus.  He valued each person, and he loved them. He skillfully facilitated change in their lives, both individually and systemically. There have been times when I thought nothing I did was making any difference.

For example, I worked at a children’s home where the several hours a week I met with each child and family on my caseload seemed a drop in the bucket compared to the hours, days, and weeks of continued challenge they experienced. I wondered if anything I did really mattered in the larger scheme of things. Children came and went and often returned to families still in turmoil, still in poverty, and still without the resources they needed to maximize their potential.

More than 20 years after leaving the children’s home, I was working as a hospital social worker, sitting at my desk at the end of a long day of discharge planning and grief counseling with the family of a dying patient. When the phone rang, I thought for a moment about not answering and just leaving for the day. When I answered, the caller identified himself as a young man I had worked with at the children’s home when he was 8-12 years old. Twenty years later, he was in the military in a high security job. His security clearance included the need for someone who knew him as a child to describe him and his strengths. His words still ring in my ears: “You are the adult who really saw me and believed in me when I was a kid. I’m glad I was able to find you because I want you to know that your confidence in me made a difference and part of who I am today is because of you.”   

Leaving practice to come to the GSSW and teach was a difficult decision. But seeing students commit to making a difference in the lives of clients, taking a stand for diversity and justice, and doing the hard work of self-awareness and skill development is, for me, the sure knowledge that they will be getting one of those calls someday — the call reminding us we are making a difference and that this profession is the profession of hope. Engaging in research that discovers new knowledge and pathways for change will live far into the future. Being part of this journey makes it all joy.  

Those coming into social work have not chosen an easy profession. Social work graduate education is hard work for the mind, body, and soul. But, as Carrie Newcomer says, “you can do this hard thing.” And when God has called someone to the work, the vocation is its own reward.  

Quiz: Is social work a good fit for you?

Have you considered social work but are still find yourself wondering — would this career be a good fit for me? While we can’t give you a definite yes or no answer, take this quick quiz to see if your interests, skills, and characteristics line up well with the social work profession.

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Are you looking for a career that will allow you to make a tangible difference in the lives of others?


Do you enjoy solving problems?


Do you know how to take time for yourself?


Are you an active, compassionate listener?


Do you have an innate drive to assist those in need?


Are you organized and do you have good note-taking skills?


Are you discreet and able to maintain the confidentiality of people’s personal information and stories?


Are you creative and persistent, willing to work to overcome ‘roadblocks’ when they present themselves?


Do you adapt well to change?


Are you prepared to take on a career that may require a more flexible/nontraditional working schedule?


Sounds like your character traits, professional goals, and personal habits would make you an excellent fit for the social work profession. If you are considering social work as a career, learn more about the field through our digital guide, Master of Social Work — The MBA of the Helping Professions.

Social work could be the right profession for you, but perhaps consider learning more about the responsibilities of social workers, their day-to-day life, and the characteristics that make a great social worker before diving head-first into the field. Start by checking out this blog post — 8 Characteristics of a Successful Social Worker — to learn more!

The Future of the Field: Where is Social Work Headed?

As society continues to grow and evolve, so will the role of social workers. Two interesting areas of social work that are poised to continue to change and unfold are the intersection between social work and technology as well as social work’s role in social justice. Given the cultural relevance, popularity, and rapid expansion of these two areas, qualified social workers will find themselves in a position to take on new and undefined roles in the future.

Social Work and Technology

Technology is rapidly growing and becoming incorporated into almost every area of modern life — and social work is no exception. One aspect of technological growth, the rise of social media, has both positive and negative impacts on different populations. On the one hand, social media offers an impressive platform for raising awareness about many issues social workers deal with, such as homelessness, mental health, poverty, and more. This world-wide platform gives social workers a place to advocate for these populations, and educate others as to how they can help make a difference. However, social media can sometimes have a negative impact on school-aged children and also adults, contributing to or aggravating problems such as depression, anxiety, and bullying. One of the roles of social workers in the future will be to navigate these technological spaces to learn how they can be used for good, and how to help those who have victimized through digital platforms.

Technology is also being used in social work practice to collect data, maintain accurate records, and identify useful trends within each area of social work. Take, for example, the improvements that one nonprofit/government social worker is able to make in his job as a Homeless Program Analyst by harnessing the power of technology. Furthermore, as technology becomes more and more integrated into the medical field through telehealth, health applications, and caregiver services, social workers will be presented with exciting opportunities to apply traditional social work principles to emerging technologies. These new developments will offer social workers increased access to clients and even more avenues for providing resources and services.   

Social Work and Social Justice

Many issues of social justice are continuing to gain awareness as they move to the forefront of our culture. These pressing issues, such as racism, gender equality, immigration, sexual assault, poverty and more offer an excellent opportunity for social workers to step in and advocate for these marginalized individuals and communities. As the breadth of these issues continues to come to light, social workers will need to step in and take active roles in counseling and guidance, as well as advocacy for fair policies and legislation. Social workers have always advocated for social justice and for the equality of all, but the current trends within the culture provide these professionals with the traction they need to effect real, lasting change.

One example of how social work is impacting a current issue of social justice is through the discussion of immigration in the United States. Following the policy that was enacted which separated immigrant children from their families, social workers stepped into many roles to ensure the safety and well-being of the children and to fight to keep the families together. In addition to providing practical resources, social workers are heavily involved in the legislative process surrounding immigration law.

Highlighting Baylor’s Master of Social Work Program

In order to practice as a social worker, you need the training and education that comes with a Master of Social Work degree. Through this advanced graduate program, students take courses in the principles, techniques, and methodologies that support effective social work practice and have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience through field placements. They also prepare to meet all state licensure requirements through the course of their education.

The Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University offers a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree that is rooted in a research-based curriculum and supported by expert faculty. Located in Dallas, Texas, this CSWE accredited program is comprised of 60 credit hours, can be completed in two years, and does not require a related undergraduate degree to enter. The mission of the program is to prepare students to be social workers who recognize that their work is about service and justice, the dignity of individuals, and the power of relationships, and who can practice their craft with integrity and competence, ethically integrating faith and social work practice to best serve their clients.

If you think that you may be called to the social work profession, we invite you to check out our digital resource that takes a deep-dive into the MSW degree and outlines exactly how earning this degree will prepare you to be a social work professional.

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Social work is as broad as the populations it aims to serve, which is why it is a fitting profession for individuals of many different skills, backgrounds, and passions. If you have a desire to improve the lives of others and help individuals and communities live healthy, safe, and productive lives — social work could be the profession for you. If you have any questions as you continue to explore the field of social work, we invite you to reach out and request more information

We hope this resource has been helpful as you learn more about social work and what social work professionals actually do. If you want more information about the basics of social work, explore our guide, Master of Social Work — The MBA of the Helping Professions. Or if you are curious what it looks like to begin a career in social work, check out  — The Guide to Launching Your Career in Social Work. You can also reach out to us at the Baylor School of Social Work with any questions you may have about the field. We look forward to hearing from you and are excited for you as you continue your journey to becoming a social worker!

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Your desire to do good through helping others is a gift worth sharing. Because of people like you, individuals and communities in our world who are struggling are able to find hope and support. To be the best possible advocate that you can be, it is important to arm yourself with the best education and tools. At Baylor University, our Master of Social Work degree is grounded in research, supported by expert faculty, and flexible enough for the busiest working professional.

The resources offered through one of our degree programs will help you to become the most effective advocate you can be for those you wish to serve. We can’t wait to meet you and help you get started on your path to bettering the world.

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