On Becoming a Christian Educator in Social Work
Michael Sherr’s book, On Becoming a Christian Educator in Social Work, begins with Sherr’s personal story, including his conversion from Conservative Judaism to evangelical Christianity and his reasons for writing the book. Sherr relates that the seeds for this project were planted while he and some colleagues were facilitating a workshop on faith-learning integration in social work education at a conference for Christians in social work. During the course of the workshop, an undergraduate social work student from a small Christian university shared that a close friend and fellow student had recently passed away. When she turned to the social work faculty for support, she was referred to the religion department and the chaplain’s office. The student was shaken by her professors’ inability or unwillingness to support her in her time of crisis and questioned their commitment to faith-learning integration. At the time, Sherr was scheduled to defend his doctoral dissertation in a few months’ time and had accepted a faculty position at a small Christian university for the following academic year.
Sherr relates that, until this chance encounter with a distraught undergraduate student, he had felt immanently confident of his ability to be a Christian educator in the field of social work due to his strong background in research and his dedication to teaching and service. However, in the aftermath of the undergraduate student’s disclosure regarding her disappointment with her social work professors, Sherr was struck by his lack of preparation to be all that his students would need him to be. Desiring to understand his students’ needs and to develop a holistic approach to faith-learning integration, Sherr (in collaboration with George Huff of Cedarville University and Mary Curran of Northwest Nazarene University) undertook a qualitative research project on students’ perceptions and expectations of faith-learning integration among their social work professors.
Sherr and his colleagues found that students identified seven commitments which they believed were the mark of an educator who was competent in faith-learning integration. These commitments included: 1) Developing and maintaining a thorough knowledge of Scripture; 2) Living an active and consistent Christian life; 3) Spending time and energy getting to know students; 4) Supporting students while expecting academic excellence and challenging beliefs; 5) Having expertise and experience in the curriculum areas of social work education; 6) Providing specific integration of faith and learning (IFL) experiences with curriculum material; and 7) Developing a classroom environment where students feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. Sherr, Huff, and Curran used these seven commitments to develop a Christian vocation model for social work educators. Sherr’s book describes the seven commitments in detail and suggests strategies by which Christian social work educators can incorporate these commitments into their work. Throughout the book, Sherr draws heavily on his own experiences as a social work educator and gives concrete examples of personal and professional practices derived from the seven commitments.
Sherr’s vulnerability and willingness to share his own story, including his mistakes and miscues, are perhaps the most noteworthy aspects of his book. Sherr emphasizes early on that the book’s title, On Becoming a Christian Educator in Social Work, describes the ongoing and developmental nature of the journey toward integrating Christian faith into all aspects of one’s professional and personal life.By sharing his own journey, Sherr has gifted his readers (whom, one presumes, are likely to be current or future social work educators) with valuable insights and lessons he has learned along the way.
Parker Palmer describes education as a relationship between teachers, students, and a “third thing”—the academic subject or discipline.1 By bringing the views of students into the conversation, Sherr includes the group which is often overlooked in discussions of faith-learning integration. Such conversations tend to focus on only two parts of Palmer’s triad, the personal vocation of the teacher and links between the academic discipline and the Christian faith. When students are discussed, the emphasis is often on future developments in the lives of students, as faith-learning integration is often understood in terms of the “planting of seeds” which will bear future fruit in the lives of students. Sherr’s recognition of the need to understand and listen to current students’ reactions to their professors’ faith integration strategies, and his inclusion of research on this topic, are valuable contributions to the literature on Christian higher education. In fact, Sherr’s research on students’ expectations of their professors in regard to their faith-learning integration will be helpful to Christian educators in all academic fields, not merely those who teach social work.
Sherr’s emphasis on Christian vocation is also admirable. Throughout the book, Sherr emphasizes the idea that Christian faith must inform all aspects of one’s personal and professional life. Sherr’s story of the distraught undergraduate student who, having lost her friend and classmate, failed to receive support from her Christian professors emphasizes the problems of a merely academic or professional approach to faith-learning integration. Sherr’s story highlights the danger that Christian social work educators could become adept at teaching others about the biblical imperative to care for those in need while losing the ability to provide such assistance themselves. By his own account, Sherr’s book was born out of a desire to avoid such an ironic situation by acknowledging the need to approach his work as a social work educator as a Christian vocation which would affect and intertwine with all aspects of his life.
The relatively short length of Sherr’s book (99 pages) means that some aspects of his topic are underdeveloped. For example, although Sherr spends a great deal of time discussing the idea of Christian vocation, his treatment of this idea is rather narrow. The book would benefit from an expanded treatment of this topic, especially in regard to ecclesiological resources for the understanding and formation of Christian vocation. In its current form, the book’s understanding of Christian vocation is based primarily on students’ perspectives and Sherr’s personal experiences; the book would be improved by a discussion of the church’s historical understanding of the nature of Christian vocation, as well as by a discussion of the ways the church assists individuals in discerning and nurturing their Christian vocation. Such a discussion would provide sufficient grounding for the idea of Christian vocation, which seems to demand a larger contextual framework than that provided by Sherr’s experiences and the expectations of students.
The book would also benefit from a deeper biblical foundation. Sherr tends to cite short scriptural passages in order to support his points, rather than engaging the broader biblical story in relation to issues such as Christian vocation and charitable work. At various points throughout the book, Sherr includes scriptural passages which appear to have been meaningful to him, but which do not seem necessarily to fit with the points he is trying to make. A broader engagement of the biblical narrative around the issues Sherr addresses would strengthen the book.
Sherr’s inclusion of students’ perspectives on faith integration has been discussed as a strength of the book. However, the fact that his faith integration strategy, as well as his Christian vocation model, is based primarily on data obtained from students (in addition to his own personal experiences) is somewhat problematic. While the inclusion of the student perspective is certainly admirable, a faith-learning integration strategy based primarily on student input seems likely to lack balance and depth. It is doubtful that students are fully aware of the intricacies and nuances involved in faith-learning integration. Indeed, at some Christian universities there is a legitimate concern that students often define faith-learning integration in terms of overt, easily recognizable practices such as praying in class or including Bible readings among course requirements, leading them to miss the more complex and nuanced ways in which their professors attempt to integrate faith into their teaching and scholarship. Although the students who participated in Sherr’s research articulated a much broader understanding of faith-learning integration, it seems likely that some aspects of this construct could be explained further through the systematic inclusion of faculty perspectives on this topic.
In conclusion, Michael Sherr has written a remarkable book. In 99 pages, Sherr manages to share his research on faith-learning integration, as well as the story of his vocational journey as a social work educator. He includes the voices of students (indeed, he dedicates the book to the distraught undergraduate student who provided the impetus for much of his journey), emphasizes the importance of Christian vocation, and humbly shares his own successes and failures. In doing so, Sherr gives a meaningful gift to all of us who are in the process of becoming Christian educators.