Intersection of Social Work Practice and Youth Ministry

Matthew T. Murphy, MSW


In the process of being called to ministry in the church, I was led on an educational journey to equip myself to be a great youth minister.  My calling, which I have felt since High School has led me to several different schools searching for the best educational underpinning to be a youth minister.  I was led into the field of social work as I saw it had much to offer youth ministry.  I realize that the relationship between advanced social work practice and youth ministry may be nebulous to many not acquainted with the field of social work. I have purposed to detail this relationship so others can gain an understanding as to why I believe strongly that social work education augments the individual’s competency and capacity to discharge the duties of a youth minister.

 Social Work and Faith

Social work has many specialties; among these are clinical practice, policy development and research.  I have studied in the field of advanced clinical practice, as it focuses strongly on working with individuals, families, groups and organizations.  One major area of clinical practice is working with individuals.  Social work practice with individuals emphasizes the skill sets of being with a person and empathizing with them at their current state, not where we believe they should be.  Learning skills of social work with individuals instructed me how to be a better listener and hear what is being said beyond the words, but the content and meaning behind the words that are spoken.  I believe that much of Christ’s ministry was focused the same way.  Jesus’ treatment of Zaccheus, the woman who poured perfume on His feet, the woman who touched Jesus in the crowd hoping to be healed and the woman at the well all exemplify how ministers of Christ should meet people where they are at and not where the crowd thinks they should be (Mark 5:27-34; Mark 14; Luke 19, John 4).


Social Work, Families and Youth Ministry

Social work in families is where I believe at times Youth Ministry has been lacking.  Teenagers are members of a larger family and they need to be engaged  in that context as well as within context of their peers.  Social work brings a deep understanding of family dynamics and systems that often impact the youth in rather complex ways.  Failing to understand family dynamics and the multiple pressures on the family, subsequently the youth may cause conflict in ministry.   If these dynamics are not considered in engaging youth, the minister may have increased difficulty making headway in getting teens and their parents to engage in the youth ministry.  Having a youth minister who understands these dynamics and looks to integrate families into youth ministry fosters a ministry that grows stronger as it facilitates growth of both the family and youth, increasing each particular family’s buy-in to the youth ministry.


Social Work and Group Ministry

Social work in groups is one of the specialties that social work is recognized widely as having developed particular expertise.  Social workers recognize and understand all that goes into group formation and leading groups.  The knowledge of how to formulate appropriate groups, develop groups that fulfill their purpose, creating norms and conducting groups will increase the ability of the youth minister to both lead and teach others how to lead groups that effectively accomplish their purposes.  There is a great movement right now to build small groups into ministry at all levels.  The education that social work education provides can benefit the church in the execution of these groups.


Social Work and Organizational Management for Youth Ministry

Organizational social work is where social workers use their skills to help build up organizations.  This is accomplished through the use of strategic planning, advocacy, community development and team building.  Youth Ministry has often been faulted with its lack of organizational development (and maturity).  The role of social work at times is to identify strengths and weaknesses in systems and make them better.  This pertains to both working within the youth ministry and engaging other ministries within the church.  Youth ministers are part of a larger church environment having this knowledge of organizational theory augments my ability to work within the church and in concert with the many different ministries inside and outside of the church.   Inside the church this helps ensure that conflict is lessened due to competing goals and visions and the practical knowledge of advancing the entire kingdom rather than just the part under my control.    As a social worker I have developed these skills and enjoy the process of making large groups better by analyzing ministry both biblically and pragmatically in hopes of improving the function of both the Youth Ministry itself and how it relates to the larger church body.


Social Work Research and Youth Ministry

Social research is another vital area where I feel that social work can significantly impact a ministry.  Social research/ethnography creates a better understanding of the culture and different trends of the youth ministry’s target audience.  Understanding the culture directly impacts the ability of the youth ministry team to competently minister.  Being trained in research and analysis makes a minister able to conduct, evaluate and interpret research of his own and others, then aptly exegete it into his ministry situation.


Social Work and Youth Ministry Stereotypes

Social work also addresses many of the stereotypical deficiencies within youth ministry.  I have seen articles that name these deficiencies: youth ministers lack personal conflict resolution skills, are poorly organized, lack vision/long term planning abilities, being all about the hottest and latest “program” regardless of the group’s needs, also that youth ministers are impatient and disrespectful.  Much of what I have said above deals directly with these deficiencies.  Learning how to conduct professional social work practice and work with people of all different walks of life is intrinsic in being able to resolve these conflicts that come up in ministry.  Strategic planning processes help resolve the typical vision issues and organizational management works to assist the youth minister accomplish the goals of the group and delegate in an effective manner.  Social work also speaks directly to communication and methods of effective communication lessening the risk or miscommunication and increasing the ability of the youth ministry to respond appropriately to resolve conflict as it arises.


Master of Social Work Degree

I feel that having a Master’s degree in Social Work makes me be a more competent and well-rounded Youth Minister.  I have completed  my Master of Divinity to create a strong theological base to my ministry so that both degrees may work in concert to provide a culturally competent and theologically robust youth ministry.