On Duty

Seeking deep gladness, responding to deep hunger

by Susan Palwick

It wasn’t church, but it felt like church.

Late last summer, I attended a program orientation for incoming students in the Masters of Social Work program at the university where I teach. This is my twentieth—and last—year as an English professor at the university; beginning next fall, I’ll be a full-time MSW student, working towards the goal of going into medical social work.

There are a lot of reasons for this decision. Although I have a very good job, and although I’ve had many wonderful students over the years, I’ve become burned out on teaching. My years of work as a spiritual-care volunteer in the ER, meanwhile, have made me increasingly fascinated with how people navigate health and illness, both in their personal lives and within the context of larger social and institutional structures. I love the ER, especially when I get to talk to patients with addictions or mental illness. My favorite patients are often those most stigmatized by the medical staff.
Theologian Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Over ten years ago, I was called to ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Deacons are the bridge between the church and the outer world, bringing outside concerns into the sanctuary and empowering laity to seek and serve Christ in all people, both in and outside the church. For a variety of reasons, I ultimately chose not to be ordained. Lately, I’ve been joking that social workers are a lot like deacons, with slightly better paychecks.

I’ve been planning this career move since late 2012, but as I walked into the orientation, I was still nervous. Was I making a terrible mistake?

I thought it was just a joke. Then I went to the MSW program orientation. The director of the program welcomed us with a speech that included phrases like “passion” and “changing the world” and, yes, “calling.” We were given a copy of the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics, which includes specific language about service, social justice, and the “dignity and worth of the person,” phrases echoing the language of the Episcopal Baptismal Covenant.

I even found myself, to my bemusement, walking Social Work Stations of the Cross. The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has identified “Twelve Grand Challenges for Social Work,” a 25-year plan. The challenges include everything from reducing income inequality to harnessing technology for social good. Around the walls of the orientation room hung posters, one for each challenge, and we spent several hours reading and discussing them.

I’ve been planning this career move since late 2012, but as I walked into the orientation, I was still nervous. Was I making a terrible mistake? Would I find out that this new direction wasn’t for me after all?

When I left, I was no longer nervous.

When I got home, my husband said, “So, are you a social worker yet?”

“Well, one of the takeaways was that enrolling in the school means we’re expected to behave like professional social workers. And part of that is that if we see anything that needs to be spoken up about, we have to speak up. We’re never off duty.”

“Wow,” said my husband, who identifies himself as a nondenominational pagan. “It’s like being a Christian!”

“Yes, exactly!”

All Christians are called to use their gifts and talents in the service of healing and reconciliation. That’s true whether we’re teaching a literature class, working in PR for a company that designs slot machines—as one of my favorite priests did for years—or scrubbing a toilet. All work can be ministry, but all of us are individuals. Each of us will have a slightly different place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. I’m deeply grateful that I seem to have found mine.

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