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Faith in Practice

Faith in Practice

Blazing the Trail in Congregational Social Work

A sense of calling.

Jane Ferguson describes it as seeing a Baptist congregation of thousands reaching outside the stained glass to their inner-city neighbors. For Bill Howse, the call is found in the wide-open spaces of cattle country, where a rodeo arena serves as the only type of church sanctuary that many of its cowboys and cowgirls have ever experienced. Whatever the demographics, the desire is the same.

Jane and Bill have answered what each feels is a personal calling to serve as both a minister and social worker within a church congregation-a trail that is still being blazed today.

It was when Jane's husband began pastoring an inner-city church in Louisville, Ky., that she first became acutely aware of her need for hands-on, practical training.

"We were really struggling as we became aware of all the social issues and felt inadequate to address them," she recalled.

This struggle proved to be the catalyst that inspired Jane, then in her late-forties, to pursue an MSW degree at Carver School of Church Social Work within Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Upon graduation in 1988, the woman who had once been led to believe (like many of her peers) that the only way she could serve as a female in the ministry was "as a teacher, secretary or foreign missionary" became the first church social worker to be hired on staff within a local congregation in the state of Alabama.

She was one of only 17 in the entire nation within the Southern Baptist Convention at that time.

Almost 24 years, 5,750 trained volunteers, 55 college interns and more than half dozen successful community development programs later, Jane is still serving as the Minister of Community Ministries of First Baptist Church of Montgomery, Ala., at the age of 72.

"It's so rewarding that I can't give it up," Jane conceded. "I can't imagine not doing what I'm doing."

Bill Howse understands.

He was still in high school when he first felt drawn to the ministry. But it wasn't until the age of 30, when Bill witnessed "the ministry side and the social work side thrown together in action" through an organization serving in one of the roughest areas of New York City, that he knew what he wanted to do with the rest his life.

Bill Howse

Even then, he'd never have guessed that it would have had anything to do with mud-caked boots, Wrangler jeans and rodeos. All he knew is that he wanted serve as a Christian minister equipped with the skills and knowledge of a professional social worker. And that was enough to lead him to Baylor, where he became one of Baylor's first social work students to have a field internship within a local congregation.

After earning his MSW degree at Baylor in 2001, Bill served as the Church and Community Ministries Consultant with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention for the next nine years. In May 2010, a door opened for Bill to pastor the Bar None Cowboy Church in Mountain Home, Ark. Far from a traditional church set up, there's a chuck wagon for a kitchen, a rodeo arena for a fellowship hall… and a welcome lack of pretense, overall.

"You can see the real needs of life-whether that's someone struggling with alcohol, drugs, recent release from jail, or just wondering how to make through the end of month on the money they've got," Bill said. "Eighty percent of the people that attend, not just Bar None, but any cowboy church, haven't been to church in 25-30 years."

In his time as a pastor, Bill has experienced that same kind of satisfaction Jane just can't give up, by what he terms "living out my calling"-a calling to reach a new breed of congregation through faith and social work in practice.