In the early 1960s, social welfare initiatives developed that would touch every corner of America over the next 50 years. In 1962, a tiny book called The Other America exposed desperate need in one of the world’s richest nations. In 1964, President Johnson declared war on poverty. Medicare and Medicaid were introduced. Subsidized housing and food stamps addressed basic needs. The Peace Corps and VISTA were founded. And from one of the nation’s largest gospel rescue missions, director Charles Furness issued a challenge: The church needed to step up and step into the predominantly secular field of social work.
In the early 1960s, social welfare initiatives developed that would touch every corner of America over the next 50 years. In 1962, a tiny book called The Other America exposed desperate need in one of the world’s richest nations. In 1964, President Johnson declared war on poverty. Medicare and Medicaid were introduced. Subsidized housing and food stamps addressed basic needs. The Peace Corps and VISTA were founded.
And from one of the nation’s largest gospel rescue missions, director Charles Furness issued a challenge: The church needed to step up and step into the predominantly secular field of social work.
In 1958, PCB (now Cairn University) had developed a four-year program focused on professional training, “offering a ‘Bible-saturated program in contrast to the Bible-scented programs’ of Christian liberal arts colleges. Each specialty area included a major in Bible: Bible Missions, Bible Christian Education, Bible Pastoral Studies, and Bible Music.”* Although the introduction of “biblically saturated” thinkers into professional social work was viewed with misgivings by both sides, Charles Furness was the ideal man to reconcile the “sacred” and the “secular” to holistically address needs.
Two months after MacCorkle’s inauguration in 1963, Mason and MacCorkle visited Furness at the Goodwill Home and Rescue Mission in Newark “to further discuss a plan to train social workers for ministries such as… the Mission.”* The next year, Furness assumed leadership of the school’s new Urban Advance Program, and the Bible Social Work major was officially established.
Fifty years later, over 600 Cairn social work alumni are currently serving in ten countries and 37 states as witnesses to God’s compassion in secular organizations and as innovative leaders in church community outreach. In a field that long viewed religion as irrelevant, they have served on the messy front lines of biblical integration.
1965-83: Era of Dr. Charles Furness
In the context of the 1960s, the the school’s Center City location provided unique opportunities to fulfill the institution’s mission. No one knew that better than President MacCorkle, whose passion for contributing to the well-being of Philadelphia was clearly articulated in his 1963 inaugural address. When the Urban Advance Program was launched in 1965, two major components included fundraising and “a process to solicit input from urban evangelicals about the needs of the neighborhoods for a plan to coordinate academic and community resources to meet those needs.”*
The final leg of the program entailed developing a social work curriculum — an innovative move into a field in which training had been provided exclusively on the graduate level. Furthermore, “[f]or the first time, a Bible college would train students as professional social workers for ministry in local churches and their communities.”* By the graduation of the first class of Bible Social Work students in May 1967, Mason had legitimized the Bible Social Work program by leading the institution to regional accreditation, the primary criterion for affiliation with the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and still a largely unprecedented move for a Bible college.
The next decade was characterized by curricular growth. Beginning in 1970, graduates of the Bible Social Work program were presented not only with a BS in Bible, but also a certificate from CSWE, acknowledging the program’s high standards for professional preparation. In 1974, a new core curriculum was implemented, cutting Bible requirements to 55 credits* and expanding the general education core to 59 credits, “aiding in the [formation] of a Christian world view.”* The change coincided with approval to offer the school’s first five-year double-degree program (BS in Bible and BSW), in addition to the existing certificate-based curriculum.*
On August 21, 1975, PCB was among the 151 undergraduate programs first in the nation to be accredited by CSWE, including only three at evangelical schools. Thirty years would pass before CSWE would accredit another Bible college.*
In 1978, the Board of Trustees voted to move the campus from Center City Philadelphia to suburban Langhorne. In addition to expanded facilities necessary to accommodate a growing student body, the move generated diverse opportunities, particularly for the social work program. Furness moved quickly to diversify the program’s field placements, building partnerships in nearby Trenton, as well as with surrounding suburban and rural organizations.
By his retirement in 1983, Charles Furness had crafted quite a legacy: a Bible Social Work program fully accredited through CSWE and “offer[ing] two educationally sound choices to prepare for social work practice.”* Importantly, he (along with Dean Mason and President MacCorkle) had made a bold move away from “the school’s identity as a traditional Bible school of the 1950s”* toward a distinctive institution providing “Bible-saturated” professional training, maintaining full regional and professional accreditation.
Photo Gallery: The Early Years
1983-97: Era of Mr. Bill Tarr
Finding new leadership for such a unique program was not an easy task. During the search, full-time faculty member Glenna Schlegel turned to alumnus Bill Tarr ’72, the assistant administrator for Philadelphia’s Salvation Army daycare programs.
“I gave her some names of people,” Tarr recalled in an interview with Cairn magazine, “and she said, ‘Why don’t you apply?’
“And I said, ‘Eh, that’s alright.’”
However, Tarr did visit the dean, Dr. Don MacCullough, to emphasize the importance that the program continue. MacCullough’s response was blunt: “Well then, why don’t you run it?” Prayerfully, Tarr did apply — and the next era of Cairn’s social work program began.
By the mid-80s, the social movements of the ’60s and ’70s had waned — and enrollment in social work programs across the nation had slowed also. At PCB, enrollment in social work had dropped from 130 students in 1971 to 83 in 1980.
However, for this school, the tide was soon to turn. Tarr’s professional network, along with that of new faculty member Janet Tyler, revitalized Philadelphia connections that had lagged during the post-move transition. With these connections came attractive field placements, especially in mental health and child welfare.
Also contributing to program growth were curriculum changes responding to new accreditation standards set by CSWE in 1994–95. With greater emphasis on problem-solving, systems theory, and human behavior in the social environment, a more coherent curriculum emerged.
“Every course was tied back not only to the institution’s mission, but also to more sophisticated professional standards,” Tarr explains. “Students got a more holistic understanding of people and their needs, [which] helped them to focus more on why a person is struggling… and how a healthy person can best help that person.”
By the mid-80s, the social movements of the ’60s and ’70s had waned — and enrollment in social work programs across the nation had slowed also. However, for this school, the tide was soon to turn.
Although an uptick in enrollment demonstrated support for biblical social work among future professionals, the program still faced suspicion.
“We didn’t need to justify our program to the social work community as much as to students’ own churches and Christian families,” Tarr recounts. “Now most churches talk seriously about how to reach out to their communities. No one was doing that in evangelical churches until about 10 years ago.”
But from its earliest days, Cairn’s social work program has prepared students to serve Christ in the church, society, and the world. “One of Furness’ dreams was to see the church really embrace reaching out to people in need,” Tarr explains. “When I worked at the College,
I tried to keep that spirit alive, [to] really push an agenda of reaching out to those in need as laypeople and volunteers.”
“We needed two realizations: one, that people in churches have problems; and two, that we need to reach out to people in our communities.”
1999-present: Era of Dr. Lloyd Gestoso
Ultimately, that vision for the church led Bill Tarr to become president in 1997 at New Life Youth and Family Services in Harleysville, PA, a nondenominational organization serving at-risk youth. But the change left a vacancy.
The prime candidate for the open position was Lloyd Gestoso ’92, a part-time faculty member and director of social services at Calcutta House, a specialized home for individuals with AIDS in Philadelphia. Formerly president of Chi Beta Sigma, Cairn’s social work student organization, Gestoso had earned a reputation for strong opinions about the importance of caring for people in need.
President Dr. Todd Williams remembers the hiring process:
“When Bill Tarr stepped down as the chair of social work and I was asked as the associate dean who we could find to fill that position, there was only one name: Lloyd Gestoso. It was my privilege to recruit my friend and fellow student to lead what is for us a strategic and vital program.”
The academic strength of the program was further bolstered that year by the hiring of an additional faculty member: Juliet Campbell-Farrell, who brings an enthusiastic commitment to scholarship and a strong clinical base. Just as importantly, Lloyd points out, “her authenticity of compassion… help[s] us to really effectively and authentically connect with students and impact them in deep, effective ways to be better social workers.”
Over the next 10 years, program enrollment continued to grow to the point where yet another faculty member was needed. “Cheryl Nitz has been an amazing addition,” Gestoso explains, because her skill set harmonizes with strengths already present in the faculty. In addition to clinical expertise and a strong commitment to child welfare, “she also brings the academic skill to effectively teach statistics and research.” These strengths have helped to ensure graduates’ entry into prestigious social work programs, including the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, NYU, and Bryn Mawr College.
Social work students themselves have contributed to the excellence of the program, as well. “Our students have really become very entrepreneurial in past years,” Lloyd reports. In 2002, they started a visitation and after-school program called U-Link, serving residents in the apartment complex adjacent to the Penndel residence halls. More recently, they have organized events rallying the student body around local issues such as homelessness and human trafficking in Bucks County. In addition, their successful completion of placements well beyond bachelor students’ level have helped to expand the program’s impressive network of challenging field opportunities.
Through its students, faculty, and leadership, the Social Work program has played an important role in fulfilling Furness’ vision. Providing the church with well-equipped professionals and society with biblically minded men and women of Christlike compassion, the program and the University continue to develop along the same bold lines as always.
Finally, the profession is following suit, as CSWE is working to formally acknowledge the necessity of addressing spiritual need alongside physical need.
Fortunately, over the past 10 years, the church has been assuming leadership in that area. Many congregations and para- church ministries have robust programs enacting the Bible’s call to justice, mercy, and love of your neighbor.
Above all, Cairn University continues to lead the way in “Bible-saturated” professional training “in contrast to the Bible-scented programs of Christian liberal arts colleges.” Students are required to take a minimum of ten Bible and theology classes when earning a BSW , plus at least two more if enrolled in the double-degree program leading to both a BSW and a BS in Bible. The compassion and justice of God are daily discussed in classes as the motivation for biblical social work, and students continue to be discipled by spiritually mature professors. Challenging academic field placements, in addition to each student’s participation in at least 6 semesters of weekly volunteer ministry, combine with classes to prepare students to serve Christ in the church, society, and the world.
* Many thanks to Dr. Janet Furness ’70 for granting generous access to and use of her research on Cairn’s social work program from its beginning through the 1980s. Much of the information on pages 4-5 of this article comes from Chapter 4 of her excellent dissertation: Furness, J. E. (2009). Education for the Social Work Profession: Innovation in Three Evangelical Institutions Between 1960 and 1985 (Doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester). UMI No. 3392889
Marissa A. Rumpf serves as editor of Cairn magazine, as well as a blogger and communications specialist for Cairn University. She can be reached at email@example.com.