Kathryn Overall met up with Chris Thomas recently to find out about Chris’s role in the writing and development of BTI’s Bachelor of Social Work, and to hear about her perspective on how this unique degree fits within the broader social work context in New Zealand.
Creating a Social Work degree from scratch is no small feat - especially one with a special Christian character. Unsurprisingly, it took Associate Dean Richard Cook and his team, a number of years of researching, planning, developing and writing to bring BTI’s Bachelor of Social Work from initial concept into reality. An important part of that process included gathering a team of external experts, consultants and writers who could add great value to the degree development.
When it came to approaching writers in 2010, Chris Thomas was a natural choice. She is passionate about social work and has been part of the progression of social work in New Zealand since she trained in the 1980s. The early years of her career included working with the Department of Social Welfare in Southland for two years and with Catholic Social Services in Christchurch for 13 years - both places providing diverse and interesting work. Following those roles, Chris worked primarily as a professional supervisor and educator for the next 17 years at both the University of Canterbury and Massey University in Palmerston North.
Since 2008, Chris has developed her own training company called ‘The Project Team’ which provides training primarily in the area of strengths-based practice and supervision. She also continues to act as a professional supervisor to a wide range of outstanding social work practitioners.
With her vast professional experience and her capacity to engage with a Christian worldview in robust and meaningful ways, Chris has been a true asset to the social work programme at BTI.
Chris, why do you think this unique Christian social work degree was needed?
When considering my involvement in this degree development, I guess I had to resolve that question for myself, because there was some discussion from people around me about ‘doesn’t this already get covered, isn’t this part of the curriculum that’s offered in other programmes?’ I think that’s true to a degree, however I think there has been some challenges for a Christian worldview to be held at the centre or the basis for the work – even though a lot of social workers would profess to have a faith-based framework that’s underpinning their work. So, I think the explicit nature of the BTI approach is really, really important because it is explicit – it’s saying ‘this is where we come from’, but in a very clear way which links incredibly well with the Code of Ethics and our professional framework for the social work profession. I think it provides a place for people to explore this in a very coherent way which isn’t I think available necessarily in other programmes.
When writing the degree how did you, as a team, ensure you stayed true to the unique Christian character?
I think what was really important in this whole process, was that we held a Christian faith-based perspective at the heart of whatever we did. So for us as a team it was about thinking ‘what does this mean, and how does this connect with the social work literature and profession’, so that it was a very unifying thing.
It was as a huge process! There were lots of debates and rigour around how we would actually be doing that and a very full conceptual framework was developed which held us to our core beliefs. Micah 6:8 (do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God) became the touchstone for what it was all about…. we held that as a key to whatever we did in the programme… and then linking that with a strength based approach and seeing how those two fit very well together. It’s just really exciting to see a degree that’s kind of built from the inside out in a very coherent way.
What employment opportunities do you see for graduates of this programme?
I think there is always a shortage of social workers. The Memorandums of Understanding between BTI and The Open Home Foundation, Salvation Army and Te Aroha Noa – they are saying that there is a need for this degree.
I suspect that BTI graduates will be snapped up. I also see that in the broader context of social work though, in terms of what this degree offers…there will be lots of opportunities for social workers inside faith-based organisations and also outside.