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Carver School thrives in new setting

CAMPBELLSVILLE — In a small classroom building at the Baptist university here, students stood before their peers and outlined ways to make good on slogans covering the walls that urged them to fight poverty and "make a difference."

They gave presentations on agencies they "created" to help young mothers, rescue abused children and mediate family disputes.

While the agencies were fictitious — part of a class assignment — the students were honing real-world skills they will need as graduates of the Carver School of Social Work at Campbellsville University.

"I have always had an interest in helping people," said student Angela Pace, whose work with orphans in Romania prompted her to seek a social-work degree. "I love the program here. I love that it's faith-based."

Pace and her classmates are part of a slow revival of a program that was shuttered in one Southern Baptist setting in Louisville before finding a home in another here about 80 miles away.

More than a decade ago, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary closed its Carver School of Church Social Work, which was the nation's only seminary-based social-work program.

That decision, one of the signature episodes in the tumultuous rightward shift at the seminary in the 1990s, came after the seminary's leaders concluded that contemporary social-work values were incompatible with its mission.

Campbellsville University came to the opposite conclusion.

It acquired the Carver name from the seminary in 1998 along with library materials, scholarship funds and a century-old heritage of blending religious values with human services.

In the past decade, the Carver School at Campbellsville has granted 136 bachelor's degrees in social work. The seminary only offered master's degrees in social work.

And it achieved a milestone this year when it began offering social-work courses at the master's level, the first at the Carver School since 1997, when it granted its final 11 social-work degrees as part of the seminary.

Six students are in the first year of the master's-level social-work classes. Carver School Dean Darlene Eastridge is optimistic it will grow.

"It's a very exciting time for us," she said.

"I can't speak for what happened at the seminary," she added. "All I can speak for is here. (Social service is) very much a part of who we are as a school."

The Carver School is no direct transplant, however, as it has had to recruit new faculty and seek accreditation on its own.

And while Campbellsville received some of the old Carver School's funding, the Southern Baptists' Woman's Missionary Union — which handles the old Carver School's endowment — has also used those funds for other Baptist university programs, such as a large social-work program at Baylor University in Texas and a women's leadership program at Samford University in Alabama.

Those programs reflect the heritage of the Carver School, founded in 1907 to train Baptist women for missions and social services.

By the 1950s, the school had evolved into a co-ed social-work program, named for early supporter and seminary professor W.O. Carver.

The Carver School merged with the seminary in 1963. It became a battleground in the 1990s, when the seminary came under more conservative leadership.

Seminary President Albert Mohler fired Carver School Dean Diana Garland when she sought to hire a professor who favored the ordination of women, which the seminary officially opposes.

Seminary trustees closed the school after concluding in a study that "considerable differences exist in the structures, processes and issues of social-work education and theological studies."

Campbellsville is affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the Southern Baptists' state affiliate.

The state convention confirms Campbellsville's trustees and helps fund the college, which has grown from 1,615 to 2,601 students in the past decade, while adding several academic programs. Campbellsville has operated as a college since the 1950s, and gained university status in 1996.

Whereas the seminary trains professed Christians to be church leaders, the liberal-arts college provides a "faith-oriented environment" while admitting students "whether they have any faith perspective or not," President Michael Carter said.

Social-work graduates learn that for many clients in crisis, "their faith plays an important role," Carter said, "but there won't be a proselytizing process.

"The world is a diverse place, and we believe as Christians we're called to live in a diverse world," Carter said. "That doesn't mean we have to adopt the values of the world but we need to live out an ethic of caring, compassion and concern."