The Voice: Winter 2003

The Voice

David Helmstetter will look for ways to stay involved in social services

by Sally Jongsma

David Helmstetter Professor David Helmstetter says that over the eleven and a half years he has been teaching social work at Dordt College he has tried to show his students that social work is a “magnificent vocation in which to live out one’s faith.” Helmstetter, who retired at the end of first semester, is finishing his third career, in a sense, but they’ve all been in social work—working in a state mental hospital, serving as administrator for a clinical practice, and, most recently, teaching social work students.

Although he’s looking forward to a few months of “R & R,” there isn’t much he won’t miss, he says. He expects to stay involved by serving on boards for not-for-profit agencies and maybe working with communities on establishing continuums of care for elderly people. Throughout his career, he has had a special interest in working with and advocating for the elderly.

Helmstetter came into social work naturally. Growing up in a Lutheran community, his church was involved in German repatriation, his father was on the township relief board, and his parents were foster parents. He chose to study at Augsburg College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in part because it was located in an inner city and because of its strong social ministry emphasis. He has served on boards of several not-for-profit agencies, including Lutheran Social Services. On his office wall hangs a framed version of Ephesians 2:10 that he says has been at the forefront of his life: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good work, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Teaching future social workers has been a wonderful way to end his professional career, he says. “God sometimes leads with a sense of humor, though,” he says with his trademark hearty laugh. “I wanted to go to Arizona; he led me to Iowa.”

“I had always dreamed of teaching someday,” he says. He had taught many adult courses and worked with many students in placement assignments over his years in the profession. But he found teaching—pedagogy—a challenge. “It surprised me. Teaching takes a lot of work. I still pray before each class that I can do a good job of teaching my students what they need to know to become good social workers.”

He continues: “It’s a challenge to put one’s understanding of who he or she is into theoretical practice. I try constantly to bring home the idea of redemption into the classroom and into the lives of people who live in a fallen world.”

“I’ve come to love the Reformed Christian worldview that I found at Dordt College and am excited about what it means for social work,” Helmstetter says.

The challenges of working out that worldview have also been intensely rewarding. He is grateful for the opportunity to continue to learn new things, even during his last semester of teaching.

Helmstetter has also come to appreciate “how remarkably obedient his students want to be to the gospel. Working with students who come to college believing that their faith motivates them to do this kind of work is an incredible blessing,” he says. “They really want to serve.”

In fact, Helmstetter says that it is only as an afterthought that many of his students ask about the salary they will be earning. Part of his job is, without deflating their enthusiasm, to help them see that practical issues of life need to be considered, individualistic tensions needed to be recognized, and cultural naivete needs to be changed.

“Good social workers need to be strong in their conviction of who they are if they are to be compassionate people. How well they can serve others depends on how well they know themselves,” he says.

“Social workers need to know whether they can find the tolerance needed to work with diverse cultures, with unpopular people in our society, with those in other socio-economic situations, with people who make poor decisions—sometimes repeatedly.”

That’s not easy for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for students who have grown up in relatively comfortable circumstances, often seeing the world from a fairly traditional conservative and somewhat individualistic perspective.

But it’s been rewarding and has left him with many wonderful memories—most of which are related to the classroom, he says. Working with students in their field placements, teaching classes on aging, seeing students accepted into graduate school, and working with new and wonderful faculty colleagues are all things he’ll miss—a lot. But he’ll also have time to continue his work in other ways, staying active as a thinking, caring Christian.