At the turn of the twentieth century, a young mother was abandoned by her husband and left with four young children to feed and to raise on her own. Sensing that she could not do this without some divine intervention, the following Sunday found her, with her four children, at the nearest church (which happened to be an Anglican church). The children were sent off to a large Sunday school with the other children to whom they appeared different. The other children were all dressed in their Sunday best, including freshly shined shoes. The young mother’s four children possessed only one pair of shoes that were not kept polished for Sundays. Her four children were in home-made clothes—functional and well-fitting—but poorly contrasted with the other children who were all wearing their ‘Sunday best’. While collecting her children from the Sunday school, the young mother was seen in earnest conversation with the Sunday school superintendent. That single mother and her four children never returned to that church or any other Anglican church. The next weekend they were welcomed into the local Baptist church.
Ninety years after these events, as my grandfather reluctantly recounted this story for his newly ordained Anglican grandson, the scars of shame and disappointment witnessed by that seven-year-old boy on behalf of his mother were still visible. Apparently, my great-grandmother was never prepared to talk about the incident, which explains my grandfather’s own reluctance to discuss the event seventy years afterwards. With some persistent questions, I discovered that Grandpa was convinced that he and his siblings were told they did not fit in. They were too poor and too working class. The message of that church was, ‘don’t come back’. Being a single mother in the years before the Great War would have added to the family’s dire circumstances and the burden of shame.
My vocation as a scholar-priest has been shaped profoundly by that event from more than a century ago. I am convinced that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ must offer something real and relational to the disappointment of my grandfather, the exhaustion of my great-grandmother, and the failure of that Anglican church through its Sunday school superintendent. For several decades of my vocation, the disadvantaged parts of the city of Sydney—the context of serving and worshipping alongside the people who live there—generated for me a distinctive engagement with Scripture and fresh insights to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological question: ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today?’ Over the last decade, I have taught and trained hundreds of pastoral supervisors across Australia. I wonder how I might supervise that Sunday school superintendent who talked with my great grandmother. A Practical Christology for Pastoral Supervision is an attempt to answer that question. I invite you to wonder with me. My grandfather’s interpretation of that interaction—now more than one hundred years ago— is the only detail we have. So, let’s assume it is more or less what happened: the young mother and her family were told they didn’t fit in. The Sunday school superintendent brings the incident to supervision in order to reflect on it. What kind of reflection is required?
First, the supervisee might begin with ethical reflection: what should I do? Second is the reflection on effectiveness: what enables me to do it well? Third is existential reflection: what do I really want to do? The fourth—and rarely asked question—is eschatological: what is worth doing? This book provides a theological framework for asking all four questions, particularly focussed on the fourth: what is worth doing? Pastoral supervision needs theological resources to address deeper spiritual and theological questions because the extant literature in supervision is primarily focussed on the first three questions concerning ethics, effectiveness, and existential desires.
The theological framework proposed in this book is drawn from three gospel passages, located across three physical places. The first is walking, which emerges from the risen Jesus and the two on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-34). Second is re-membering, from Jesus and the disciples in the garden the night before his death (Lk. 22:39-53). Third is a restorative conversation between the risen Jesus and the apostle Peter (Jn. 21:1-14). The physical dimensions of places—especially meeting places—is being turned upside down as I complete this book. Several generations ago, Bonhoeffer also observed:
The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer... .The believer need not feel any shame when yearning for the physical presence of other Christians ... a human being is created as a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body for our sake and was raised in the body.... Therefore, the believer praises the Creator, the Reconciler and the Redeemer, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of the other Christian. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian living in the diaspora recognizes in the nearness of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.1
Physical distancing, not physical presence, has been required for many months. I address some of the issues of life and supervision in a digital age in Chapters 2 and 10. The main genesis and structure for this book—A
Practical Christology for Pastoral Supervision—reflects three intersecting convictions about Jesus Christ, practical theology frameworks, and pastoral supervision.
The God of biblical revelation has a character. Divine action flows from that character. God is love and God is light. This is the story of both Old and New Testament, centred on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.2 The practical Christology suggested for the emerging theory and practice of pastoral supervision is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christ event—revealing, remembering, and restoring— provides the theological basis necessary for the collaborative activity at the heart of good supervision practice. Through narrative exegesis I will deepen and extend the insights from the gospel passages—Luke 24:13-34, Luke 22:39-53, and John 21:1-14—into wider Christological themes. The Christology provided for pastoral supervision is the revealing Jesus (Chapters 4-5), the remembering Jesus (Chapters 6-7) and the restoring Jesus (Chapters 8-9). Significantly, as practical Christology, the gospels of Luke and John provide specific, narrative-based accounts of Jesus’ interaction with disillusioned, exhausted, and failed disciples. Supervision practice is grounded in specific, relational narratives of mission and ministry practice which includes disillusionment, exhaustion, and failure.
The practical Christology for pastoral supervision is deepened and extended through three theologians: Martin Luther (reformed), Emil Brunner (neoorthodox), and James McClendon (small B baptist). In the Christology of the Reformation, Martin Luther focussed on revelation and redemption— which I call the revealing Jesus. In the twentieth-century Christology of Emil Brunner, mediation and memory was central: the remembering Jesus. In the late twentieth century reclaiming of a more radically reformed Christology, James McClendon highlighted rising and reconciling: the restoring Jesus. Alister R. McGrath, in recent works on both Luther and Brunner, highlights the way such theologians provide rich Christological reflections for contemporary theology and practice. Luther’s theology of the cross, according to McGrath, is a theology of revelation not speculation? Luther’s Jesus is the source of both revelation and redemption, because paradox is at the heart of Christology. Jesus’ parables both reveal and conceal. Jesus’ death both redeems and condemns. Luther’s Christology enables pastoral supervision to navigate light and shadows, to heal and to harrow, because Christ is the revealing Jesus. The revealing Jesus informs and inspires three practices for pastoral supervision: contemplating, critiquing, and converting. Brunner’s Christology emphasises the personal nature of Luther’s divine self-disclosure. Like Luther before him, McGrath notes Brunner declares faith to be ‘seeing in the dark’ because ‘faith is able to recognize and take hold of the reality in the shadows’? Brunner’s Christology of personal encounter ensures pastoral supervision explores the shadows and deficits of ignorance and forgetfulness, leading to the memory of the God in the remembering Jesus. The remembering Jesus animates the practice of expecting, examen-ing, and encountering.
McClendon’s Christology insists God’s way—God’s only way—is God’s sign of self-identification with the risen Christ. In meeting Jesus as the risen Lord do we indeed meet true human and true God, so that Jesus Christ can rightly be the centre of Christian theology?'’ McClendon’s Christology enriches pastoral supervision with the restoring Jesus with whom supervisees must come to terms; it is in him that supervisees must seek their answers.6 The practices of the restoring Jesus are calling, convicting, and contending.
Personally and professionally, I am indebted to Scottish scholar-priest Michael Paterson, who has been a pioneer of the emerging theory and practice of pastoral supervision in the United Kingdom.7 Paterson lays out clearly how he sees pastoral supervision differing from supervision as it is used in other professions and has encouraged and exhorted me to write this book.8 Paterson highlights the eschatological question (what is worth doing?) by recovering vision and the vocation to which God has called the supervisee.9 He does not set out to reinvent supervision but instead to look at how the practices of supervision can be used to serve the aim of attending to the Christian call in the supervisee’s life.10 One of the great strengths of Paterson’s pioneering work is the broad range of different approaches to supervision, making it abundantly clear that supervision is not simply about reflecting on the ethical, effectiveness, or existential questions. Good supervision, in the tradition of wise oversight, pays attention to what is not said as much as what is said and understands the place of the story being told in supervision within the framework of the Christian story—eschatological reflection.11 This, for Paterson, is the goal of pastoral supervision: that to help supervisees examine the story out of which they live so that they may minister more profoundly the good news of Jesus Christ.12
In July 2019, at a conference for pastoral supervisors in Sydney with Paterson, he challenged the one hundred or so supervisors present to consciously and deliberately be pastoral, not just professional, as supervisors. Paterson then demonstrated a new approach—loosely described as a contemplative inquiry—wherein the session was mostly silent: an internal process of reflection for the supervisee, guided by the supervisor’s questions and extensive pauses. I was hooked. For quite some time, I had been searching for ways, as a supervisor and trainer of supervisors, to curtail and contain the narrative of what the supervisee brought into the room for supervision. What I observed from Paterson had never occurred to me as a possibility: to prevent the supervisee from telling their story in a supervision session. I observed a supervision session that was reflective, yet distinctly pastoral. From the debriefing session with the supervisee, it was evident the supervisee had engaged in a deeply reflective—and decidedly theological—process. A week later, I excitedly shared the contemplative inquiry I had just witnessed with a supervision class. ‘Let’s do it!’ declared an enthusiastic student who was an experienced pastor, spiritual director, and mentor, with some experience as a pastoral supervisor. I nervously agreed to her offer to be supervised using Paterson’s method. It was a small class that had heard my mantra that good supervision and good teaching share the common space known in Buddhist thought as ‘beginner’s mind’. That is, all true learning begins at the edge of not knowing. I did not know what would happen, as a supervisor nor as an educator.131 could not have predicted the profound impact that experimental supervision session would have on the student or the class nor how it would shift my thinking and practice of professional supervision. I resolved to discover ‘what’ makes supervision pastoral.
The contemplative enquiry approach holds and contains—yet condenses and focusses—the long and sometimes complicated story of pastoral supervisees. First, the supervisor wonders: what does the supervisee notice? Second, the supervisee is invited to wonder: what do you wonder about? Wonder opens the door to realisation and insight. Third, the supervisee is asked what they perceive (or discern/is revealed/is disclosed) and how that might inform more faithful practice. Fourth, the supervisor’s initial wonder must be extended from curiosity into a genuine space of not knowing what is being revealed to the supervisee. All of this requires humility, a distinctly Christological virtue (Phil. 2:5-11). First, the humility for the supervisor of not taking on the role of resident expert, the master teacher, or the wise guru. Second, this kind of humility manifests itself as trust. The supervisor, not knowing, must trust the process and relationship to the grace of wonder. This trust contains several aspects. The supervisor trusts the supervisee as an agent capable of their own reflection and insight. The supervisor must also trust the supervision process: that space for exploration is usually the doorway for the elusive moment of insight and discovery. The pastoral supervisor trusts that Christ will reveal insights to the supervisee, not the supervisor. Pastoral people often mistake their true calling of being ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) by trying to be Christ for others. The third—and deepest—aspect of humility for the pastoral supervisor who trusts Christ to reveal the wisdom of God is simply to get out of the way. The humble supervisor trusts that it is not the active listening nor the clever question nor the perceptive analysis nor the attentive presence that ushers the revealing Jesus into the supervision space. As happened on the Emmaus Road, the risen Christ simply appears as a companion. Jesus reveals himself in the midst of discouragement, disillusionment, or despair. The pastoral supervisor—often intent on the restorative and supportive tasks of supervision—is motivated to intervene with compassion to comfort and console. The humble supervisor, trusting in the revealing, remembering, and restoring Jesus, will walk with the supervisee without needing to be at the centre of the process. And that is what makes supervision more pastoral by enabling the supervisee to answer the eschatological question: what is worth doing?
- 1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5: Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible, trans. Albrecht Scbonherr and Geffrey B. Kelly (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 29.
- 2 G. Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 52.
A. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).
A. McGrath, Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).
J. W. McClendon, Systematic Theology: Ethics (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001), 238.
McClendon, Systematic Theology, 239.
See also M. Paterson and J. Rowe, eds., Enriching Ministry: Pastoral Supervision in Practice (London: SCM, 2015).
Jane Leach and Michael Paterson, Pastoral Supervision: A Handbook, second ed. (London: SCM, 2015), 7.
Leach and Paterson, Pastoral Supervision, 13.
Leach and Paterson, Pastoral Supervision, 16.
Leach and Paterson, Pastoral Supervision, 145-6, 167.
Leach and Paterson, Pastoral Supervision, 92.
As an educator, I remind my students and myself that true learning begins at the edge of not-knowing. I have a hunch I owe that insight to Parker J. Palmer’s writing on education as a spiritual journey, but it is an ancient insight from Socrates who prioritised the right question above the right answer.