Pastoral supervision in the Australian context

It is easy to (wrongly) assume that all clergy and ministry workers in Australia have been naughty, weak, or stupid given the criminal convictions of some occupying the highest offices in the church. As the national Anglican Church in Australia seeks to introduce and implement standards for pastoral supervision, professional development, and ministry reviews, won’t these unfounded assumptions simply be confirmed? The Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) concluded, after carefully listening to victims’ testimony, considering the responses of church leaders, with the legal verdict that clergy and church workers (termed ‘religious leaders’ in the reports) had been nefarious, not just naughty; wanton, not just weak; and scandalous, not just stupid.1 For too long the church has allowed wrongdoers and perpetrators to exist in our midst, exercise ministry on our behalf, and be elevated to senior roles of leadership. The reputation of the Anglican Church is diminishing, the witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ is devalued, and the morale of faithful Christians and leaders is declining. A friend and colleague recently wrote an article on social media that was then published in Eternity News that captures that devolution in church and leadership:

It seems the job of leading the local church—‘parish ministry’, as it is called in my denomination—has never been under as much fire as it is at the moment. Stories of clergy burnout seem to be everywhere. Or worse: of clergy sin, or of clergy marriages falling apart. Good people seem to be leaving the trenches of parish ministry and finding work in a variety of parachurch jobs. There seem to be fewer and fewer students at our theological colleges. And fewer of those students seem to study theology with a view to being senior ministers in a church.2

This chapter will examine the role of pastoral (professional) supervision in enabling and ensuring the contemporary practice of clergy and church workers is safe. Pastoral supervision is the regular, planned safe space where clergy (or church workers) bring issues related to their ministry practice to the supervision session with a trained pastoral supervisor.3 Pastoral supervision has three main goals of being a formative, normative, and restorative conversation that promotes faithful practice. Pastoral supervision is emerging at the intersection of major cross currents for the church and related faith-based organisations such as education, social welfare, and aged care. Clergy and church worker burnout have raised new and urgent questions about ministerial well-being and flourishing. Clergy-abuse scandals such as the ones the Royal Commission examined have put oversight and accountability in the spotlight.4 For many at the coalface of ministry, theological education and formation was insufficient for the challenging demands of a lifelong vocation in the contemporary world. These challenges are not new; there is indeed nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9).5 Why, then, have church workers and clergy been slow to embrace pastoral supervision? Why are there pockets of resistance to an idea that promotes wellbeing and flourishing in ministry?

The travesty and tragedy of unsafe churches: how did we get here?

The quest to make churches safe begs the question, how did churches become unsafe, particularly for children and other vulnerable people called the little ones (to mikro, Matt. 18:14)? How did the church, founded on Jesus Christ who said ‘let the little children come to me’ (Mk. 10:14), become guilty of sexual abuse of little children? There are many troubling answers to this question, ranging across the very different contexts of the worldwide Anglican communion. For Anglicans in Australia, several friends and colleagues have already made some important contributions in addressing these questions.6 The present article is another contribution emerging from my consultation across the national Anglican Church during 2019. What shaped a church culture that was unsafe for many? I begin with a brief sketch of two strands of Australian history that often remain hidden and unacknowledged: settler stories and larrikin stories. These stories sketch a particular cultural milieu and are not an argument for causality. Australian archetypes such as these, however, have influenced both national and ecclesial cultures that remain unsafe for some.

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