What is ‘pastoral’ about supervision?

The shift from pastoral supervision understood as the supervision of pastoral workers who do pastoral things to an attitudinal commitment to seeing things holistically and working for the wellbeing of all dimensions of the system (individual, team and organizational wellbeing) marks the biggest shift in understanding the emerging discipline of pastoral supervision.[1]

Good supervision is always pastoral in the richest and best sense of that word. This is true for people of differing faith traditions and people of no faith. I suspect most people reading this book will identify with the former, but I hope those who have little or no time for God, faith, or the church will find pastoral supervision resonates. In a recent interview for Christian Century journal, academic theologian and Anglican priest Katherine Sonderegger

told of an experience as an intern that has shaped her since. Her pastoral supervisor criticized her for making herself vulnerable to a homeless person by giving the man a ride in her car. Sonderegger appreciated the supervisor’s concern but disagreed, asking,‘Aren’t there more important things to a Christian imagination than staying alive? Like, say, being faithful?’

lacking. What I propose here is the Christological framework for making supervision pastoral, where faith (and faithfulness) transforms compliance, hope triumphs over goals, and love transcends empathy.

What is meant by pastoral supervision? Many of the standard working definitions reflect some aspects of what pastoral supervision means, but each lack something essential. I will survey some of the history of professional and pastoral supervision, then offer a brief theological assessment of the theory and practice in 2020. The main burden of this chapter is to argue that supervision becomes pastoral by employing the Christian triad of faith, hope, and love. I will sketch the kind of theological, particularly Christological, resources available to supervision as it evolves, pastorally. The Christology of three theologians—German reformer Martin Luther, Swiss twentieth-century theologian Emil Brunner, and radical Baptist James Wm. McClendon—are suggestive of the deep and extensive Christian thinking that will enable supervision to be more pastoral. Luther’s Christological insight was that Christ’s death on the cross revealed and demonstrated the faithfulness of God. True faith is placed in Jesus’ cross (justification by faith alone). Brunner’s Christological insight, following Luther, was Christ as mediator, remembering and redeeming by the mercy of God. True hope is found in encountering God-in-Christ (even amid a world in crisis). McClendon’s Christological insight, following both Luther and Brunner, was Christ, as the risen and restoring Jesus, is the reconciliation of God. True love is located in the true story of Jesus (as our stories embraced by God’s story).

Professional supervision: a brief history of the discipline

The careful definition of professional supervision as a practice emerging from the clinical helping professions clarifies false premises and presumptions. In the opening chapter of his most recent book, Michael Paterson observes:

few words carry as much baggage or press as many buttons from practitioners across the professions as the word ‘supervision’. The negative connotations which link it with institutional surveillance and big brother watching over your shoulder has led some to call it snoopervision. Yet the etymology of the word suggests something much more dynamic and rewarding.4

Michael Carroll’s apposite ‘One More Time: What is Supervision?’ (one can almost hear the frustration in the title) is a reliable and brief history of the theory and practice of supervision.5 In an earlier iteration of that article, Carroll describes how supervision is ‘based on a number of anchors/principles’.6 This insight is helpful because it avoids the dead end of concise definitions, by invoking a more complex dynamism that exists in good supervision. For

What is ‘pastoral’ about supervision? 21 this reason, our first day of training new students in professional supervision introduces five images of supervision: hovering, pit-head time, three-legged stool, the Mobius strip, and kitchen.7 In the closing moments of the day, each student is invited to notice the image of supervision that most resonates (challenges, provokes) with them. These images enable students to grasp the essence of what supervision is more precisely than the best definitions.

The best practice of professional supervision is described by Carroll and developed by Hawkins and Shohet.8 Professional supervision is a collaborative relationship (‘the working alliance’) in which the supervisee attends to their practice through intentional, focussed, and reflective conversation with the supervisor. Carroll summarises this as:

  • 1 the focus of supervision is practice.
  • 2 the end result of supervision is learning (the deepest form of which is transformational learning).
  • 3 the method used in supervision is reflection (reflection, reflexivity, critical reflection, and critical self-reflection).
  • 4 supervisors facilitate that process by creating an environment and relationship that mediate learning.
  • 5 the supervisory relationship is the engine room of supervision ... a relationship of trust, fidelity, and emotional connection.9

The benefits of professional supervision are variously described as improved practice, better organisational culture (particular co-worker relationships), professional development, and continuous development for the wider profession.10

  • [1] 2 ministry for nearly a decade. In the early days, professional supervision bodies were comprised of clinicians and social workers, rendering those like me— coming from a pastoral background in supervision—something of a curiosity. The uncommon vocational combination of Anglican priest and academic only made me more curious to some and caused others to be more cautious. I benefit from the contributions of pioneers in pastoral supervision: Pohly’s Transforming the Rough Places; Leach and Paterson’s Pastoral Supervision and then Enriching Ministry; and most recently, Cameron’s Living Under the Gaze of God.} As an emerging discipline with its own field of theory and practice, the theological reasoning in and for pastoral supervision remains
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