What is pastoral about supervision?

Recently the literature in clinical supervision, through a new handbook by Terri S. Watson, turned to character formation through the lens of courage, drawing on the theology of Thomas Aquinas and his writing on ‘magnificence’ (defined as the courage to take on great tasks for God).20 The hallmarks of magnificence, Aquinas argues, are qualities like ‘great mindedness’ and ‘initiative’ which more formally are described as agency. Watson’s is an excellent work for clinical supervision, with much to admire and incorporate into pastoral supervision practice, but still does not answer the question posed by this chapter: what is pastoral about supervision? Magnificence, understood Christologically, is human agency for the benefit of others.

From competence (or compliance) to faith

Professional competence has been one of the defining features of professional supervision. For supervision to become pastoral, it can extend competence

(or compliance) to become faith (specifically, faithful practice). An explicit focus on practice, comprising three primary functions of supervision as restorative (to support), formative (to educate), and normative (to ethically frame) the supervisee’s work.21

In the Australian context, following the unlawful, unethical, and unfaithful practice of many clergy and church workers, church denominations and organisations have a renewed interest and investment in compliance. Compliance and competence are often hard to distinguish in actual practice. The Royal Commission’s findings forced religious institutions to reckon with highly competent, yet non-complying, practitioners at the most senior levels. A subsequent Royal Commission in Australia into the banking sector replicated these findings.

Strengthening the regulatory frameworks is a common response to non-compliance. Baptist theologian James McClendon re-orientates the reconciling love of the cross away from judicial-compliance and towards justice-compassion with the following statement, ‘the constitutive story, what Jesus does in our place is not merely what God requires but what God does, what God suffers’.22 McClendon helps guard against the subtle—but seditious—shift from reflecting on practice to reporting on practice. Paterson identifies this as the managerial emphasis in professional supervision. Recently, he posed a series of critical questions for training in pastoral supervision, with its emphasis on competence:

Are we preparing people for a lifetime of serial intimacy or are we simply preparing them for a lifetime of serial competence? If we are only training people to practice from competence, what will they do when their theories no longer support them, or help them understand the issues that practice presents? And what will they do when their skill sets no longer plummet the depths to which supervisees require them to go?23

Instead of defining practice as ‘best’ (the highest level of competence), students of supervision must think in terms of Christian faith. Here, practice (discipleship, Christian living) is defined by faithfulness. Robert J. Banks, a friend, mentor, then supervisor, first alerted me to the journey from faith to faithfulness in the Christian’s work.24 Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, having understood the implications of Buber’s TThou’ relationship for Christian theology, consistently emphasised the faith and faithfulness of the Christian life because ‘we can never separate the abstract framework from the personal Presence contained in it’.25 The classic theological understanding of faith is that it is more a gift from God than a human capacity. Genuine divine encounter is central to Brunner’s theology, focussing on the remembering Jesus (the Mediator): ‘In the New Testament faith is the relation between person and person, the obedient trust of man in the God who

What is ‘pastoral’ about supervision? 25 graciously stoops to meet him. Here, revelation is “truth as encounter”, and faith is knowledge as encounter’.26

Brunner develops his theology of divine encounter as God’s remembering. Here, the movement beyond competence to faithfulness can be observed in the contours of Scripture, where faithfulness is always expressed relation-ally. In popular discourse, faithfulness is often extended to an idea or a cause. Elsewhere, I have noted the polarised tribalism and prevailing toxicity of so much social media debate.27 In the biblical writings, faithfulness is always tested in action, not reduced to an attitude or a feeling.28 Supervision becomes pastoral when competence (or compliance) is transformed into faithful relationship and faithful actions. Moving beyond mere competence is the first step in ensuring the practice of supervision is pastoral. If Paterson’s statement about students is broadened to include all supervisees, this is quite evident: ‘if supervision . . . accords competence value it does not deserve, are we not making it even harder for our supervisees to bring their less than fully competent selves to the table and implicitly encouraging them to hide themselves from being truly seen?’29

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