From principles of education to practical transformation

In the previous chapter, I argued that supervision could transcend secular practices (compliance, goal-setting, and empathy) to be fully pastoral (faith, hope, and love). In this chapter, I suggest that supervision, as pastoral supervision, can also transcend principles of education to practical transformation. This evolution from principles of education towards practical transformation is reflected in the literature that draws on critical or reflective models for theological reflection, ministry, and supervision.16 First, I will glean some crucial principles for conversation and dialogue in the digital age from Parker J. Palmer and Paulo Friere. Both have pioneered movements in education that focus on practical transformation and provide reliable guideposts for navigating the digital age. Second, I will propose three theological frameworks for pastoral supervision—conversation, re-membering, and walking—that are developed in Chapters 4 to 9.

Parker Palmer wrote predominantly for educators in K-12 and higher education, but his wise counsel has been applied widely across a range of professions, including those engaged in pastoral ministries within the church. One of the major hurdles Palmer seeks to help teachers overcome is the isolation their profession causes.17 He wants to encourage good talk about good teaching among colleagues. I wonder how often the majority of pastors have good conversations with colleagues about their preaching and teaching ministries? Palmer lists seven impediments to collegial conversations about teaching which create ‘an ethos in which it feels dangerous to speak or listen’, are all too familiar to those in pastoral ministry, and is a checklist of things to avoid for pastoral supervisors:

  • 1 politeness.
  • 2 a ban on inquiring into things that are ‘none of your business’.
  • 3 a willingness to give the other the benefit of the doubt.
  • 4 competition—we should question each other’s claims.
  • 5 competition—we should think oppositionally about what we are hearing.
  • 6 competition—we should be ready with a quick response.
  • 7 the belief that we were put on earth to advise, fix, and save each other.18

Palmer argues that good conversation lies at the heart of education itself. He notes wryly that ‘teachers lecture longest when they are least sure of what they are doing’ and counsels the appropriate use of dialogue, silence, and questions in the classroom. On the indispensable role of silence and questions, Palmer follows the ancient wisdom of both Socrates and Jesus: ‘I have learned in the silence that it is often better to speak a question than an answer. It is natural that silence should teach us to ask questions, since silence is a question itself’.19 At this point, Palmer both echoes the revolutionary educative theories of Paulo Friere as well as anticipates more recent turns in educational philosophy. He notes:

I do not suggest that questions are the only educative sort of speech. Our facts and theories, our advice and answers need to be spoken as well. But since we as teachers are over-schooled to give answers and solutions, and since we give them for reasons as often evasive as educative, we have special need to develop the discipline of asking questions to create space for truth.20

Here, Palmer confronts the kind of educative conversations that are strategies for avoiding transformation.21 Palmer’s alternative, that truth is both personal and communal, has radical consequences for his vision for teachers and teaching.22 Palmer’s ground rules for dialogue are taken straight from the practices of the Quaker communities where he lived and taught. Using an adapted version of the clearness committee that he would later describe as circle of trust, Parker facilitates conversations between teachers around the country that go beyond technique and curriculum and get at the heart of the teaching relationship.23 The resources for Palmer’s conversations with teachers are the theological beliefs and practices of the Quaker tradition. Palmer summarises this kind of dialogue as the capacity to ‘hear each other to speech’ that he believes is the key to creating communities of discourse that deepen the identity and integrity from which good teaching comes.24 Palmer urges educators to engage in ‘that patient process of dialogue, consensus seeking, and personal transformation’.25

From educative conversations to enabled communities

The kind of community shaped by conversation in the physical act of teaching was also the particular focus of Paulo Freire.26 In his widely acclaimed book on pedagogy, Freire claims that dialogue cannot exist without ‘profound love ... humility ... trust... or hope’.27 Freire challenges the teacher (and pastoral supervisor) to ask himself or herself the following questions:

How can I dialogue if I start from the premise that naming the world is the task of an elite and that the presence of people in history is a sign of deterioration, thus to be avoided? How can I dialogue if I am closed to—and even offended by—the contribution of others? How can I dialogue if I am afraid of being displaced, the mere possibility causing me torment and weakness? Self-sufficiency is incompatible with dialogue.28

Freire’s philosophy of education requires humility to be in community with others. When he describes the kind of people that educate and enable communities through humility, Freire could be describing the posture and attitude of supervisor and supervisee:

This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.29

Here, we observe Freire’s particular focus on educating the oppressed. Translated from that context to others who must discover (or recover) their agency, his words remain crucial for the shape of pastoral conversations, where ‘the critical effort though which men and women take themselves in hand and become agents of curiosity, become investigators, become subjects in an ongoing process of quest for the revelation of the “why” of things and facts’.30

The démocratisation of knowledge in the digital age has been a wonderful gift to many. Numerous students, through St Mark’s National Theological Centre, have access to theological education through online classrooms unimaginable ten years ago. Rapid expansion of online supervision means we are still reckoning with its pitfalls. Jacques Ellul, who died prior to the digital age, anticipated some of the challenges, specifically: ‘there is too much [information]. That is the first difficulty. The second one is that with the multiplication of information the things which are fundamental are drowned in a quantity of things which are not important’.31 The demands of face-to-face conversation with Socrates and the resulting cross-examination has been described as the elenchus method of inquiry and provides some essential tools for supervising in the digital age.

Three ideas can be observed in Plato’s construction of the Socratic conversations that are noteworthy in supervision: the question prevails over the answer in all true inquiry; true inquiry always provokes further inquiry; and true inquiry is always directed to the horizons—the interests, experience, and character—of the actual inquirers. Through Plato’s dialogical writings, we discover an ancient principle of the kind of conversation that enables: we ourselves are the ones who find ourselves addressed and who are called upon to give an account for what we are saying. The absence of having to ‘account for what we are saying’ is perhaps the most obvious flaw in digital conversations where unregulated boasting, bickering, and bullying mostly dominate. Several other significant features of conversation for supervision can be drawn from Plato’s Dialogues, including Socrates’ docta ignorantia (the discovery of hidden presuppositions and misunderstandings), and the establishment of a living community among the participants of a conversation. Turning to the Scriptures, a theological understanding of conversation is also closely aligned to personal and communal formation. In particular, the Wisdom Literature and the Letter of James set conversation within the framework of God’s speech and a relationship with God for the benefit of the community of God, promoting conversations that are wise, measured, and honest. The teleology of supervision must not be reduced to the transformation of the individual or community. For pastoral supervision, an additional dimension animates the work: flourishing through the promises of God. The practical Christology of Chapters 4 to 9 expands this idea—the main proposal of the book—but here I offer only a brief sketch.

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