Supervising people with Incurvâtes In Se: the spirit

of Christ—for others

The first challenge is where the life of the ministry worker turns in on itself {Incurvâtes In Se) and encounters and is convicted by the spirit of Christ to live for others (whom Bonhoeffer famously described as the ‘man for others’). Many factors might contribute to a life turning in on itself, not all of them unique to ministry workers. The busyness and stress of the pastoral life, however, has witnessed renewed focus on well-being in ministry because too many are not doing well. The findings of the Australian researcher Grant Bickerton confirm that spiritual resources are routinely overlooked in occupational stress literature.4 Bickerton’s second dimension, called ‘collaborative religious coping’, highlights that many ministry workers, when independent and isolated, do not draw support from others or God. This is the ancient condition of Incurvâtes In Se. Poet Micky ScottBey Jones describes the courage required to encounter another person—even

God. This poem describes many pastoral supervisors’ rooms, a space that needs to be brave, not safe:

Together we will create brave space

Because there is no such thing as a ‘safe space’

We exist in the real world

We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.

In this space

We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,

We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,

We call each other to more truth and love

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.

We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.

We will not be perfect.

This space will not be perfect.

It will not always be what we wish it to be


It will be our brave space together, and

We will work on it side by side.5

The Spirit of Jesus Christ, just like the life of Christ, is emphatically ‘brave, not safe’. This short phrase echoes the question one of the children in Narnia asked Mr Beaver about the Christ-figure (Aslan): “‘Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe’”.6 Christian theology, including the theologies of Luther, Brunner, and McClendon, admits a deeper barrier to living bravely than mere lack of courage. The doctrine of sin means people are alienated from themselves, each other, and God. Capturing the intentionally relational focus of sin in the Scriptures, these breaks are sometimes called the rebellion, slavery, and corruption of sin. Theologians understand humanity’s enslavement to sin as an irreversible corruption: the problem is from within the heart, the centre of the person. Sin is corruption— not merely an action or failure to act but an evil desire of the heart. It may never manifest itself for the church or world to see, while thoroughly polluting the ministry worker at the level where God perceives. Corruption is, therefore, inwardly situated and captured by the Latin phrase Incurvates In Se (the life turned in on itself). The revealing Jesus named this precisely by observing:

Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him?... What comes out of a person is what defiles a person. For from within, out of the heart of a person, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person (Mk. 7:20-23).

The corruption of the life turned in on itself does not end with new life in Christ, but arises spontaneously in the experience of the apostle when he reflects, ‘I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet”. But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness’ (Rom. 7:78). What effect does an encounter with Christ make? Miroslav Volf, in his reflections on Luke 15, notes the critical role of remembering in the prodigal’s repentance, naming this the ‘memory of sonship’:

through departure he wanted to become a ‘non-son’; his return begins not with repentance but with something that makes repentance possible— the memory of sonship. There is no coming to oneself without the memory of belonging ... the memory of sonship gives hope, but it also reminds of failure; the bridge that the memory builds is a testimony to the chasm created by departure.7

Being remembered, more than mere remembering, builds bridges to self, world, and God over the chasm of a life turned in on itself. The remembering Jesus is the mediator of any encounter that is true and transcendent, according to Brunner. The restoring Jesus convicts the self-absorbed to abandon the life turned in on itself and instead calls the disciples to imitate the master: to live for others. True vocation for the ministry worker, the deepest expression of faithfulness, is (according to Luther) to follow in the footsteps of the Crucified One. Unlike the goals of coaching and self-development, the vocation of ministry is the path of self-donation, not self-fulfilment. Volf interprets Luther’s theology of the cross succinctly by observing:

At the heart of the cross is Christ’s stance of not letting the other remain an enemy and of creating space in himself for the offender to come in (Roms. 5:10) .. . the arms of the crucified are open—a sign of space in God’s self and an invitation for the enemy to come in.8

The pastoral life turned in on itself seeks opportunities that are different from a so-called career, but still creates a competitive, combative world. A few ambitious types exist in the pastoral world who actively seeking advancement and promotions, are climbing the ecclesial ladder and forging a career pathway; however, most (fortunately) find the seductions of a ministry life more subtle.9 Cultivating networks and building a reputation is more common than creating an impressive curriculum vitae or landing a large Christmas bonus. The shadow cast over the ministry life turned in on itself is eerily similar to the worldly markers of success: competitiveness. Most pastoral workers—including those making vows (e.g., clergy)— seem compelled to live as if life was a battleground. Some even fight over God’s gifts as their hearts grow smaller, as they become more suspicious, less trusting: Incurvâtes In Se. Too many in ministry experience the terrible bondage of isolation.

A braver space is required for a life lived for others, not only for oneself or merely in the company of others. The life lived for others is the foundational calling for any wishing to serve in Christ’s name. Jesus was firm and clear that‘if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’ (Lk. 9:23). Even rhe self-confessed wrongdoer beside Christ on the cross perceived the remembering Jesus as his only source of escape from the life turned in on itself: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Lk. 23:42). For the two on the cross, Incurvâtes In Se led to death on a cross. For ministry workers, Incurvâtes In Se leads to the slow and suffocating death of vocation. Being filled with the spirit of Christ means abandoning the self-absorbing life turned in on itself. The spirit of Christ is wonderfully captured in the Christ-hymn, ‘though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited or grasped’ (Phil. 2:6). Pastoral supervision of ministry workers must never become a form of spiritual naval gazing nor mere spiritual accompaniment. The gift of the vocation of ministry is a gift that is to be given away. The self-donating spirit of Christ means ministry workers open themselves to self, world, and God to allow other people space in their lives and their hearts. Luther’s theology of the cross emphasises the revealing Jesus’ practice of self-donation, which embodies what Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas describes as ‘being-one-for-the-other’ and why Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus Christ ‘the man for others’.10 In the book he never completed, Bonhoeffer outlined his Christology (Jesus, the ‘man for others’) and discipleship (‘being for others’) where the Christian’s unqualified love for self, world, and God was the test of authenticity for ministry workers because, according to Bonhoeffer, ‘we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all’.11 Pastoral supervision deepens the ministry worker’s authenticity as a follower of Christ, which introduces the second challenge in supervising ministry workers: insecurity.

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