Supervising the church that injures and is injured:
the community in, of, and for Christ
The fourth challenge is supervising those serving the church that is injured and continues to injure others. Ministry workers who are in, of, and for the community of Jesus Christ critique a church that continues to injure and contend for those it injures.
The twenty-first century has witnessed (and mostly welcomed!) a greater scrutiny and sanction of those with power. The misuse and abuse of power is becoming more transparent, from movements such as #metoo to the ancient biblical warning ‘the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God’ (1 Pet. 4:17). The final chapter of 1 Peter finishes with a series of instructions and admonitions regarding the responsibility of pastoral leaders and ministry workers that begin specifically with congregational leadership but end with exhortation for the whole household of God. The theological connection between pastor-leaders and the wider group is easily missed. Yet according to Michael Paterson, ‘group supervision is more theologically sound than individual supervision’.16 The apostle and elder Peter addresses the elders (presbyterous) of the churches as a co-elder (sym-presbyteros), as one sharing in the common ministry of shepherding and overseeing (episkopountes, 1 Pet. 5:2-4). The instructions for how pastoral workers must shepherd the flock have become familiar through failure. The litany of failures to tend, feed, shepherd; to provide willing and eager oversight; and to minister by example not coercion are more apparent than ever. In Chapter 1,1 addressed the need to make churches safe. The tragedy is that many churches have become unsafe because of ‘naughty, weak, or stupid’ pastoral workers. Australian theologian, church planter, and blogger Stephen McAlpine garnered international attention earlier in 2020 when he wrote personally and powerfully about his experience of bullying pastors.
McAlpine, when challenged with the notion that when it comes to the abuse of power "twas ever thus’, responds perceptively:
My friend is right to ask ‘Why is this a problem now?’ And that’s what I will attempt to answer in four parts that are not exhaustive. Four parts: Technological, Sociological, Psychological, and Ecclesiological.17
French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his Security, Territory, Population lectures, suggests that there are three unique characteristics of the Hebrew pastoral relationship. The pastoral relationship governs a people, not a territory, for the benefit of the people (and not something external to it like a state or church), and is equally concerned for the one and the many.18 Foucault suggests that these characteristics make up what he calls pastoral power that was introduced to Western governance through the Christian church. In the sixth lecture, after discussing and rejecting Plato’s shepherd from The Statesman as a contender for the introduction of the shepherdflock relationship into politics, Foucault concludes that:
In the Western world I think the real history of the pastorate as the source of a specific type of power over men, as a model and matrix of procedures for the government of men, really only begins with Christianity.19
Foucault identifies the violence of pastoral power. All pastoral supervisors must feel the dissonance of Foucault’s phrase, the violence of pastoral power.20 Why? Most pastoral workers are nice, kind, caring—even gentle— people, surely? Critically, Foucault distinguishes two types of violence.
The violence of the Christian pastor is not primarily physical (notwithstanding the findings of a Royal Commission in Australia). Nor is the violence of the Christian pastor instrumental, as defined by thinkers like Hannah Arendt.21 Maybe a Royal Commission merely identifies the ‘bad apple’ pastors who have resorted to the physical violence of abuse and the ones dismissed from the pastorate? That identification of bad pastors has happened, is happening, and needs to continue to happen because there is no place in the pastoral world for physical violence or other forms of abuse. Foucault, however, would not be satisfied with mere removal of the physically violent in his piercing critique of pastoral power. Through Foucault’s concept of beneficent power, the pastor does not need to resort to violence to govern the people. Conversely, according to Foucault, beneficent power becomes so effective and pervasive in governing that violence is not required and its very requirement would only demonstrate the weakness of the pastor.22
Pastoral supervision, therefore, must renounce abusive power (in all its forms), reflect on the misuse of power (when and where it happens), and rehabilitate the good and godly use of power as faithful practice of all pastoral ministry. The Christian Scriptures and theology are unequivocal that
Five challenges for pastoral supervisors 137 this is a Christological issue. A central text for pastoral workers is John 10, where Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd who knows his sheep and is willing to lay his life down for them. Jesus ties himself to the Hebrew tradition as the true shepherd that Isaiah prophesied who ‘gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart’ (Isa. 40:10-11). Luther’s theology of the cross interprets the pastoral worker’s experience of serving a church that both injures and is injured. There is, to be honest, no beauty in the agony of belonging to such a church. If, as Luther, Brunner, and McClendon maintained, the cross of Christ is the pattern for all Christian suffering, the resurrection of Christ is also its hope. An injured church points to the glory of God revealed in the face of the injured Christ. This, too, according to Luther, was a hidden glory. The death of Jesus of Nazareth was glorious because God raised this Jesus from the dead. The pastoral life, in the middle of an injured and injuring church, is always cross-shaped.
Supervising ministry workers who serve an injured church is the converse of this challenge. The Christian church has been around for approximately 2,000 years. Throughout that history that includes the heights of power and depths of persecution, theologians have identified the essential marks of the Christian church. The list in most theology textbooks comprises four marks of the Christian church: one (unity), holy (holiness), catholic (universality), and apostolic (missionary/missional). Some consider this list reflects the church in power, not the church under persecution. Those parts of the world where the church has never been close to power and live with persecution offer a fifth mark of the church: suffering.
Luther would approve of this addition, preferring a theology of suffering to a theology of glory.23 Luther’s theology of the cross, understood as an ecclesiology of a suffering church, are drawn from similar Christological insights. Brunner’s remembering Jesus is essential: in the middle of his passion and suffering, Jesus remembers he is embraced in the Father’s will, a will bent toward mercy. From the agony and suffering of the cross, Jesus answers the dying man’s plea (‘Jesus, remember me’) with the promise ‘you will be with me’. Supervising ministry workers who lead and serve an injured, suffering church is simultaneously made harder and easier in this light. Harder, because it calls ministry workers to persevere even when ministry feels harrowing and hopeless. Easier, because suffering can be endured with hope the fruit of perseverance (Rom. 5:3-4). This can be described as a long obedience in the same direction, in the evocative language of Eugene Peterson.24 Peterson, more (in)famous for his paraphrase of the entire Bible, was always a pastor’s theologian (and the theologian’s pastor). The subtitle to his book of the same name remains prescient 40 years after it was first published. The long obedience in the same direction is discipleship in an instant society. The fifth and final challenge for supervising ministry workers is the digital revolution explored in the third chapter. The supervision room is, increasingly, a virtual reality. What are the promises and pitfalls of the paradox of virtual reality?