What is professional supervision?

What is professional supervision?

Professional Supervision is “the relationship Ministers have with another professional whereby the Minister is assisted to maintain the boundaries of the pastoral relationship and the quality of ministry, including competencies, time management, priorities, and any difficulties arising in ministry.”

Supervision is a contracted relationship between a Minister and a professional who is trained, to assist them in reflecting on their ministry, to enable the minister to build and maintain healthy pastoral relationships with church members and others, where boundaries are respected and spiritual care, faith development, and healthy community life can thrive. Here are some other voices that expand on what Professional supervision is and can be.

“Supervision interrupts practice. It wakes us up to what we are doing. When we are alive to what we are doing, we wake up to what is, instead of falling asleep in the comfort stories or our clinical routines and daily practice. The supervisory voice acts as an irritator, interrupting repetitive stories (comfort stories) and facilitating the creation of new stories.”

Peter Hawkins and Robin Shohet define supervision as, “Supervision is a joint endeavour in which a practitioner with the help of a supervisor, attends to their clients, themselves as part of their client practitioner relationships and the wider systemic context, and by so doing improves the quality of the work, transforms their client relationships, continuously develops themselves, their practice and the wider profession.”

In the context of Pastoral ministry, Rev. Jane Leach and Rev. Dr Michael Paterson from the Association of Pastoral supervisors and educators (APSE-UK) offer their definition, “supervision is a regular, planned, intentional and boundaried space in which a practitioner skilled in supervision, meets with one or more other practitioners to look together at the supervisees practice.  It is characterised by trust, confidentiality, support and openness that gives the supervisee freedom and safety to explore the issues arising in their work.”

Professional supervision is not therapy, counselling, mentoring or spiritual direction. It sometimes works alongside these other disciplines and is unique in its focus on the work and the impact of the work on others and self.

What is the purpose of Professional Supervision?

The Code of ethics names Supervision as being useful to assist in maintaining the boundaries of the pastoral relationship Ministers have with their congregants and people that they serve. It is also important to maintain the quality of their ministry including their competencies, time management, priorities and difficulties which arise in ministry. In any work with people where there is need and vulnerability, people need to be clear about their role and their capacity to fulfil that role, with clear respectful boundaries. This means that we must know our role, and that we seek to fulfil it with the best of intentions as well as the best actions.  We know that there is inherent positional power and authority in the ministry role, due to the church’s affirmation of the call to serve the people of a placement or agency. We also know that we should seek the good of others and prevent and minimise harm.

In the church community as in any other community of people, people do not always behave perfectly or ideally, therefore there is always room for things to go wrong or off course. When poor choices are made, unhelpful behaviour creates conflict or move the ministry into challenging places, much wisdom is needed to balance competing demands and step back. Supervision provides that space for stopping, stepping back and reflecting on what is going on and how it is affecting you. Is my relationship with that church leader healthy when we have disagreed? Did I neglect to prioritize that phone call to a sick member instead of reading my favourite commentary, as I prepared for worship? I do not have time to take a day off because the Parish needs me. How am I going to keep working with my colleagues when they are so opinionated and uninterested in what I am doing? These are the kinds of things that need thought, conversation to unpack and become the nuts and bolts of what you might talk about with your supervisor.

At this Covid time, Ministers are learning how to record worship services, live stream worship, meet via online and may feel distant from their people. This can raise questions of identity, who am I now as Minister? How do I continue to pastorally care for them if I can’t visit? I didn’t get trained at theological college to do this. How can the church expect me to be a theologian, creative liturgist, administrator, pastoral carer and lead the church in its mission, when I am so depressed or anxious? This is the purpose of supervision, to provide a safe space to reflect on your ministry, to see what is happening and improve your self-awareness, improve your understanding of circumstances and explore different viewpoints. What could be changed in my behaviour? Which direction could I take that might bring hope or relieve stress? It may also enable you to find some resources that allow new steps to be taken, other ideas to be explored and ongoing support for your ministry journey. Supervision may provide some direction about the continuing education courses or activities that you need in order to improve your skills, grow in new knowledge and refresh your spiritual life.

Why is engaging in Professional Supervision important?

Christian Ministry is demanding work and continues to become more complex and challenging than the earlier role of Minister as predominantly pastor or preacher in the past. Ministers must be highly skilled and trained, formed spiritually, theologically, psychologically, emotionally, academically, and practically for this work. The whole church needs to be, and the Uniting Church has been ahead of the wave, in terms of setting clearer expectations, requiring exacting standards of personal and professional conduct in ministry.

The UCA blazed the trail in relation to having a Code of ethics and Ministry Practice, requiring Professional supervision since 1997. We have a clear framework for discipline and misconduct related breaches when they arise, than most other denominations, expressed in each Synod with various committees. In addition to that, the Ethical Ministry Code of Ethics Training programme and half day freshers each year, continue to provide safe spaces for reflection on ministry practice and collegial support and awareness of the demands of ministry in these post-modern times.

With the growing demand of the Professionalization of Christian ministry further ethical, personal and professional demands are required from Ministers. Therefore, the importance of regular participation in professional supervision by all Ministers/ Pastors is not only a requirement (8 hours pa) but enables a space to be enriched to develop healthy, self-aware, and spiritually mature practitioners for the upholding of the integrity of the Uniting Church.

I remember working with some exiting candidates in their formation programme some years ago. In discussing the Code of ethics and working with some in supervision during their final year of formation, they saw supervision as a no brainer. “Why would you not want to have supervision? What a terrific opportunity to engage and have the benefit of having a professional supervisor to walk alongside you in your ministry journey! It is a gift, not a burden.”

Building resilience and protection in vulnerability

It is exactly because the ministry has changed, the world has changed and the church has changed, that Ministers need Professional supervision. Supervision is meant to assist Ministers to do their work well, and to keep them doing their work well. It is there as a place of debrief, of learning, of reflection, of decision making, of challenge, as a mirror or a quiet pool to be refreshed by. It is a place to unpack situations of conflict when they arise. To be able to talk things through, to look at themselves, to seek wisdom and insight into themselves and other people with whom they work. It helps them to identify their strengths and weaknesses, their biases and word views. It allows theological reflection on how they can serve Christ, resolve conflict, and build peace and unity.

It enables the revealing of blind spots in our own self-awareness of ethical and professional issues. It can enable a place to measure the impact of their work on their personal lives and identify personal reactions and needs within the health and safety system. Professional supervision whilst being a private and confidential space, provides a place of accountability for the work that you provide. It allows understanding of the systems at play, the big picture and the various competing interests and responsibilities that have to be weighed up. It can be a place of learning that can transform our practice.  “Learning in supervision is ultimately transformative and not just transmissive: that is, it results in a change of mind-set or behaviour rather than simply being the transfer of ideas or knowledge.”

Find out more about Professional Supervision in the Uniting Church Synod of NSW and the ACT here.

Rev. Jan Reeve, Supervision Development Officer, Vital Leadership, Uniting Mission and Education


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