YVQ13 | What Is Supervision?

Friday, 11 November 2016

Writer Alan Niven

Pastoral supervision is a relationship between two or more practitioners who meet to consider the ministry of one or more of them in an intentional and disciplined way; a regular, planned, intentional and boundaried space in which a practitioner, skilled and trained in supervision (a supervisor), meets with one or more other practitioners (supervisees) to look together at the supervisee’s practices. It is a relationship characterised by trust, confidentiality, support and openness that gives the supervisee freedom and safety to explore the issues arising in their work, as well as being a spiritually rich experience that works within a framework of spiritual and theological understanding in dialogue with the supervisee’s world view and work. It doesn’t really matter whether we call it mentoring, coaching, or supervision—although each can be quite different—as long as it covers the themes here. Ministry context and culture, the role of supervisee, and the profile of the supervisor can differ greatly but these factors are essential. I would guess that if the average person in ministry described ‘supervision’ these factors may be omitted.

On the other hand, ‘ad hoc’ supervision is informal, ‘on the run’ supervision which happens with experienced individuals or colleagues as issues arise. It is not formalised—it may look like a corridor chat or a brief phone call—or contracted but can be an important additional form of support. Collegial support and team culture depend on this, but it is not an adequate substitute for formal supervision.

Research from other disciplines indicates that provision of formal supervision may be impeded by perceptions that informal or ‘ad hoc’ supervision equates with formal pastoral supervision. I am convinced that this happens in the Church and in ministry settings where time pressure, lack of understanding, and myths about supervision conspire to degrade supervision awareness and motivation.

In other caring professions this could be called a ‘reciprocal mentoring supervisory relationship’, where a relationship of trust based on mutuality and equality “recognises the wisdom, skills and knowledge of each person… who comes to the relationship with respect and belief in what the other/s can offer them… Each person is both the supervisee and supervisor… partners are catalysts for the continuous learning, both personal and professional, of their colleagues.”1

So is there a good definition?

At its simplest, supervision provides a forum where supervisees review and reflect on their work in order to do it better. Practitioners bring their actual work-practice to another person (in individual supervision), or to a group (in small group or team supervision), and with their help review what happened in their practice in order to learn from that experience. Ultimately, supervision contributes to better quality service and is an offer of compassion as part of a duty of care. It is best that we do not frame it as a matter of compliance or duty. 

In a relationship of trust and transparency, supervisees talk about their work and, through reflection and thoughtfulness, learn from it and return to do it differently. 

In ministry supervision, the focus is primarily on the care and support of the supervisee, believing that if the supervisee is properly nurtured, up-skilled, educated, supported, challenged, and cared for via the processes above then the ministry and all relationships will benefit as a result. The supervisee is offered a space where their wellbeing, growth, and development are taken seriously. Where does that happen for you? 

If someone makes sure you have proper supervision this is an act of compassion towards you.

If supervision offers a way of growing—in vocational identity, pastoral competence, self-awareness, balanced leadership, spiritual and theological reflection, quality of presence, accountability, response to challenge and mutual learning, why is there not a rush by churches and organisations to ensure this happens for their staff?

In my view, there is an individual responsibility, a collegial responsibility, and a faith-community responsibility to ensure supervision is happening. I see the provision of skilful, trained, and accredited supervisors for ministers, priests, pastoral carers, and chaplains as primarily an act of thoughtful, responsible, and practical compassion, not as an instrument of compliance, legal constraint, and duty. The culture needs to change from the bottom-up and the top-down.

With thanks to Marcel Koper and Joan Wright-Howie, who teach Stirling’s Graduate Certificate in Supervision. ‚óŹ

1Patton, Wendy and McMahon, Jane (2001) Supervision in the Helping Professions, Pearson, p43-44.

Originally published in YVQ13: RNR.

Writer Alan Niven. Alan is Vice Principal and Pastoral Studies Lecturer at Stirling Theological College. He can easily be distracted by old aeroplanes and recent memories of travelling overseas for three months with only a 7kg backpack. Alan and his wife Chris enjoy free camping in their converted ambulance and Alan is an ‘adopted’ member of a local Palestinian community


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