The How and Why of Pastoral Supervision

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Remember back in college how you had to have a pastoral supervisor (sometimes called “student supervisor” or “ministry supervisor”)? Remember filling out all those feedback forms? Remember the painful meeting with your supervisor where you read through that feedback together?

Maybe you don’t remember because you’ve erased the trauma of it from your mind. Or maybe you remember it fondly, like it was yesterday, because it profoundly shaped who you are today. Or maybe you wish you remember it because now you’re the supervisor of a Youthworks College student or a team of volunteer leaders.

No matter what your memories are, pastoral supervision should continue to be part of your own development and the development of those under your care. Here’s three reasons why supervision matters, and why it is still a core part of ministry formation at Youthworks College.

Firstly, pastoral supervision matters because it provides a deliberate space to reflect on ministry practice.

So much of ministry practice is shaped by pragmatics and history, rather than our theological beliefs. Supervision provides an opportunity to reflect on our practice in light of our theology. It’s time-out from the day to day stuff of what we do to think about why we do it.

Secondly, it provides an appropriate space to process pastoral burdens.

At the turn of the 20th century, coal miners in the UK won the right for “Pithead” time during their normal work hours. Pithead time was an opportunity for the miners to clean all the coal dust and filth off themselves before they left work so they could return home to the families clean. Pithead time is an apt analogy for this aspect of supervision. Rather than pastoral workers bringing home the emotional burdens of their work, supervision offers a separate space to off-load the personal burdens of pastoral care.

Thirdly, it provides a learning space for input and super-vision.

It is a wonderful privilege that the Father blesses us with the wisdom and experience of men and women who have come before us and stand beside us. Supervision makes that wisdom and experience available in a personalised setting so that we might benefit from the input and perspective of another. In this way, supervision is “super-vision”. It adds another set of eyes, an external viewpoint, and an extra perspective on our ministry practice for our edification.

Valuing a different perspective also creates the opportunity for supervision to be a deliberate space for male and female interactions. Best practice in a formal mentoring relationship is to confide with someone of the same sex, however the focus of supervision on work practice creates a space for a female ministry team leader to supervise a male ministry student and so forth.

These 3 reasons are why pastoral supervision matters. I hope you’re encouraged to continue, or restart, pastoral supervision in your ministries. Whether you’re looking for your own supervisor or supervising others, here’s five features of pastoral supervision to look for and cultivate:

1. A curious listener.

A supervisor doesn’t sit in the position of an expert, but instead takes the posture of a curious listener. The supervisor’s first role is to be present, pay attention, listen actively, acknowledge, and give a fair hearing.

2. A reflective enquirer.

Genuine curiosity about the ministry experience should spark reflective and curious questions. In this way, the ministry experience itself provides the ‘text’ for the learning opportunity. The supervisor helps the student ‘read’ and ‘interpret’ that text, to reflect on the experience in light of Scripture, and to formulate appropriate responses to whatever has been learnt in the process.

3. A confidential space.

If supervision is going to be a safe space to discuss the deep and personal issues of work practice, then supervision needs to be conducted in a warm but confidential space. The local café may be inviting, but it is also a public space where others may overhear or distract from what is being shared. Choose a space that provides the freedom to speak openly and an environment that is hospitable to issues addressed in supervision.

4. A regular and sufficient amount of time

A supervision session needs enough time to focus in on an issue and get to the heart of what the issue is. Sometimes the presenting issue isn’t the core problem that needs to be uncovered and dealt with, and so there needs to be enough time to identify  the key issue (roughly 5-10 minutes). Once the session has focus, you need time enough to explore the issue with descriptive depth and consideration (roughly 30 minutes). Exploration must also result in determining the actions and outcomes of the discussion (roughly 10 minutes). Lastly, there should be time left to review the where you’ve started, where you’ve been, and where you’ve ended in the session (roughly 5 minutes). All in all, I’d recommend setting aside at least 1 hour  once a month  for pastoral supervision at a minimum.

5. A supervision covenant.

This is probably the most crucial aspect of making the most of supervision. A supervision covenant sets out all the expectations for both parties and is there to pre-empt and overcome any miscommunication, unmet expectations and misunderstandings. A supervision covenant should help both the supervisor and the student keep each other accountable to their supervision commitments and be a reference point for any tricky situations that arise between you or others.

Hollie Thambyrajah