6 December 2022

Why professional supervision can help ministers through the burnout burden 

Professional supervision could help those who help others. Picture: iStock

By Len Firth 

28 June 2022

Scandalous examples of abuse have eroded confidence in the church and its message. This has profoundly impacted our pastoral ministries and evangelistic endeavours. Society at large, and federal and state government, has responded to these failures and sought to hold the church to account, but we should not have needed these promptings. Our Scriptures and theology call God’s people to behave in ways which reflects God’s character in the world. Christian lives should be characterised by faith-filled love to those we seek to serve.  

In recent years I have chosen to focus on a ministry of professional pastoral supervision. At Ridley College I am involved in teaching a post graduate course this discipline. Clergy and those involved in church and other pastoral ministries need support. “Who cares for the carers?” and “Who listens to those whose ministry involves listening to much brokenness?” are questions which play in my mind.  

In two recent ministry conferences, Carol Clark and I presented a workshop introducing the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne supervision program. We called the workshop “Not going it alone”. This title echoes the Pauline injunction “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ”. 

We introduced the session with this paragraph: “Pastoral supervision is a process for ministry flourishing – it takes ministry practitioners and leaders on an accompanied journey of reflection on their roles. In supervision, people are invited to build an integrated perspective on the work of their ministry, their well-being, and their wider ministry context”. 

However, in the most recent workshop, at the Oothenong Conference, a participant challenged us about the theological foundation for supervision. This raised an important question, which I will address in this article. 

The principle theological foundations for pastoral supervision are the character of God and our call to imitate Christ. Historically ethics and theology were seen as belonging together. The Pauline epistles usually expound theological truth and then move to suggest how the readers should behave in the light of those truths. Who God is and how God has acted in the world models for us how we are the live and work. The two great commandments compel God’s covenant people to love others, to seek what is best under God. 

Jesus taught his disciples saying they were not to be like the rulers of the day who exercised authority over others. They were to be servants of others, just as he himself did not come to be served, but to serve. Followers of Christ are to demonstrate ministry following Christ’s own example. 

In 1 Peter 2:21 readers are encouraged to reflect on the fact that Christ suffered “leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps”. The author goes on to describe Christ as the shepherd and guardian of the addressees’ souls. These are two words which are synonyms for pastor and supervisor. Jesus is our ultimate pastoral supervisor, and we should follow the example of his ministry and support for leaders (see also 1 Peter 5).  

The Ordinal reflects teaching from 1 Peter when it urges those to be ordained priest: “Be a pastor after the pattern of Christ the great Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep. Be a teacher taught by the Lord in the wisdom of holiness. Lead the people of God as a servant of Christ. Love and serve the people with whom you work, caring alike for young and old, rich and poor, weak and strong. Never forget how great a treasure is placed in your care: the Church you must serve is Christ’s spouse and body, purchased at the cost of his own life.” 

The national Anglican code for personal behaviour and the practice of pastoral ministry by clergy and church workers Faithfulness in Service argues in its introduction that the call to be holy is reflected in both the Old and New Testaments as the appropriate response to God’s grace. It says Christians live according to the knowledge that they have been created by God and redeemed by Christ. 

The character of God calls and challenges us to live like Christ, demonstrating and proclaiming a God of love. Our ministries should both commend Christ and have the aroma of his ways. Ministry supervision is a designed to assist those in ministry as they reflect on themselves and their work. 

The Safe Ministry Commission of our General Synod was tasked with assisting the Anglican Church of Australia in its response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Acceptance and implementation of the Ministry Commission’s report is to be encouraged. 

Recommendation 16.5 of the Royal Commission’s Final Report stated that the Anglican Church of Australia should develop mandatory national standards to ensure that all people in religious or professional ministry should undertake mandatory regular professional development and professional-pastoral supervision, as well as undergoing regular performance appraisals. 

It is this second recommendation which has been the focus of this article. 

Christian ministry today carries much unfortunate freight. Those with a vocation in ordained or lay ministry are burdened with the appalling failures of the church to deal with the predatory behaviour of some clergy or other church workers. This undermines our evangelistic endeavours. It is hard to trust the gospel message proclaimed when the church has not always proved trustworthy. 

Our failures now also carry the consequence of important disciplines of regulatory compliance and safe ministry checks. Much of the burden of meeting requirements often falls on those who would prefer to direct their energy to areas more closely connected with their ministry vocation. 

According to the 2016 National Church Life Survey nearly half of all clergy experience moderate to high levels of stress. In this continuing COVID season stress levels have increased considerably and many find themselves experiencing something akin to burnout. Vicars and other ministers face these challenges with reduced capacity and diminished emotional resources.  

Jesus stresses in his great sermon in Matthew 5-7 that character should shape conduct. It is nothing less than hypocrisy to be like salt which has lost its taste. Supervision is a means of support for those in the hard work of authentic Christian ministry to take their burdens and share them with another, to reflect on their life and ministry practice in the light of the model demonstrated and commended by Christ and our Christian scriptures.  

It may be tempting to see mandated ministry supervision as just another area of compliance, another box to tick. Rather I believe it should be a life giving means of support, so that pastors can be pastored, ministers ministered to, as a safe space for significant reflection on concerns and understanding the role of ministry.  

Supervision seeks to support and enable those called to serve to flourish in their lives and work in such a way that the gospel is commended, that Jesus may be seen in the lives of those who bear the name of Christian. 

The Safe Ministry Commission’s full report can be found online at: bit.ly/3xSFNn4

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