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Reflective pastors called for

11 July 2014

Have the trainers had adequate training, asks Alan Billings

Enriching Ministry: Pastoral supervision in practice
Michael Paterson and Jessica Rose, editors
SCM Press £25
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ENRICHING MINISTRY is a collection of essays by a group of men and women experienced in providing supervision for those engaged in pastoral ministry, whether as parish ministers, chaplains, or spiritual directors. Its principal goal is to offer wisdom to those who act in a supervisory capacity in pastoral contexts, guiding their approach and encouraging their thinking.

Supervision is defined in an appendix, although a theme throughout is that, while there are techniques that can and shouldbe learnt, supervision is in the end an art, not a science; an acquired skill, and a matter of practical wisdom. What the supervisor seeks to do is help inculcate in those supervised habits of reflection on their practice - drawing on experience as well as theology, psychology, and other relevant disciplines.

In order to do this, those who are in supervisory positions must be reflective practitioners themselves. This raises awkward questions about how many of those who are currently team rectors, training incumbents, superintendents, spiritual directors, or bishops, have had such training. It all seems rather hit-and-miss.

The authors are drawn from various denominations - Church of Scotland, Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic. They are practitioners themselves - as local ministers, parish priests, chaplains, counsellors, and therapists - as well as supervisors. The experience that they bring is collectively and sometimes individually rich and diverse.

The book is arranged in four parts - from an exploration of relevant theological, philosophical, and psychological perspectives to reflections on practice and context, concluding with Michael Paterson's suggested model for pastoral supervision going forward. It is, above all, an invitation to reflect on practice. It will, therefore, be of interest to those who have responsibility for the formation or supervision of any who work in a pastoral context.

The quality and utility of the writing is mixed, but, where contributors eschew jargon, there are some interesting accounts of practice which will provoke serious thought and nudge in the direction of better practice. I found particularly helpful Ewan Kelly's idea of "shared vulnerability", and Jessica Rose's chapter on the need for a robust theological framework - a Trinitarian understanding of God, and a Christian anthropology.

This is one of the key issues for those who are seeking to integrate theological and psychological insights, especially if they are working in a setting where other professionals are using wholly secular assumptions. This might be a good entry-point for the book as a whole.

Many contributors speak of a non-directive approach as if this were self-evidently what they practise and also desirable. But Diane Clutterbuck hints - rightly, in my view - at the "limitations" of this, and at occasions when it might be appropriate to be directive - for ethical reasons, or when a colleague lacks the skill or resources to achieve his or her goals. On the face of it, this undermines the idea of the non-directive approach altogether. Can you be a little bit pregnant? At any rate, it points to an area where more needed to be said.

I would also have welcomed more discussion around the two very different contexts in which the readers of this book may operate - those accountable at least in part to a secular employer (such as the NHS), and those accountable principally or exclusively to a faith community. These different contexts create different tensions. For example, how does pressure from a hospital trust to show that chaplaincy adds value affect how the chaplaincy operates? Or how does a voluntary chaplaincy to a hospice deal with issues such as assisted dying, on which Churches tend to have a particular view?

Overall, however, this is a useful book for supervisors and others to dip in and out of.

Canon Alan Billings's latest book is The Dove, the Fig Leaf and the Sword: Why Christianity changes its mind about war (SPCK, 2014).

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