Do Pastors Need Professional Supervision?
Due to family concerns, I retired from full-time ordained ministry in the CRC after twenty-seven years of being a pastor. Along with being a retired pastor, I am now a licensed clinical social worker in Cadillac, MI. One striking difference between pastoring and social work is the function and role of supervision. To become a fully licensed social worker I had to acquire four-thousand hours of social work practice under weekly professional supervision by another fully licensed social worker. This component of social work training for State licensure is non-negotiable and done with serious intentionality. In fact, while under supervision, the social work license of the supervisor is the actual provider license under which the supervisee works and is paid for services. That means that all the repercussions, from, say, any malpractice, fall upon the supervisor’s license, not the supervisee. It is serious business!
Professional supervision consists of a candid review and empowering of both the social worker’s practice and personhood in order to practice ethically and therapeutically and “do no harm” to the clients. I believe that pastors need a similar kind of supervision.
To illustrate why I believe in this premise, imagine a wartime scene in which a group of wounded soldiers must be brought cross-country through miles of mine fields to reach a hospital for care. And you, as a Lieutenant, have been commissioned to get them there. At first you tremble at the thought of how difficult it will be to reach the hospital without suffering casualties from hidden landmines that lay in your path. You also fear getting lost because you have never crossed this countryside before. But then, to your great relief, an experienced soldier who has crossed this terrain many times and who even knows how to locate and disarm landmines volunteers to guide you in this perilous journey. Suddenly, your hope shoots sky-high as you now follow your “marching orders” with much greater expectation of success. What a gift! What a blessing to have this kind of help!
Isn’t a pastor on a similar perilous mission in leading his parishioners to the healing place where Gospel Grace does its work in and on them? And the pastor’s journey is also laden with landmines, of a sort, which, if not discovered and handled delicately and wisely, can “dismember” many souls. So, like the Lieutenant, how grateful and relieved he should feel if someone who has clinical/pastoral expertise in handling relational landmines offers to guide him and help him disarm any explosive situations. Yet many pastors forge ahead into the war zones of spiritual battle both alone and insufficiently resourced to avoid and disarm ministry perils. Human souls are deep waters, full of unseen, diverging, interpersonal currents which, when a pastor gets caught up in them while pastoring his flock, can subtly pull him or her in a direction they didn’t intend or desire. So why not give the pastor (and spouse) the blessing of solid guidance, particularly in the early years of ministry, so that they have a life-line of wisdom and guidance to get them and their congregation through that ministry minefield unharmed?
What are some of the “relational landmines” I refer to? I will list nine of them but I know there are more.
- The first relational landmine is the tension of dual relationships. When a pastor develops friends in his church because she needs friends and some of her parishioners feel like “kindred spirits” or share similar interests, both she and her “friend” must be able to live with the uncomfortable tension of mutually switching roles from friend to parishioner/pastor.
- Secondly, every pastor, if he seeks to be obedient to the Great Commission, is a change agent toward the status quo of a fallen human nature that resists God’s transforming work on our beings.
- Thirdly, a pastor must wear many and, what sometimes feels like, opposite professional hats in his work.
- Fourthly, a pastor, particularly if he is married with children, must keep the “church as mistress” at a safe distance in order to preserve marital faithfulness and parental responsibility
- Landmine number five is the unrealistic expectation of a responsibility for the pastor to be available to the congregation 24/7, most days of the year.
- Number six relates to clinical dynamics of a therapeutic or pastoral relationship. More specifically, a pastor needs to have self-awareness about and skill for using transference and counter-transference when acting in a pastoral role.
- Next in line is church politics. Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions to collectively run or direct social matters. Relationships, power and authority are part of the mix of politics. This definition hints at the complexity of politics and most church members have experienced how it can sometimes bring out the worst in people.
- Number eight is that criticism and opposition to a pastor’s leadership is usually passive-aggressive in its delivery. So often pastors ask, “Why am I the last one to hear about what I supposedly did wrong?” By the time it reaches the pastor’s attention, most of the congregation already knows and has already discussed the concern.
- Finally, there is the challenge of spiritual warfare. Until and unless a pastor learns and believes that real, evil, spiritual forces will oppose her, she will be vulnerable to unexpected, hellish attacks that will frustrate her ministry and cause her to question her calling.
So what is to be done for pastors to aid them in the potentially perilous journey of leading churches? I suggest a formal process of pastoral-clinical supervision, especially the first five years of his ordained ministry. I believe that professional pastoral-clinical supervision should even be mandated by official CRC Church Polity. The responsibility of professional supervision of a local pastor should also move from the Classis level to the local church level where each local church council contracts with a “pastoral-clinical supervisor” person to give professional supervision to its pastor(s). Finally, the relationship between the pastoral supervisor and the elders needs further contemplation with our current church order in mind which gives only elders and denominational assemblies authority to “disciple” a pastor. Returning to the military metaphor from the introduction, should the soldier guiding the Lieutenant have authority to take control of the mission if he sees the Lieutenant making a fatal mistake? Is he left only with his power of persuasion to avert disaster? In other words, can the pastoral supervisor become more than a mentor/coach to the pastor and have some recourse other than persuasion should he and the pastor reach an impasse on an issue which has serious ramifications for the health of both the pastor and the church? A suggestion is that the supervisor would be given the authority to convene the elders and pastor(s) should such an impasse requiring resolution arise. Then the supervisor’s concern becomes the elder’s concern and final authority to disciple the pastor remains with the elders, as our Church Order currently dictates.
A social worker can’t legally practice social work without a professional license and I believe a pastor should not be allowed to practice ordained pastoral ministry without the “license” of elder guided, professional supervision. There is too much risk and too much at stake in getting your walking wounded to the Hospital of Gospel Grace safely to disregard this assistance.
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