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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. 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Thirdly, a pastor must wear many and, what sometimes feels like, opposite professional hats in his work.
  4. 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
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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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Excellent piece Ken.  I would add that the need for supervision or mentoring is not only limited to our 'clinical-pastoral work', but makes sense in other areas, preaching or administration too, for example.  And, as with other disciplines, we really should have a mandatory continuing education stipulation as part of ordination.  There is simply too much at stake, our own selves, our families, the congregations and communities we serve for us to be working with less than what other callings require.  Blessings on your work in your new field and thanks for reflecting and sharing your thoughts.

It's a great vision. The CRC dipped its toe in with the mandate to name a "mentor" to newly installed pastors. I think we all recognize that this falls far short of the better vision you present here. 

While we're giving advice I'd recommend that we don't hand out lifetime credentials but instead have a system that holds us accountable for ongoing education and development. I see this in the teaching profession. If you want to maintain your credential, you continue to accumulate credits. That system too rewards teachers for continuing education with salary incentives. 

Now we face the question of practical application. Normally this kind of thing gets rolled out by a central authority, Synod in our case sends down a mandate. It follows the mandate the mandate for a CTS M.Div. All of this while churches are wrestling with filling leadership ranks and recognizing other avenues of preparation via Article 23. 

Synod can hand down an "unfunded mandate" but will it increase the burden and put more pressure on precisely the kinds of churches where your admonitions are most needed. Sometimes its the wobbly candidates that get the wobbly calls to the wobbly churches where the kind of self-awareness of our limitations and vulnerabilties that this seeks to address is most limited. 

We have in our system an implicit accountability system through common censure. It's broken too. Church visiting is another avenue, in some cases getting fresh attention. 

For many of us a level of mutual censure via colleagues in committed teams and groups offers some help, but again not enough. 

I'd love to see you follow up this excellent article with some real next steps towards a better system, a system that can fit a church context that is increasingly cash poor. 

George Vink on July 17, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)


For a man of your many, and often insightful words, I was more than amused with your use of the word "wobbly" to describe both people and churches. Someone recently, actually it was Al L., asked about the meaning or connotation of "untameable God," and got some interesting responses, including JZ's predictable contribution. Now I'm looking forward to having some others give some interpretation to the word "wobbly churches" and "wobbly characters," in the fear of having it apply to someone no longer eligible for a supervisor in my ministry.

Thanks, Paul, as usual, you've contributed to discussion.


Paul VanderKlay on July 17, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Always good to hear from you George, even though this text base medium. :) 

I'm a wobbly pastor of a wobbly church. Sometimes we wobble and we do fall down. I've been wobbling here with my church for almost 15 years we still wobble regularly. 

What I liked about Ken's piece was that it recognized the seriousness and the difficulty of ministry. Ministry is seriously difficult and we too often saunter blightly into it trusting in railings and floorboards that are less than solid. Ken knows this of course. Other disciplines have established serious mechanisms for accountability and support, many of which have been developed recently. There is no reason we can't avail ourselves of these learnings. 

Another voice in the back of my head knows many "solutions" despite all that they offer can provide no guarentees. Do these laudible structures always prevent malpractice or even simple mediocrite? I doubt it. I've seen enough in the counseling profession to have a bit of skepticism both in terms of what they hope to prevent overtly as well as the supposed outcomes they professions wish to provide. Both the counselor and the patient are complex broken human beings and we are helpless against much of what commonly assails us. We certify and credential with paper and systems and are still helpless before the brokenness that crushes us. We are all wobbly. Not looking wobbly doesn't necessarily mean much. :)

George Vink on July 17, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Amen and amen, Paul. The degree of wobblyness just varies and the sooner we all recognize the need for a steadying, if not supervisory hand, the better ministry that we'll be able to do in Christ's name.

Yet to make it compulsory will require some means of enforcing that's meaningful, and our system has not been too amenable to such  until now. Until then, we've got to encourage those entering ministry to avoid the "lone wolf" approach. Seek  out a good friend, not  necessarily one from one's denomination. Not needed at all. I recall all too well, even after having served the church for 6 years in a non-ordained position, I was more than happy to have a Baptism colleague with him I could commisserate etc. but also sense a caring concern for how I was doing ministry. His name was Gordon Patch, and he "patched" me up several times as well as provided needed patches to cover my deficiencies, a wobby beginner.

I'm glad the wobbly church you serve gives you ample time to have these kinds of exchanges. Shalom!

Great piece Ken.  As one of my early mentors in church planting, you offered some amazing advice that, at the time I didn't see, but has become nuggets I pass on to every church planter I meet.  However, the difference you are talking about is a significant step forward and one we would be wise to heed as a denomination.  This is a difficult calling and we go into it only so prepared - seminary cannot do it all, this is OJT and it is the nature of the beast. But to have someone there who can guide and direct, this could be very helpful.  Obvious caution is needed for any unintended consequences, but this is a road worth traveling.

Ken, I would forward this to the director of mentored ministries at Calvin Seminary.

Also, would a "spiritual director," as we find in other traditions, help to fill this role?

Ken Nydam on July 15, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I do think that a spiritual director could fulfil much of what I sugest as that relationship is built around honesty and shaped by Gospel grace. But it is also a very confidential relationship and would lack any teeth for accoutability or to bring the elders into play if needed. Supervision is not mentoring although it can certainly be very "mentoringish". The Church Order is written so that pastors and/or congregations have a recourse when there are incompatibility concerns between them. It is there for the benefit of both parties for their protection. Elders, being, in general, ill equipped for the kind of supervision that I suggest, need the help of a professional who will supervise empathically as well as protect both parties when things "go wierd." I dont think a SD could do that. We would all like to think that pastors and congregations would be able to work eveything out in love, but the data shows, unfortunately, that it doesn't happen enough. I don't know if my suggestion is the best one, but I hope for some action on this in the future. This idea is all about prevention and building flourishing ministries.


I must say that the terminology is troublesome.   It is troublesome to think that someone or something is going to mandate a congregation to contract with a professional supervisor for a pastor who they have already contracted with to be a spiritual teacher and leader.  While they may decide from time to time to contract with someone to provide special services, such as professional advice for pastors and elders, it is troublesome to think that someone like synod or classis would mandate them to do so.  Ultimately, synod and classis have no authority nor mandate to do so.  It would be lording it over the churches.  

While a new preacher or pastor should probably look for a mentor, someone to provide advice, to answer practical questions, thinking about a mentor as a supervisor is not a good thing, particularly when words like "having the power to convene the elders and pastors should an impasse arise..." are used.   These words are landmines in themselves.  

So, a good mentor, yes.  A professional supervisor, not.  Without open minds to accept and seek advice, supervisory power of a non-church member is not the answer.   It would create more problems than it would solve, and would lead to exactly the type of hierarchy that we are trying to avoid. 

Ken Nydam on July 16, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks for the feedback, John. I understand that my suggestion is a big leap and a supervisor being able to convene the elders would require some serious thought as to what is, in fact, the relationship between this supervisor and the elders. We have had our discussion about church bishops and we don't want to go there either. And does the supervisor's role diminish if the elders do not support him on an issue that was brought to their attention by him? I only know that too many times, the current official bodies, (elders or classis) do not get involved until it is too late when too much hurt has already passed over the dam and the window of prevention has passed and it is time for damage control and discipline. A pastor being in supervision could do so much prevention so that the concern never has to go to the elders or classis. As a novice social worker, I looked forward to my supervision sessions. I came with so many questions and with a feeling of safety because I knew my supervisor what rooting for me. I was also so glad to have a place to bring issues or clinical decisions that could have serious ramifications for myself and those I counseled. I was also relieved that I if I blew it, there was a structure in place that could salvage the situation. I know that pastors are used to and expected to be the "experts" on what God says to his people and in church leadership issues. But we all have to "work those tasks out with fear and trembling" for God working in us to accomplish his will, still has many blind spots and personal ego challenges which are always better delt with in a collective way. We all need a mirror to see ourselves as we really are and we all need a "magic mirror"
to speak truth into us, truth that we cannot see for ourselves.

Thanks Ken. Some helpful comments! Earlier in ministry I was  part of a regular GROUP that met with a professional social worker and counselor on a regular basis. I found that experience discussing pastoral issues to be insightful and helpful. If I ever did this again I would want to likely go the group route with it since one can draw also on the pastoral insights and wisdom of a trusted group of peers. Thanks for your thoughts!

Blessings, Dan Gritter

Ken Nydam on July 16, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes, I was once part of such a group too and it was very helpful and is certainly one viable option to address the need I am trying to identify. These groups are typically done in more urban places where there is a cluster of churches and the clinical assistance is available. Not so true in rural areas. I think Hank Bosma LMSW is doing something like this in the GR area. When trust develops in such a group which may have to be a closed group for that trust to grow and continue, a pastor can take risks in disclosing his struggles and be assured that it is held in confidence lest it get back to parishioners who would be mortified that they are being talked about by the area clergy even though names are not mentioned. That such groups exist in spite of the risks demonstrates that there is a need that is important enough to take risks to satisfy.

Ken, you are right on the mark and this direction is long overdue.  Many of the members of our church councils are professionals who are regularly held to such a standard in their respective professions. The demise of the Day of the Dominee has happened and the calling of a pastor demands the highest level of integrity. Mutual Censure in Councils is becoming a hit or miss affair; Pastoral Relations committees often never get to the heart of matters; and in many places Church Visiting on a regular basis is virtually non-existent.  Article 13a does not prevent a council from using another kind of professional as it carries out its responsibiliy for supervision. So let's raise this up a notch or two and build in a stronger and more effective accountability for pastors of the greatest institution on the face of the earth - the Church of Jesus Christ.

John Zylstra on July 17, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In my experience with professional organizations, mentors are sometimes appointed for a time for new initiates into the professional organization, although this is not a hard and fast rule. But this only relates to the general conditions of qualifying as a member of the professional organization, not to the supervision of daily work. 

Supervisors of daily work and workers, almost always have the responsibility of providing and overseeing and changing workloads, of developing and managing evaluations and appraisals, as well as recommending salary changes or promotions or new job descriptions.   Ultimately supervisors have the ability to hire and fire, although they may require the approval of their own supervisor for these actions.  So I would be very, very careful about using that type of terminology.  It is the wrong term in this case. 

My warning is that we will lose the spiritual leadership of these positions and callings if we make too many analogies to careers and professional organizations.  It is quite different and important to realize that scripture itself is your best mentor and supervisor, and prayer and bible reading your best discussion with your supervisor.   Losing the scriptural focus in any group mentoring or personal leadership mentoring will run the risk of gaining smooth operations with a loss of spiritual impact. 


           I really appreciate this forum, the contributors and the  discussion.  As one of the CRC’s full-time military chaplains, it is easy to lose touch with the discussions that are happening in the church, and this site helps bridge the gap for me. 

            Regarding this issue of supervision, I have spent most of my 14 years as a pastor under some type of supervision, starting with internship during CTS, followed by several years of mentoring and supervision under a senior pastor in of our CRC congregations.  My current calling to chaplaincy also has a robust supervisory element – I am supervised by a senior chaplain as well as reporting directly (daily, in fact) to the commanding officer of my military unit. 

     When I graduated from CTS in 1998, several friends, classmates and family members expressed surprise at my decision to accept a call to a church where I would be in a supervised staff position.  Many told me that I needed to "get in the pastoral saddle" and become a solo pastor for in order to develop my own pastoral identity.  Now, 14 years later I am very glad that I decided to begin full-time minsitry in a supervised position; good supervision has been a major part of my development as a pastor and also saved me and others from the pain of many mistakes I would have made. While I do not doubt that many of my seminary classmates who went to solo pastorates also developed a healthy pastoral identity, supervision was and continues to be a part of my pastoral development.

      In my experience, successful supervisory relationships require 1) a pastor who welcomes and seeks supervision, and 2) an institution which structurally or organically empowers or encourages healthy supervision.  Is it fair to say that a pastor who wants supervision needs to seek it out?  (In some geographically isolated areas, finding good supervisors might be difficult.)  Why has ministry supervision been such a positive experience for me?  Because it was not imposed on me; I wanted it -  not just for myself but for the good of the people I serve.  Perhaps one of the qualities we should look for in our ministerial candidates is a desire for supervision and a track record of seeking out mentors, spiritual directors or others who help our ongoing pastoral development.  We should take extra caution when examining candidates who are opposed to supervision or avoid it.

     I do not think that a denominationally driven supervisory structure is the answer.   Several of my Navy Chaplain Corps colleagues have very dysfunctional relationships with their bishops or appointed supervisors.  A pastor who wants and seeks supervision is key.

            Here's the other side of the equation – how well do we train supervisors?  Do we have an adequate concept of what a good supervisor does?  Who she or he IS?  Do we have any institutional capacity builders for healthy supervision?  In the Navy Chaplain Corps, newly promoted chaplain officers attend a month-long supervisory course to learn how to properly supervise junior chaplains.  Continuing education for supervisors is an important piece of us to consider.  Expanded training at Classis to help churches understand the need for supervision and continuing education would also be helpful.

            Again, I appreciate this discussion forum and look forward to your responses.

Chaps out ...

One more thought ... are there data that demonstrate a correlation between good supervision and longevity in ministry?  If we can show a correlation between these two, we could move the supervision discussion from  "it sounds like a worthwhile idea" to "we must develop our supervisory capacity" for the good of the pastors and the churches.

I remember at CTS that we would frequently do pastoral case conferences.  This was a good model in which peers mentored each other and supervision occurred in a group setting.  Groups of pastors, with a seasoned pastor as leader, could fulfill this supervisory role very well, and it would fit well in our polity; something like a modified CPE on a Classis level.

...Enough from the good idea fairy.

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