Pastors trained in reflective supervision, see benefits of process

February 16, 2023
Rev. Karen Evenson (second from right) poses with her assigned triad at the reflective supervision training in Orlando in January 2023.

By: Christa Meland

How do I address an unhealthy dynamic within my leadership team? Am I being called on a new path? How can I better prioritize self-care to avoid burnout?
These are some of the common questions that clergy wrestle with—and a team from Minnesota is being trained in a leadership formation practice that provides support and accountability for a pastor’s development and well-being as they explore challenges they are facing.
The process, called reflective supervision, was created by a United Methodist pastor in England, where the benefits to clergy participants have been huge: 75 percent have reported an improved connection with God and vocation, 73 percent have reduced anxiety and stress, 65 percent have seen improvement in colleague relationships, and that’s just for starters.
Reflective supervision in Minnesota

In recent years, five Minnesota Conference leaders have been trained in reflective supervision: Jody Thone, Minnesota Conference director of leadership development; Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of connectional ministries and clergy assistant to the bishop; Rev. Cynthia Williams, Twin Cities District superintendent; Rev. Susan Nienaber, director of congregational vitality; and Rev. Elizabeth Macaulay, a retired pastor serving Centenary UMC in Mankato.

Several other annual conferences are also using reflective supervision, but Minnesota is one of the furthest along in the training process. Bishop Lanette Plambeck is also trained in reflective supervision and was leading the process for Iowa prior to being elected bishop. The training itself is rigorous and the supervisor must be observed and assessed during live sessions they are leading.
Last month, four more Minnesota pastors who have received reflective supervision attended a four-day training in Orlando—their first step in becoming trained to provide reflective supervision to clergy colleagues: Revs. Karen Evenson, Amy Strom, David Doppenberg, and Kirkland Reynolds are big proponents of the process and see great value for our conference.

“It is self-reflection guided by a supervisor who is noticing and wondering alongside you while letting you do the realization and figure out the next steps,” said Evenson, who serves UMC of Anoka. “It’s a very empowering process.”

What is reflective supervision?

Clergy can bring these three categories of topic to their reflective supervision sessions.
The prime task of supervisor and supervisee together is to hold open space for hearing what God is saying to the supervisee as the two reflect upon the supervisee’s vocation and practice. In this process, the supervisors put themselves at the disposal of supervisees for the sake of their wellbeing, growth, and responsible practice. In this sense, reflective supervision might be thought of as a means of grace in which God is encountered as two people commit to work together in a regular, structured, and covenanted process.
Clergy can bring three categories of topics to reflective supervision sessions:
· Restorative topics include issues of total well-being and increasing clergy resilience.
· Formative topics include talking through what the clergy person doesn’t know or is learning, with an objective of increasing the clergy’s capabilities.
· Normative topics include boundaries and ethics checks; identifying burn out, mental health, or emotional well-being risks; and recognizing risks to the congregation, community, or clergy person’s ministry.

Each session starts with bringing awareness to God. The supervisor then uses various methods to help the supervisee explore their question from different vantage points—“holy play” is how Thone describes it. For example, for a situation involving a challenge with another person, the supervisor might lead a “small world” exercise where the supervisee is invited to select (from a bin of options) three objects that represent them and three objects that represent the other person. The supervisor asks questions and maneuvers the objects to help the supervisee explore different perspectives on the situation and might ask the supervisee to stand and look at the objects from a different angle. Other methods of holy play involve drawing, cards, and chairs. Insights revealed by these sessions help the supervisee determine next steps for addressing the issue at hand—which the supervisee and supervisor go over together before concluding the session. The sessions are confidential, but the supervisor sends a one-line summary of the session to the individual they report to, whether a district superintendent or someone else, noting the broad topic discussed and any specific risks to the supervisee or their ministry.

Why reflective supervision?

“In different times in my ministry, I have worked with a clergy coach, spiritual directors, and a counselor,” said Doppenberg, who serves Elk River UMC. “My experience with reflective supervision has been even more helpful for my sense of call, spiritual health, and effectiveness in ministry. Even when I felt foolish, inept, unsure, the process worked.”
Rev. Dr. Jane Leach, a British pastor who created the reflective supervision process.

Doppenberg is currently in Shmita—an intentional time of learning, reflection, and recharging for clergy to engage in every seventh year of their ministry. He sees great potential for reflective supervision for Shmita participants as well as those entering pastoral ministry.

Rev. Amy Strom, who serves Vergas and Dent UMCs, says reflective supervision is pastors helping pastors give voice to the real daily challenges of their ministries and take healthy, specific action. 

“It can be so easy to simply succumb to survival and slog around maintaining in our roles,” she said. “The reality and battle with burnout is on all of our radars. But this process reminds us that God is with us, recalling us back to life individually and recalling the local church to life through our service. It helps us together identify ways through stuck places.”

Ultimately, healthier pastors help lead healthier churches, Strom said.

One thing Evenson appreciates about the process is that all reflective supervisors are also reflective supervisees. The process isn’t about one person having all the answers; it acknowledges that we’re all learning and growing throughout our lives and ministry careers.
Thone—whose next goal is to receive training in a group reflective supervision process—piloted the individual reflective supervision process within the Clergy Leadership Academy and is now exploring its best ongoing use in Minnesota. She believes it has great potential as we critically evaluate annual conference functions and explore new models of ministry.

“This process of support is more about discernment and following God’s call on our lives than accountability to a denominate,” said Strom. “It is a safe place to bring the deepest parts of yourself and work realities and self-identify ways to move forward.  It teaches us how to keep growing in our own agency to problem solve, to keep growing as disciples and as leaders.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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