Reflective supervision offers new way to support clergy
July 08, 2021
By: Karla Hovde
The Minnesota Conference is conducting a pilot program of reflective supervision, a leadership formation practice that provides support and accountability for a clergyperson’s development and well-being.
The program is being launched in partnership with the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry and The Wesley House in Cambridge, England. The initial group of local clergy benefitting from it will be the third-year participants of the Minnesota Conference’s Clergy Leadership Academy.
Jody Thone, Minnesota Conference director of leadership development who is coordinating the pilot, said it’s exciting to be one of the first annual conferences to adopt this innovative way to care for and build up clergy leaders. (Only a few others are launching similar reflective supervision pilot programs: Iowa, Tennessee, and Great Plains.)
Aside from Thone, the other trained and certified reflective supervisors for the Minnesota pilot are Revs. Cindy Gregorson (director of connectional ministries), Elizabeth Macaulay, Susan Nienaber (superintendent for congregational vitality and Big Waters District superintendent), and Cynthia Williams (River Valley District superintendent). What is reflective supervision?
Reflective supervision gives clergy a safe space to explore in some depth specific challenges they are facing within their ministry and/or personal life. Participating Minnesota clergy will meet with one of the trained supervisors for about 90 minutes every six to eight weeks to reflect on an issue of their choosing. The supervisor will provide processes that will help the clergy person come away with deepened insights on the issue and next steps to try.
Jane Leach, who serves The Methodist Church of Great Britain, developed the reflective supervision process. In her book, “A Charge to Keep: Reflective Supervision and the Renewal of Christian Leadership,” she explains: “The role of the reflective supervisor is not to give missional direction or corrective instruction to the supervisee, but to create intentional space for the exploration of the significant ministry issues that arise for them within the framework of the expectations, beliefs, and priorities that shape their context and work. Reflective supervision can support those in the early stages of ministry and those who are struggling in ministry. However, the need for reflective supervision is conceived as being ministry-long, for those with all levels of experience, and who are serving at all levels of the Church’s life.”
Clergy can bring three big 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.
Helping clergy do their best ministry work
“How can we resource and coach clergy to help them be the best leaders and do the best ministry work?” asked Thone. “We don’t have a system in the UMC for this.”
Currently within annual conferences, a small number of superintendents supervise a large number of clergy in a geographic area assigned to them. Superintendents have limited time to devote to each of the dozens of clergy and churches in their districts. By comparison, in corporate or nonprofit settings, it is more common for supervisors to have oversight of eight to 10 people and to give more personalized management and focus to each person’s development.
One thing Thone learned from Leach, whom she traveled to England to learn from firsthand pre-pandemic, is that the reflective supervision process is intended to be a means of grace. “It isn’t just about management,” said Thone. “It’s really this unique combination of bringing God’s grace and perspective—like you might see in spiritual direction work, but giving that kind of process to all clergy.”
In The Methodist Church of Great Britain, all clergy go through six reflective supervision sessions each year. A five-year study of those clergy revealed significant benefits:
Increased clergy well-being
Reduced clergy anxiety
Increased trust within the life of the church
Strengthened boundaries and role clarity in ministry and oversight
Increased clergy toolkits for dealing with conflict, change, and complex dynamics
Emboldened clergy who take appropriate risks in mission and intervene at an early stage to challenge practices that cause harm
Thone hopes to see similar results in Minnesota Conference.
Reflective supervision, which is dedicated to holistic development rather than coaching, is unlike any other process that’s previously been available to Minnesota clergy. In the coming years, after the pilot program, it will become available to all pastors in the conference.
“We are excited to bring this opportunity to Minnesota and we strongly believe that the reflective supervision process is a key to our Journey Toward Vitality and our commitment to developing missional leaders here in Minnesota,” said Thone.
Karla Hovde is the communications specialist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.