Holding a figurative mirror up to a clergy person to help them evaluate their own accountability is the mission of reflective supervision, a pilot program that will begin this fall in the Great Plains Conference.
“Reflective supervision is a one-on-one relationship with a trained supervisor who works with a clergyperson to focus on their practice of ministry, so they are healthy and thriving and growing in their leadership,” said the Rev. Nancy Lambert, who is coordinating the program in the conference. “And it’s also about the health and the safety and the flourishing of the people that they serve.”
The Great Plains is one of four conferences — along with Iowa, Minnesota and Tennessee — to be involved with the pilot program, a partnership between the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry and the Wesley House in Cambridge, England.
Lambert, who retired as clergy excellence director and assistant to the bishop in June, participated in training with Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. at Cambridge in late 2019 after first hearing and getting excited about the program at a GBHEM event in 2018.
“GBHEM was really taking reflective supervision seriously as a way to provide support and strengthening the ministry of clergy,” she said. “It’s about making sure the pastor is doing and processing and reflecting on their ministry so that they can be the best that they can be to help their congregation be its best as well.”
Reflective supervision is not a mentoring or coaching program, each of which continue to go strong in the conference, Lambert said.
“The focus of reflective supervision is for the supervisor to raise questions to the supervisee that cause them to draw on what they know and who they already are to make decisions moving forward,” she said. “It’s not a teacher-student relationship like mentoring.”
Four people from the Great Plains — including three active clergy, a retired elder and a mental health provider — are halfway through the 18-month training process to become supervisors, and will be able to schedule sessions with potential supervisees:
Rev. Rick Saylor, retired elder, Kansas City.
Rev. Doug Gahn, Cozad UMC.
Rev. Dr. Shelly Petz, Clergy Wellness consultant, Hutchinson.
Seanne Emerton, retired licensed marriage and family therapist, Grand Island.
The supervisor and supervisee schedule 90-minute sessions via Zoom, unless geography allows to meet in person. They will discuss about topics of the supervisee’s choice. It is not limited to ministry, Lambert said, as topics such as family issues or financial difficulties may have an effect on the performance of a clergy person.
Confidentiality is key, Lambert added. District superintendents will be given a short account of the conversation for their records, without going into specifics.
Rev. Shannon Conklin-Miller, constituent relations and services director of GBHEM, is leading the reflective supervision program for the agency.
“Reflective supervision really is a way for the church to surround its leaders, clergy in this case, with accountability and support around their practice of ministry,” she said from her office in Nashville. “It’s the church saying, ‘We want to provide you with a safe space to address issues that may come up in the practice of ministry.’”
Conklin-Miller said reflective supervision has come to the pilot conferences in the United States, following five years of success in Great Britain, at the right time.
“(The pandemic) just added to the stress on everybody and pastors, particularly as they’re caught in that mask/don’t mask, in-person/not in-person (debate), there’s a lot of pull,” she said. “The need for this is greater than it has been.”
Likewise, the denomination being in a state of flux until a General Conference meets to discuss human sexuality matters causes worry for pastors.
“There are a lot of very stressful times right now, and we know that’s not going to go away even if everybody is vaccinated,” Conklin-Miller said.
The pilot program had to be adjusted after coming from England, she added.
“The Great Plains Conference is probably bigger than the entire British Methodist Church,” she said. “How do we scale it?”
The Rev. Mary Kohlstaedt Huycke, based in Washington state, is the pilot coordinator for reflective pastoral supervision hired by GBHEM.
“Reflective supervision looks both at the restorative art of a pastor’s life and wellbeing, it looks at the development space of a pastor — what are you growing? Where’s your edge?” she said.
The reflective supervision process, she said, allows clergy to provide an overall view of their situation.
“It’s balcony space,” she said. “You step off the dance floor, onto the balcony, so you can see not just your work but the impact it has on the people around you and the trajectory it has.”
Huycke praised the work of the supervisors, who must commit to the 18-month training as well as benchmarks and tests to proceed with their work.
“It’s a really rigorous process, and for those who take the training on top of life and on top of work it’s a huge commitment,” she said.
Lambert said that once reflective supervision begins, many more supervisors will be needed.
Huycke said supervisors must have certain qualities.
“You’re looking for people with particular kinds of character — they aren’t anxious, they’re dependable, empowering, passionate, playful and aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit,” she said.
The original plans for reflective supervision in the Great Plains were for it to begin in 2020, but it, like many other projects, were delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“In some ways the need is higher, stronger,” Huycke said. “People have felt more isolated, and we found people being more in need of this, with anxiety across the board.”
Having pastors who have someone to speak with about their problems and concerns is a benefit to their churches, Huycke said.
“Our congregations need clergy that are healthy, that are continuing to be formed as a respected spiritual leader,” she said, “and to do that our clergy must have spaces where they can step out of their work and reflect on who they are and whose they are, and the impact of their leadership.”
The Rev. Dee Williamston, who succeeded Lambert as clergy excellence director in July, is in the midst of supervisor training for reflective supervision and said she has used many of its principles as she made the transition to her new job.
“It really gives you an opportunity to sit and reflect and think about the situation you’re entering into and how you’re entering into that,” she said. “You actually have the answer in you. You just need some help digging and pulling it out.”
Williamston said she likes the relational aspect of the supervisor, which differs from a mentor, coach or spiritual guide.
“The reflective supervisor helps you hold the mirror up to you, not put it on them,” she said. “They help you hold that mirror, so you won’t pull it down to deflect to something else.
“It’s a wonderful tool,” Williamston added. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to help us reflect upon the encounters we have in ministry.”
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