The learning supervisor
Wright, N. (2001) ‘The Learning Supervisor’, The Christian Counsellor, October-December, Issue 11, pp13-19.
In three previous articles (The Christian Counsellor, Jan-Sep 2001), I introduced the concept of supervision in interpersonal disciplines by summarising in outline:
What I mean by supervision
The relationship between supervision and other caring roles
Why supervision is important – including its potential benefits
Key qualities of a good supervisor
Supervision models and approaches
Core supervision skills
In this final article, I intend to explore:
The concept of a ‘learning supervisor’
Common difficulties encountered by supervisors
Learning and development methods and resources
The Learning Supervisor
The importance of on-going personal learning and development is now widely recognised throughout Britain in organisational and educational fields and this principle applies, too, within pastoral counselling and supervision. Contemporary approaches attempt to balance traditional learning of ‘information’ with an ability to reflect and apply learning within what are, at times, constantly and rapidly changing environments. I would suggest that a central focus of supervision is on enabling counsellors to develop through reflection on learning and experience and that this model applies, too, to the supervisor as co-learner in this process.
The notion of on-going learning and development is, of course, a central theme throughout the Bible where we see ‘propositional truth’ (doctrinal truth revealed by God, e.g. Ex 20:1-17; Mt 5:1-7:29) intertwined with truth revealed through experience requiring reflection, discernment and spiritual wisdom (e.g. Mk 8: 14-21; Rom 1:20; 1 Cor 2:1-16). One of the tasks of the supervisor is to enable the counsellor to bring together Biblical truth with the many facets of his or her experience in order to grow in relationship with God, personal discipleship and effective ministry.
I opened my first article in this series with the comment that, “...in spite of all that has been written on the subject, real supervision can feel both daunting and perplexing for those who find themselves responsible for this task. In practice, the many different factors involved in supervision can so easily leave the budding supervisor anxious, confused or, worse still, paralysed.” I will describe below some of the most common difficulties I have encountered in my work with supervisors along with practical ideas to help offset some of their worst effects.
Supervisor anxiety In my experience to date, which includes supervision of pastoral workers as well as training and supervision of other supervisors, I have noticed that personal anxiety seems to be by far one of the most common underlying emotional dynamics experienced as ‘problematic’. Three underlying causes tend to be evident:
Fear of failure: "What if I’m not good enough?” (e.g. for myself, the supervisee, my line-manager, my peers, my
agency, God; cf Ex 4:10, Heb 13:20f)
Transferred feelings: "I can’t understand why I’m feeling so nervous. It’s as though I’m feeling their nervousness for them.” (e.g. that of the supervisee, his or her clients, referring agencies)
Spiritual attack: “I seem to be so hopeless at supervision that it would be better for everyone if I give up.” (cf I Ki 19:3-5; Eph 6:12-18)
I will describe methods later in this article which I have found helpful in dealing with my own anxiety as well as that of others but, at this point, the following tips may be worth note along with any that you have found helpful in your own experience:
Honesty: Acknowledge your feelings honestly. It’s OK to feel anxious as supervisor. Supervision can be difficult and you need to ensure that your expectations (including those of yourself) are realistic and fair. Sometimes things will work out in a way that you didn’t want or expect. Use your own mistakes as stepping stones to growth.
Sharing: Share what you are experiencing with your own supervisor, line-manager, peer, pastor or a close friend - someone with a good listening ear. Be as real as you can be and don’t try to cover up your feelings of inadequacy. Learning to be open is the first step to learning as a whole.
Prayer: Pray before, during and after supervision for God’s grace, insight, wisdom and protection and study the Bible for insight. Ask others to pray for you and do be open to fresh revelation from the Spirit. Be committed to do what you can in supervision and to trust God with the rest.
Counselling the counsellor
It is sometimes tempting, as supervisor, to counsel the counsellor; especially since many supervisors are themselves practising counsellors in other roles and have a natural interest in therapy in its many guises. Feltham & Dryden (Developing Counsellor Supervision, 1994) counter this tendency by commenting that, “supervision is not primarily concerned with...the personal counselling of the counsellor. The supervisor’s central task is to oversee the work between counsellor and client and the supervisor should therefore not become, unintentionally or intentionally, the supervisee’s counsellor.”
The central argument here is that it is important to maintain role clarity within the supervision relationship in order to avoid blurring of boundaries and relational confusion and there are, in practice, very good reasons for maintaining this clarity; e.g. to ensure that the client’s interests are not forgotten by focusing solely on the experience and development of the counsellor.
I certainly agree with this emphasis on role clarity but would suggest nevertheless that, in pastoral supervision, the nature of the role is perhaps broader than in its secular/clinical counterparts. At a very practical level, the person carrying out pastoral supervision is often the same person (e.g. a church leader) who holds wider pastoral responsibility for the supervisee but, even where not, the Biblical model of Supervisor (see Christian Counsellor: Apr-Jun 2001) does not seem to allow for sharp distinctions between different areas and aspects of a person’s character and experience.
As a general principle, I would suggest that the primary focus of pastoral supervision should be on the personal and professional development of the supervisee in relation to his/her role and work, whilst allowing other aspects of the person’s experience and development to be explored insofar as any drift into other directions (e.g. counselling) is identified, articulated and agreed before moving forward; bearing in mind the importance of maintaining an underlying client-orientation as mentioned above. For example:
Supervisor: “We seem to be moving from your work with client X to deeper personal issues which sound unresolved for you. Would you like to return to discussing your work with X or would you prefer to continue in this new vein for now and then return to your work with X later?”
This approach assumes, of course, that the supervisor is able to offer effective counselling support and that the agencies which both supervisor and counsellor represent are happy for this model to be used. It also takes considerable skill and discernment on the part of the supervisor to ensure that shifts of this nature are not simply diversionary tactics (e.g. Jn 4:17-20) to avoid tackling more serious client-related issues.
Counselling the client
Another common difficulty for supervisors, especially when supervising inexperienced counsellors or those who come across as highly incompetent, is that of how to avoid inadvertently taking over counselling of the client ‘through’ the counsellor. The supervisor may, equally, try to instruct every aspect of the counsellor’s work with the client as an attempt to impress the counsellor for whom he/she holds responsibility in order help to deal with the his/her own feelings of inadequacy (see ‘Supervisor anxiety’ above).
There are, of course, specific circumstances under which it is right and appropriate for the supervisor to become highly directive in his or her work with a counsellor; e.g. when the supervisor has good reason to believe that the counsellor and/or client are planning/engaged in activity that is illegal, unethical or could seriously endanger the welfare of the counsellor, client or others (see: BACP Code of Ethics and Practice for Supervision).
As a general rule, however, the supervisor will only inhibit the counsellor’s learning and development by intervening inappropriately or too quickly in circumstances where a more non-directive approach would have been more helpful (see Christian Counsellor: Apr-Jun 2001). A good question to ask oneself during and after supervision is, “Who is doing most of the talking - me or the supervisee?”. If the answer is “me”, it really may be worth doing some revision on listening skills (e.g. Jacobs - Swift to Hear, 1985; Still Small Voice, 1982).
One of the most popular texts in supervision practice for many years has been Egan’s Skilled Helper (1994) which describes itself as “a problem-management approach to helping.” Egan provides many useful, practical insights and ideas but a common difficulty I encounter with new supervisors is a tendency towards ‘problem-solving’ as their sole orientation. Although there are circumstances (e.g. crises) in which this approach can be appropriate, exclusive use of this model can leave both supervisor and counsellor floundering if the counsellor is not experiencing any particular difficulties.
This was, in fact, the difficulty that led me to my own first ever ‘Supervisor anxiety’ experience:
Supervisor: “Are there any problems you would like to discuss this week?”
Counsellor: “None that I can think of.”
Supervisor: “Oh.” (rising panic - still got another hour to fill)
I was helped out of this difficulty by Sutherland, a psychotherapist/tutor who put forward the notion of a counsellor being like a person floating on a raft. The problem-solving supervisor dives into the ocean, swims to the raft and drags it back to the shore in order to help the counsellor to safety. The developmental supervisor dives into the ocean, swims to the raft and spends time floating on it with the counsellor, sometimes paddling but often simply “wondering together”. My subsequent experience suggests that both of these analogies reflect legitimate dimensions of the pastoral supervisory role and that it takes prayerful wisdom to know and choose the right approach at any one time.
Staying Sharp One of the final difficulties I commonly encounter, faced in particular by experienced supervisors, is that of becoming dulled by day-to-day work with counsellors in such a way that even signs of the miraculous can cease to inspire or teach. This may be compared with a carpenter’s chisel slowly losing its cutting edge over time through daily use; a condition which Christ himself rebukes sharply (e.g. Mk 6:52; 8:17-21) since it closes our hearts and minds to new depths of spiritual insight and relationship.
In order to help avoid this problem, it is so important that the supervisor pays close attention to his or her own on-going development and that he/she does not rely simply on learning or experience from the past but continually seeks fresh inspiration for the present and future (Lk 11:9-13). Whether new to supervision or old, I would encourage active exploration of new methods and approaches (e.g. at least 1 every 2 years) in order to avoid falling into this condition of dull-ness and to provide new sources of knowledge, skill, challenge and inspiration. Lahad’s ‘Creative Supervision’ (2000) is one example of a recent useful publication that may be worth glancing through for ideas.
Development Methods and Resources What I will describe below are some of the methods and resources I have found particularly helpful over the years in my own work as supervisor of supervisors and pastoral counsellors, although you may like to add additional ideas to a list of your own.
“My own experience as supervisor over the years has convinced me that supervision is more akin to a creative art form than a precise technical science, with openness to the Spirit being of paramount importance.” (Wright, N. Christian Counsellor, Jan-Mar 01). “It is frighteningly easy to decorate our work with spiritual language but to depend on something else to get the job done.” (Crabb, L. Christian Counsellor, Jan-Mar 01)
The Bible portrays prayer as a vital means of intimate communication with God and, if we intend that our work as supervisors should be guided by his Spirit, it follows that prayer should form an integral part of our work.
It can be all too easy, however, for prayer to be squeezed out of our schedule when we are busy making practical preparations before supervisees arrive, concentrating on all sorts of agendas whilst doing supervision and writing up notes etc. afterwards. I have found it very helpful, therefore, to enter into active ‘prayer partnership’ with another person who will pray with and for me throughout the whole supervision process, bearing in mind confidentiality boundaries etc. It is also equally helpful to book time in advance in the diary to spend time quietly alone with God - and to guard that time at all costs!
A very important discipline for the supervisor is to commit time to study; firstly the Bible (2 Ti 3:16f) and secondly other fields (e.g. psychological/sociological) that could contribute helpfully to the supervisor’s skill and understanding (Dan 1:4,17). For those readers who might feel concerned about the idea of learning from secular disciplines, I find that the following hermeneutical (interpretive) principles provide a helpful guideline:
All truth is God’s truth.
Everything in the Bible is true.
Not everything that is true is in the Bible.
Anything that contradicts the Bible, properly interpreted, cannot be true.
My own interpretation of the Bible is fallible(!)
I have encountered a number of supervisors who have commented that, having spent time studying the Bible, they nevertheless struggle to bring together Biblical teaching with the issues they encounter in supervision and I often point them in the direction of two books: Foskett & Lyall - Helping the Helpers, 1988 and Green - Let’s do Theology, 1990. Other Christian books that can be of more general interest in this area are: Willows & Swinton - Spiritual Dimensions of Pastoral Care, 2000; Ballard (ed) - The Foundations of Pastoral Studies & Practical Theology, 1986; Ballard (ed) - Issues in Church-Related Community Work, 1990; Batten - The Non-Directive Approach, 1988.
The key secular texts that I keep on my bookshelf for reference, bearing in mind that not all of these are directly supervision-related are: Schein - Process Consultation Vol 1 & 2, 1987-8; Hughes & Pengelly - Staff Supervision in a Turbulent Environment, 1997; Hawkins & Shohet - Supervision in the Helping Professions, 1989; Lahad - Creative Supervision, 2000; Brown & Bourne - The Social Work Supervisor, 1996; Dryden & Feltham - Developing Counsellor Supervision, 1994; Gilbert & Evans – Psychotherapy Supervision, 2000; Egan - The Skilled Helper, 1994; Coulshed & Orme - Social Work Practice, 1998; Doel & Sawdon - The Essential Groupworker, 1999; Procter – Group Supervision, 2000; Whitaker - Using Groups to Help People, 1987. All of these texts, and others, should be available via local libraries or bookshops.
Other sources of useful reading are the Counselling & Psychotherapy Journal produced by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (0870 443 5252) which has, incidentally, recently printed a very helpful series dealing with different aspects of supervision, and other journals such as Contact: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Pastoral Studies which also include occasional articles dealing with different aspects of supervision. Practice-based manuals such as that produced by Thornicroft & O’Neill entitled The Impact Guide to Staff Supervision, 1999 are, too, well worth a glance, especially for supervisors new to this field.
A number of universities and colleges run supervision courses at introductory and/or qualifying levels (sometimes as a module of a wider course syllabus) and details can normally be found out by contacting local universities/colleges directly or by visiting their websites. The British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy produces its own Training and Counselling Directory available from its publications department and you may be able to reference this at your local library. The Association of Christian Counsellors publishes a list of training colleges on its website and may be able to provide specific details of which colleges are able to provide accredited training in counsellor supervision.
Finally, one of the most effective forms of on-going support for supervisors is, perhaps not surprisingly, supervision itself. Although it is sometimes difficult to find supervisors for supervisors, I have found that making active contact with people engaged in similar roles in different agencies/organisations has often proved very beneficial. Three principle forms of supervision seem to be most common among supervisors and these are: (a) 1-1 supervision from another supervisor, (b) peer-supervision (sometimes known as co-consulting) from another supervisor, where each takes turn to supervise the other or (c) group supervision (sometimes known as ‘action learning groups’) where a group of peers supervise one another and/or tackle issues together.
As a general rule, I find it helpful to make contact with other supervisors who, although representing different disciplines and professional backgrounds, nevertheless share a similar core values base. This provides opportunity for exploration, stimulation and challenge from diverse perspectives whilst preserving a sense of unity of purpose and mutual support. In my own supervision of supervisors, I establish similar terms of reference (that is, principles establishing the basis and boundaries of our work together) as I would with other supervisees but focus to a significant degree on the supervisor’s effectiveness as a reflective practitioner/role model as well as a casework-supervisor.
One of the areas under exploration currently in supervision is the possibility of providing certain forms of interactive support using technologies such as internet-based discussion groups, chat rooms, direct e-contact (e.g. email) and/or video-conferencing. There are numerous interpersonal and technical implications to these modes of working that have yet to be fully explored but, at the very least, there may be possibilities for providing a minimal level of support to isolated supervisors that have been hitherto logistically impossible.
In my own work, I am currently working out an arrangement by which I will provide supervisory support from the UK to a Christian colleague in New Zealand who is engaged in a role that makes the sharing of sensitive work-related issues with local colleagues very complex and difficult. If you have access to a PC with internet/email access, you too may find it interesting to experiment with peers to make your own evaluation of the costs/benefits of these new forms of communication that may well have a key role to play in the future (cf the rise of NHS Direct in the UK).
Questions for Reflection
The following questions are offered for reflection in light of the various issues raised in this article:
Are you committed to your own on-going development as a ‘learning supervisor’? If so, what methods are you using to support your development and are they effective? If not, what actions will you take to enhance your personal and professional development over the next 1-3 years?
Which of the areas described under ‘Common Difficulties’ can you relate to most in terms of your own supervision practice and what practical actions do you need to take to address them?
Are you connected with a supervisor or supervision group which provides you with an appropriate level of prayer support, encouragement, stimulation, challenge and accountability? If not, what do you need to do practically to increase your own level of support in these important areas?