Accompaniment in Ministry:

Supervision as Spiritual Formation [1]

Elizabeth Liebert, SNJM

Supervision can make or break an internship experience.
The quality of supervision can make the difference between
a devastating crisis or a salvific crisis with even
experienced ministers.

Journal of Supervision and
Training in Ministry, 18
(19967): 20-31. NB: Since
2007, this journal has been
renamed Reflective Practice:
Formation and Supervision in
These two statements suggest the power of the supervisory process. Because supervision has such potential for good or ill, it makes an immense difference how we envision the process and what each of the parties expects from the other and from their mutual interaction. This essay will invite the parties in supervision to a deep, and perhaps new, expectation of their time together.

In recent years, my colleagues in the Program for Christian Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary and I have been developing a theory and practice of supervision for spiritual directors in training. This particular venue for supervision has provided a rich source of learning with respect to supervision which we believe can enrich supervision for all ministries. It leads us to the following thesis: Supervision for ministry more deeply touches the one supervised if, in addition to analysis of the psychological and theological dynamics, the conversation between the supervisor and supervisee includes a shared experience of the Holy. When an experience of the Holy does occur, the supervisory relationship becomes a context for deep personal transformation, which in turn, affects all aspects of ministry and life.  In this paper I will offer an example from supervision, illustrate reasons for this thesis, and suggest some ways in which the supervisor may help the conversation attend more specifically to the presence and action of the Holy.

Tom Peterson is a chaplain at a tertiary care hospital with a large trauma center, for which he has primary responsibility. He has been in the position for about a year. He came with good preparation, a deep sense of call about his work, and an eagerness to undertake it. But this week, he is tired and dispirited. He opens: "I wonder if what I do realty matters. I pray with people and pretty often they die, and even when they don't they are transferred out to rehab as soon as they are stabilized. I so rarely see how my being there makes any difference. Is my prayer just mumbo jumbo?"

Excerpts from Tom's supervisory session will unfold alongside the development of the thesis.


Since there exist a variety supervision models, let me articulate the assumptions which ground the approach used here. First, the primary purpose of supervision is to assist the one seeking supervision in coming to greater clarity about his or her own dynamics, motivations, beliefs, skills, and commitments in order to strengthen his or her ministry in similar instances and settings. Supervision also provides a place of accountability and a check on the inevitable "blind spots" with which we are all affected.

Second, supervision focuses on the one being supervised and his or her dynamics and actions, not on the persons or situations that the supervisee is seeking to interpret. These "out of the room" persons only enter the conversation in order to illumine the supervisee's actions, motivations, desires. That is, the supervisee may develop particular skills, but such learning is not the primary focus of supervision. In order to keep the focus on the one seeking supervision, it is important to ask that supervisees state what issue they seek to explore within each supervisory session, and that this issue focus less on skill or on what to do in a particular situation and more on personal, communal or institutional dynamics. Thus, Tom follows up his opening remarks with "Today I really want to explore what I think is going on when, I pray."

Third, the "stuff” of supervision occurs in ordinary ministry settings, probed more deeply in the presence of a supervisor. Frequently the most fruitful supervisory material is that in which the supervisee experiences disjunction, struggle, failure, but also grace, elation, newly recognized "fit," energy and insight. In the language of discernment of spirits, both consolation and desolation are important experiences to dwell on for supervision. For supervision is, in fact, a particular moment of discernment. It is the minister's discernment of her or his ongoing growth in and response to the call of God into a particular ministry.

Finally, perhaps obvious but most important for the thesis, the Spirit of God is at work in the relationship, in the very connection between the people inside and outside the room. It does make a difference that supervision is a community of two or more; in that shared presence God may be found. Relationship is a powerful and privileged theater for the work of God.


In my experience, supervision of those preparing for ministry tends to alternate between two models, which I shall call the psychodynamic and the theological reflection models. The following sketches are admittedly general types; it is important to remember that there are practitioners of great skill adhering to each model, and that each model may lead to transformative insight.

The psychodynamic model, institutionalized in the early days of Clinical Pastoral Education, encourages a psychologized interpretation focused on the minister's unconscious resistances. The positive service this model offers is precisely in the arena of bringing the unconscious to consciousness in order that decisions may be made about a particular motivation or behavior. In Jungian language, the shadow operates whether or not we are aware of its existence. The limitation of this model comes from its strength: the theoretical ground on which it rests comes from a discipline which, by definition must be agnostic with respect to the faith dimension which grounds ministry.

The other model, which stresses theological reflection, has tended to grow up in seminary settings. The theological reflection generated might include everything from the most superficial use of theological themes and scripture lifted out of context and applied to the situation [2] to sophisticated and critical analysis characteristic of practical theology at its best. Its language and theoretical base come out of the same entity which calls the minister to serve. The weakness of the theological reflection model is that theological analysis and critique of the incident may allow the minister to remain at a safe intellectual distance from areas in which she or he might be being called to transformation.

I believe we need a model of supervision in ministry which, while it employs the real strengths of both the psychodynamic and theological reflection models, also invites one to articulate, consciously and specifically, the growing edge of one's own relationship with God. We might call such a model the spiritual formation model, but that would suggest that I am proposing a new model to replace the others. In fact, I am proposing that effective models, whether psychodynamic, theological or other, be enriched by including a collaborative openness to and indeed a search for the action of the Holy.

This commitment arises out of our supervision of spiritual directors in training. The faith of spiritual directors is always "on the line," being both challenged and encouraged by the faith of those they accompany in spiritual direction. This challenge and encouragement re‑appears in the supervision of their spiritual direction. We have asked ourselves what difference it makes that the issue of God's presence is always addressed, directly or indirectly, in the supervision of spiritual direction.

What we find is as simple as it is powerful: as the supervisor and one seeking supervision remember and re‑appropriate in the presence of the Holy Spirit the movements of this same Spirit, the Spirit frequently acts anew to transform the minister. When God touches us, everything is different, and we experience that difference in all areas of life at the same time. As the author of Colossians puts it: "When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory (Col. 3:4)."


In recent years, what is known variously as the pastoral circle, the Experience Cycle or the see‑judge‑act method which found such fertile ground in the Latin American liberation theologies has entered the mainstream of North American theological thinking. It has four steps, generally named insertion, social analysis, theological reflection, and pastoral action. This model can allow us a comprehensive view of supervision.

In the perspective I am proposing, however, I shall extend these four traditional movements somewhat. Insertion will focus not only on what happened, but on contemplative reflection on one's experience. This contemplative awareness informs and deepens the narration of what happened. The second movement will include openness to and awareness of the psychodynamics involved in the situation, as well as invite the social analysis so often missing from supervision.  Thus, this second step takes seriously the potential for transformation through all the social sciences.

In theological reflection, all this material is brought together with careful theological thinking. I propose that this step, in particular, be enriched with some form of the question "Where is God for me in ail of this?" As this question is answered either in the supervisory session or, over time, pastoral insight and action emerge organically. Experience reveals that the pastoral action which results from this prayerful process may be far simpler and at the same time, far more radical than either the one seeking supervision or the supervisor might expect.

The revised and extended model can be diagrammed as follows:


The first and third of these movements in particular warrant elaboration.  Spiritually formative supervision. begins by enriching one's insertion into the ministry event with contemplative awareness. However, contemplative awareness should not be seen as simply a new technique to be taught and inserted into the supervisory process. Rather, it involves an attitude of deep attention to all that the experience holds without interpreting it prematurely. The faith perspective we want to bring to our search holds that the hand of God may be found in the lived experience of real persons, ourselves and others. We notice, we describe, and we get the feel of the situation in the concrete. What is it like for us? And what is it like for the other? What happens to the system? Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting our experience with "a long, loving look at the real" [3] is the essence of this contemplative attention. This kind of being present to experience is not simple; it is a discipline of continually opening ourselves to the reality of our lives, and it is ultimately God's gift to us, not our own creation.

Tom has been meeting with his supervisor for most of the time that he has been working in the hospital. He had sought out supervision off the hospital site in addition to the case consultations provided through the pastoral care department because he had a hunch that the situations he would meet in his responsibility as chaplain for the trauma department would really challenge his skills. He had been surprised and delighted when it became evident that his supervisor was also interested in the moments of elation, the moments where it was clear that God was at work. He tuned his sensibilities for these moments and learned to relish and deepen the sense of God's grace and power through his ministry. Consequently, the hard moments were easier to share, and took on more of a sense of the inevitable ebb and flow of ministry, rather than major crisis events.

In preparing for his supervision sessions, Tom had formed the habit, at the suggestion of his supervisor, of writing out the incident which piqued his attention, but then he would set aside about thirty minutes to reflect on what he had written. He gave his imagination freedom to reconstruct the incident. He paid attention to where the greatest feeling seemed concentrated. He tried to name that feeling specifically, experience it deeply, but without putting a judgement on it at this point.

For today's session, Tom's written narrative briefly described being present when a small infant was rushed by helicopter from the scene of an auto accident, but was pronounced dead before the baby's parents could arrive in their respective ambulances. When he arrived for supervision, he was pretty clear about the helplessness and rage evoked by this incident. He had found himself spontaneously praying "Save me God! The waters are up to my neck‑and I am drowning! I just keep thinking what I would feel like if that were my child."

"Pretty overwhelming feeling isn't it? Sit some more with that feeling ...."

What meaning do we find in our deeply apprehended experience? This question leads us to the second movement, involving the transition from the anecdotal to the analytical. [4] In this step comes the hard work of following the threads of our inner responses to uncover possible resistances, unconscious baggage from former relationships, all the stuff of transference which can make its way so subtly into our present interactions. We also employ social analysis to probe the interrelationships of the persons and dynamics that together comprise this experience, noting causes, consequences, linkages, roles. Social analysis helps us put a larger frame around our first‑level experience. The work done in this step, whether psychoanalytical or social‑analytical, demands hard, clear thinking, and usually does not come at all easily. But it does help us discover the internal and external structures that maintain the status quo.

"I just keep thinking what I would feel like if that were my child."

"Pretty overwhelming feeling isn't it? Sit some more with that feeling .... What do you notice under the rage and helplessness?"

(Long pause) "I guess I'd feel like a failure as a parent if I couldn't keep my child safe ...but I know that no one can keep themselves or their children safe." (Sighs deeply).

"So the issue is bigger than just this child."

"Yes, this is just the latest of a string. I don't really know when I began to admit to myself that I'm not sure I believe that God can really touch someone when I pray. (Pauses) You know, part of my helplessness comes from all the stuff in the emergency room and the need for the doctors and nurses to work intensively with the patient. I wanted to just hold that child as its life slipped away, so that someone was there. But instead I had to pray from a distance. That exacerbates my sense that my prayer doesn't make any difference."

"You mean, if you could have been holding the child, it would somehow have made a difference, been more meaningful?"

“Yea .... "

Clearly the supervisor has several kinds of openings to follow here, including issues around how Tom's parenting and how the emergency room systems and protocols affect the ministry he is able to carry out. However, we will prescind from these analytical possibilities and investigate more deeply the next step in the pastoral circle.

The third movement is an effort to understand the deeply analyzed experience from the perspective of faith. It brings to bear the resources of Scripture, the living testimony of the saints who have preceded us, and it takes into consideration the prophetic statements of our denominations. Many effective methods of theological reflection exist. [5] But we also want to ask: What is the Word of God to the minister in this situation?

The term used for this step in the original version of the pastoral circle, "theological reflection," suggests that the primary operation is, once again, thinking: finding the Scriptural address to this situation, teasing out the underlying theological issue, bringing to bear the best thinking of the church. The trouble is, as sophisticated as that thinking may be‑and hopefully is‑it can be done without ever moving us internally.

The issue here may have to do with language, since different languages suggest different experiences. If we also pray the theological reflection, the outcome may be far more radical than if we simply think or discuss it. I had this distinction brought home to me graphically several years ago while teaching a seminar on discernment. Among the many historical and contemporary models which were presented, I offered the pastoral circle as a method for discerning systems and structures. I noted that I had shifted somewhat the language of theological reflection to include language of discernment and seeking God's call. To the process of intellectual dialogue, I added prayer and communal faith sharing, creating a qualitatively different experience than that evoked by traditional theological reflection. At that point a Jesuit student in the class literally burst out: "Oh! I get it! We Jesuits have been using this method for the last 20 years until we are sick of it, and nothing has changed any more than with any other method. But you are asking us to open ourselves at a far different level than simply analyzing. That revolutionizes the process!" Killen and DeBeer implicitly recognize the transformative power of prayed theological reflection and most of their theological reflection models have moments that open toward prayer. [6] However, since I am proposing that deep transformation comes through a shared experience of the Holy, then it follows that direct and explicit attention to what God might be desiring for the minister will invite such a shared experience.

What rationale suggests expanding theological reflection with this reverent attention to the action and call of God with the minister? At least four reasons come to mind. First, ministry is about facilitating the work of God in individuals, communities and society, so we want to note where God is at work in particular individuals, communities and society. How God calls the individual minister, revealed through moments of grace or of alienation in ministry, will be consonant with the way God desires to work in the broader community.

Second, the faith of the minister is the bedrock on which the ministry grows. Keeping this faith alive and connected to concrete acts of ministry is essential to fruitful ministry, let alone preventing burn‑out. Supervision should, at least periodically, touch this bedrock.

Third, clarity about, language for, and growth in the spirituality of the minister inevitably affects the outcome of ministry. A spirituality of ministry functions whether or not the minister is aware of it. Supervision can help make this spirituality explicit.

Finally, sharing the affective‑experiential relationship with God, as well as the rational‑conceptual thinking about God, supports the deep significance of the minister's relationship with God and grounds ministry in a faith context, its proper home.

"You mean, if you could have been holding the child, it somehow would have made a difference, been more meaningful?"

"Yea. Maybe the child would have sensed someone loving her‑it was a little girl, Katy. Instead all that happened was me saying these words‑presumably God heard them, but I doubt it made any difference to Katy."

"So a more general sense of meaninglessness around your prayer has come to a head with this situation of the way Katy died?" "Um‑hum..."

"Have you yourself ever had a sense of being down and out and yet experienced God's presence?"

(Pause, then thoughtfully) "Well, yes, actually there was this one time‑it was a good 15 years ago now. I was between college and seminary. At that point, I wasn't active much at all in church. I had gotten very sick with pneumonia. I was in bed for weeks. Sometime during that time, I found myself praying, and I felt like God physically touched me, as though God's hand was on me. I knew I was different, changed. I didn't get better right away, but I did get better. But I knew that God had touched me."

"Even as you tell this story 15 years later, I can sense the power it held for you."

(Pause) "You know, I felt God's touch. I prayed and God touched me. I wonder now that I had forgotten that moment, because it was so central then to my returning to church. I knew God had touched me ...."

"Could you trust that God could do the same for you now?"

"You know, I do know that God touches as a result of prayer‑it happened to me. But I forgot it."

"You forgot it."

"Yea. Too many cases like this. I'm just really tired of all this grimness."

"But when you took this call, you had quite a different sense..."

[As Tom recalls the sense with which he came to this position, he becomes visibly more touched, tearing up and finally crying openly.] "It was precisely because I knew that God touches people that I came, wasn't it? God touched me when I was sick, and I scarcely even believed at that point. "

"So, perhaps God could touch even an infant through your prayers?"

"Yea ...(pause) And I can think of a way to pray for little Katy even now. I will imagine her being held and cuddled instead of poked and prodded. God could do that, even when I couldn't ...."

Tom and his supervisor spend a few minutes at the end of the session reviewing some of the ways Tom can take care of himself during stressful times in his ministry. Since Tom had found himself spontaneously praying from Ps. 69‑an irony they both note‑Tom selects the closing verses from Ps. 70 to conclude their session: "Here I am, afflicted and poor. God, come quickly! You are my help and deliverer. You are Katy's help and deliverer. Lord, do not delay!"

The final movement of the pastoral circle is called, in the method's shorthand, pastoral action. Here is the moment of decision: In light of the situation and God's address, what should my or our response be? How to begin? How to sustain the response? As we live into our response, we reach a genuinely new situation, and the process may begin again.


There are, perhaps, as many questions as answers proposed in this essay. Let me treat several of the most obvious.

Must supervision cover thoroughly all movements of the pastoral circle? The pastoral circle serves merely as a heuristic device which allows us to unify rich and diverse ways of thinking about supervision. It is clearly impossible to cover all movements of the pastoral circle in each supervisory session. However, in the course of several months of supervision, each step of the pastoral circle might be visited in an in‑depth way. Although I have illustrated the "turn to the Holy" at the moment in which theological reflection is the primary focus, the mystery we call God may be discovered by "entering" through any moment. Nor will the movements of the pastoral circle necessarily occur in linear fashion; Tom began to uncover resistances after remembering and re‑experiencing an earlier moment of grace. Where the focus of a particular session lies will emerge from the delicate interplay between the desires and energy of the one seeking supervision and the perspective of the supervisor, who tends to respond to certain dynamics and not others. But the Holy can be discovered from any starting point.

This raises the possibility that the supervisor may subtly steer the supervision session toward one or other step of the pastoral circle. I assume that, indeed, the supervisor will steer the conversation toward that moment which the supervisor sees as important and toward interpretations with which the supervisor is comfortable. That assumption raises the issue of the supervision of the supervisor. In terms of the thesis of this essay, I believe that supervisors will studiously avoid any encounter with the Holy unless they themselves are comfortable with working in this arena. Spiritual direction for the supervisor will help develop this critical ability to be at home with manifestations of the God's presence.

How might a supervisory session move toward a focus on the Holy? There are a variety of questions that can allow the spiritually formative dimensions of supervision to move to the center of attention. For example, any of the following might be appropriate:


Did you bring this incident to prayer? What did you find yourself


ruminating about as you prayed over it?


Imagine God/Jesus/one of the prophets/a particular person from the tradition speaking to you now... What does this person say? What do you say?


How does this incident challenge your image of yourself before God? (or challenge your image of God?)


What would you like to say to God about what happened? What does it feel like to say it?


What, in this incident causes you to give thanks or praise to God? From what might you need to repent?


If you return to your sense of call (or to that earlier moment when you are sure God touched you) what do you notice now?

Must we, then, pray in the supervisory session? The answer to this question is, I believe, a matter both of the desire of the one seeking supervision and of the style of the supervisor, to be worked out in each supervisory relationship. I suggest, however, that in supervision for ministry, prayer is particularly appropriate.

What are the limits to supervision? Supervision, in this model as in others, is not the suitable venue for in‑depth personal work, whether therapeutic or spiritual. Once the dynamics have been noticed and named, the one seeking supervision can be encouraged to continue her or his personal work in prayer, journaling, therapy, or spiritual direction as appropriate. The supervisory session focuses on its particular contribution, namely, how is this dynamic affecting the ministry of the one seeking supervision?

Supervision of ministry offers unique and powerful occasions for allowing the central dynamic of ministry, the presence and action of God, to emerge and to directly impact the minister. No matter what model of supervision, it may potentially be extended to address this spiritually formative level. The power for transformation, personally, corporately and structurally, invites us to do so as a regular part of supervision.


[1] This essay has been considerably strengthened by conversations with Patricia Bulkley, of the staff of the Certificate in the Art of Spiritual Direction, San Francisco Theological Seminary.

[2] Patricia O'Connell Killen and John de Beer, Tile Art of Theological Reflection (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 52.

[3] Walter Burghardt, "Contemplation: A Long, Loving Look at the Real," Church (winter 1989): 14.

[4] J. Holland and P. Henriot, Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1988).

[5] See Killen and DeBeer, The Art of Theological Reflection, for examples.

[6] Ibid.

Elizabeth Liebert, SNJM is Professor of Spiritual Life and Director in the Program for Christian Spirituality, San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Francisco, CA.

Journal of Supervision and Training in Ministry 18:1997

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