Ministry supervision - one priest's experience
From the Annual National Conference of Diocesan Directors of Continuing Education of Clergy 2001.
I’VE ENTITLED THIS this little talk ‘Ministry Supervision—One Priest’s Experience’. Because that’s what it is—no more and no less than my experience of Ministry Supervision. I’m sure that there are many other models of Ministry Supervision besides mine.
My ministry supervision began following our annual Retreat with Br Patrick White in April 1999. During the Retreat, Patrick stressed the importance—the ‘necessity’ he called it—of firstly, Spiritual Direction, and secondly, Ministry Supervision. We were given a list of Spiritual Directors and people who would be suitable as Ministry Supervisors. This list had been prepared by the local House of Prayer staff. In our Diocese, although there is no formal training course in Ministry Supervision as such, people were suggested because of a background in parish ministry and leadership, and some formal training in spiritual direction, psychology or counseling or professional supervision.
So I decided to take the plunge, and contacted one of the Ministry Supervisors, whom I knew and had confidence in. Since then, I have met religiously with my Ministry Supervisor nearly every month for an hour or so. We meet in an interview room at the House of Prayer. The Parish readily agreed to pay the fee of thirty dollars an hour, as it was for my professional development. They saw the need for it!
Now, Ministry Supervision is not Spiritual Direction. It’s not about developing my relationship with God, or my faith life as such. I meet with my Spiritual Director once a month for that. Nor is ministry supervision counseling or problem-centered therapy.
Ministry Supervision for me has been about how I relate as a priest and as Terry, to the people in my day-to-day ministry—especially how I relate to parishioners, fellow priests, and diocesan personnel, including the Bishop.
Each session, I set the agenda. So, it’s about where I am at. I usually begin by describing in detail a significant personal experience (or experiences) in the past month. It may have been something that affirmed me or challenged me, or hurt me, or just puzzled me—a win or a disaster! (Actually I have learnt a lot more from my disasters than my successes!) But I have a greater appreciation of the good things and blessings in my ministry.
Then I reflect, firstly, on how I responded —not only what I said and did, but what I was feeling and thinking. And in this reflection, I often get an insight into why I responded as I did. This leads to a deeper understanding of myself and my behaviour. Then I ask myself: Are there better ways or even different ways of responding? For example, in threatening situations, I tend to either ‘fight or flight’. But I’ve learnt there is another way—‘flow’—Go with the flow.
• • •
Like the dragon who used to come out of the forest and breathe fire and burn down houses. At first the villagers were terrified and took flight. Then they called a meeting and decided to fight the dragon, and to kill him. But one villager said, ‘Let me speak with the dragon first. No one has ever done that.’ So, next time the dragon appeared, the villager went out and said, ‘Excuse me, dragon, but your fire breathing is very upsetting to us, and we can’t take it any longer.’ The dragon said, ‘Yes, I know that. But I can’t help myself. It’s my nature to breathe fire and burn things up.’ So, they put their heads together to discuss the problem, and they agreed on this arrangement: The dragon would come every Tuesday and Thursday to the town dump and burn the town garbage!
The villager didn’t try to convert the dragon or convince him to be good, but helped him to be more constructively who he is, since dragons not only love to breathe fire and burn things up, but also like to be admired and appreciated.
I used that example, because one of my biggest challenges has been how to respond constructively to threatening people and situations. Since reflecting on why I react as I do, I have been able to respond in a more constructive, Christ-like way to a number of particularly threatening situations that have arisen in my ministry over the past eighteen months. I have learnt to befriend my fear and anger, and to respond not just from my head, but from my heart as well. And, in the process, I have also learnt more about the value of my ministry, my priesthood, and the unique and valuable contribution I am making where I am.
Ministry Supervision has been for me an opportunity to debrief in a safe and professional environment. Being single and living on my own, I now realise that this debriefing was largely lacking in my life. And I was the poorer for it.
My experience with Ministry Supervision is that, with a little help from a ‘critical friend’, I have ‘improved my insight and deepened my perception, so that I can always try to recognise what is best.’ (Cf. Phil 1.9)
Since commencing Ministry Supervision, I have become much more centered – more aware of and confident in my own truth, and my basic priestly skills. And my awareness of what I am experiencing day-to-day in my ministry has been heightened.
So, for me, the experience of Ministry Supervision has been truly life-giving, and I would recommend it to anyone.
Terry Lyons is a priest of the Townsville Diocese, who was ordained in 1965, and has worked in parishes all his priestly life. He describes himself as a ‘common garden variety’ priest!