Supervision at a distance

We are all grappling with life and ministry having changed dramatically with the advent of coronavirus and consequent social distancing.

It is in times of change and stress that the place of supervision comes into its own; at the same time one of the impacts on many of us is that we can no longer meet with our supervisor face to face. How have you continued supervision during this time? How do we make the most of supervision in these times, and especially how do we make sure that a transfer to distance digital or remote supervision is the same but different?

Some supervisors and supervisees have a wealth of experience with remote modes of supervision, which may be by phone or by a videoconferencing app. Others may be cautious about engaging without a true face to face encounter. I’ve enjoyed conversation with some experienced supervisors in WA this week to get advice on dealing with distance supervision.

The general functions of supervision are spoken of as normative, [trans]formative and restorative. Restorative is when we need to talk out a situation that we are dealing with, and are feeling tired, stressed, wounded, and battered.

Many ministers are feeling the ground shifting under their feet at the moment. The safe and supportive relationship of supervision helps us maintain our resilience. Formative or transformative supervision enables us to grow and develop our capacity in ministry, for instance deepening our capacity for self-reflection and the consequent learning, or our ability to deal with tricky political or emotional situations.

At the moment formative supervision may be about how we even do the tasks of ministry without the normal patterns of connection. Formative supervision may challenge us and disturb us, and open us to the risk and vulnerability of new growth.

The normative aspect of supervision makes sure that we continue to be safe and healthy and offer safe ministry. One of my conversation partners this week says he asks supervisees to keep a daily journal noting what they did and how they were feeling. Even by distance this gives a quick insight into how the person is travelling and flags matters for restorative and formative supervision.

For some of us, our supervisors have been journey partners for long periods in our ministry lives. For others of us, we have found that we have needed to change supervisors as we have moved, our ministries have changed, or we have needed a different kind of (transformative) input. Research around distance supervision recommends some initial face to face meeting or relationship building can be helpful before supervision heads to the cloud.

Supervisors in WA have reinforced that idea, with the feeling that because they already know people then they can continue to have effective supervision via phone or video conference. Research also indicates that supervision by phone or video is experienced as satisfactory and effective, with little difference whether it is experienced face to face or remotely.

However on the ground anecdotes also express the idea that intermittent face to face meetings help to deepen the relationship. (Deane p 14-15).

When things are changing you may need to move to a different kind of supervision: acknowledge that there is a change. Evaluate if meeting in a phone or online mode is going to work for you as supervisor or supervisee. Don’t just continue because this is what has been part of the agreement of the past. There are some concerns that are good to be aware of and so addressed as well as possible.

While video conferencing may superficially seem like a face to face encounter because we can see each other, there is of course no eye to eye contact in a video conference. We can look at the camera, or we can look at the image of the other on our screen. There is almost a feigning of a gaze which is not possible. In a sense then the technology can create an emotional gap even as it attempts to close a geographical one (Bowen).

Depending on the video set up we will see facial expressions, hear tone of voice, and maybe even other body language with all that conveys (some 85% of total communication). But the kind of mirroring and attunement of posture and language which gives energy to our face to face conversations, micro-facial expressions that we respond to without analysis, aren’t present.

There is of course always the possibility of distraction: to check email or browse the web.

There is some awkwardness, differences in the flow of communication to accommodate some of these difficulties, such as increased delays to signal turn-taking, which can make communication somewhat more stilted. So we need a higher degree of focus to tune in well to each other, which then becomes tiring.

Telephone supervision, where there is voice but no visual, is preferred by some supervisors and supervisees. A supervisor can focus on all the information that comes via tone of voice, and other verbal cues as well as what is actually said, and there is no distraction of a screen.

Supervision is enormously important in a time when we are maybe feeling like ministry is walking through mud. As one supervisor said: “it is important that people don’t think they can bluff their way through ministry or do it by themselves.

At some time they will run into a brick wall, get sick or have a break down.” I hope that if you have been cautious about picking up a new modality of interaction, you will take that step. I hope that your supervision would give you resilience and freshness to face the challenges of this time in ministry.

Thanks to Rev John Dihm, Rev John Tompkins, Rev Marie Wilson, Rev Geoff Lilburne, and Rev Dr David Ferguson.

Rev Dr Christine Sorensen
Presbytery Minister (Formation and Discipleship)

References:

  • Anderson, Eric,. Hoare, Kim,. Hughes, Marji and McCallister, DaVita D. 2011. “Internet Safety guidelines.” Reflective Practice 31: 112-116.
  • Bowen, Maria Tattu. 2011. “Response to John Mabry.” Reflective Practice 87-91.
  • Deane, F. P., Gonsalvez, C., Blackman, R. J., Saffioti, D. and Andresen, R. 2015. “Issues in the development of e-supervision in professional psychology: A review. .” Australian Psychologist, 50 (3): 241-247.
  • HIlsman, Gordon J, and Zollfrank, Angelika A,. 2011. “In Search of Theory and Criteria for the Practice of Distance-Supervision.” Reflective Practice 31: 92-106.
  • Mabry, John R,. 2011. “The Same? Not The Same? Online Spiritual Direction, Supervision, and Training.” Reflective Practice 78-86.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash.

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