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Friday, September 5, 2014

Tilling the Soil for Planting: The First Few Weeks of Supervising

Tilling the Soil for Planting: The First Few Weeks of Supervising
by Viki Matson

The first few weeks of a supervisory relationship are crucial to setting the tone for the remainder of the experience.  If you are like me, we tend to get impatient for the good stuff – those times when we can really dig deeply into questions of theology and practice –  when we feel like we are making a difference in the life of someone who is venturing onto a path that for us is well worn with time and love.

Even though it might feel like not much is happening in the early weeks, let me remind you of how central these weeks are, and perhaps remind you of some best practicesthat will get your supervisory relationship off to a good start.
 
First and most obviously, it is important to show up.  Signal to the student early on how important this time is, and keep your supervisory appointment.  Use these early weeks as an occasion to get acquainted with the student.  Using your best pastoral sensibilities, invite them to make themselves known to you.  Listen, listen, listen.  Ask artful questions.  Gently probe and prompt.  Begin to get a sense of your student’s personality, humor, stories, and keep track of the questions they are living with.  Find out the ways Divinity School is both deeply satisfying and deeply challenging.  Invite their trust, and demonstrate by your faithful presence and listening, that their trust in you is well placed.

I also find it helpful in these early weeks to do what we can to reduce anxiety.  Our pedagogical philosophy is that the best learning happens when students feel safe. Model for them a kind of supervision (there is an art to this) that communicates love more than judgment, conversation more than critique, and mutual growth more than an expert/novice relationship.  Let your time together be marked by a kind of sighing your way into a comfortable way of being together in which the threads of trust are gradually strengthened.

It can be appropriate, in these early weeks, especially, to let yourself be known.  Each supervisory relationship has its own character, and there are countless right ways to do it.  I would invite you to consider to what extent it would be appropriate, even helpful, to share something of yourself in this relationship.  Often these relationships have a quality of collegiality, an unexpected gift to be celebrated.  Being mindful of the power differential that is undoubtedly present, be wise and intentional about letting yourself be known.  Model self-awareness.

And finally, consider getting out of the office.  Take a walk.  Get a latte.  Meet for lunch.  These small efforts signal to the student that you place a high premium on this time.  They experience you acting in ways that tells them (as well as other folk) that this regular weekly time is important.

I think of these early weeks of supervision as rather like the early stages of planting a garden.  We might walk around the yard a time or two, sleuthing out the place that is just right.  We might pore over seed catalogs and even sketch out some rough draft plans.  We might begin to make sure we have all the tools we need for this work.  And of course we plant some seeds.  The fruits (and vegetables!0 we are sure to experience in the coming months would not be possible without this early work.

Enjoy!

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Inner Life: Self-Examination


Recently a student wrote these compelling words in a Case Study:

 The fact is that I could not control this thought that came into my mind, and that made me realize that this subconscious negative stigma of addiction is deeply ingrained in me, even when I can vocalize a standpoint that is contrary….I cannot change how I initially felt in the situation, but I can use those feelings to change how I act in the future.  (Lang, 2013, p. 4)

This student made a startling discovery.  Our biases, our prejudices, can go deep, so deep that they inhabit us beyond our conscious will, even when we “can vocalize a standpoint to the contrary.” (Lang, 2013, p. 4)  While this particular Case Study addresses bias against those with addictions, we can easily substitute negative stigmas of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, and the list goes on.   

Such encounters with the self can lead to the despair of “I’ll never be good enough”, or they can be opportunities to be real, to be transparent with one’s self and with the Holy.  Howard Thurman, in Meditations of the Heart, writes of the second possibility:

                      There is a great virtue in the cultivation of silence, and strength to be found in using it as a door to God.  Such a door opens within.  When I have quieted down, I must spend some time in self-examination in the Presence of God.  This is not facile admission of guilt for wrongs done or a too quick labeling of attitudes in negative terms.  But it does mean lifting up a part of one’s self and turning it over and over, viewing it from many angles and then holding it still as one waits for the movement of God’s spirit in judgment, in honesty and in understanding.   (Thurmond, 1981, p. 19)

              Silence – where do you find silence in your life?  In a Facebooked, Twittered, texted,
              e-mailed, Internetted, Instagrammed, flickred, cell phoned 24/7 culture, where do our
              students find silence?  Where do we find the silence to sit in self-examination with the
              Holy, so that we may feel “the movement of God’s spirit in judgment, in honesty and
              in understanding”?  (Thurmond, 1981, p. 19)    

             This student found that silence in engaging the case study methodology, in taking the
             experience out and looking at it “from many angles and holding it still as one waits…”
                    (Thurmond, 1981, p.19)
            
             I would love to hear from you.  How do you cultivate silence?  How do you encourage
             your students in the ways of silence? 

                    Trudy Hawkins Stringer
             Lang, L. (2013)  Subconscious Stigma.  Unpublished Case Study.


         Thurman, H.  (1981)  Meditations of the Heart.  Boston, MA:  Beacon Press

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Importance of "I don't know" in Theological Supervision

 
Four small groups of new supervisors for Theological Field Education filled the room.  Training day had arrived.  They wrestled with a sample Case Study and discussed how to best engage a student in theological conversation.  From the group in the right hand front corner, a voice spoke out,  “How do we know when to share our own experience with the student?”

Perhaps my response was more truthful than immediately helpful in answering a really good question.  We can’t know for sure.  Navigating a Case Study conversation requires, as Rilke wrote, “living the question.”1  This advise applies equally to students and supervisors.  Embrace your questions.  Enter each conversation in the spirit of mutual exploration.  Decide to risk saying,  “I don’t know.”  In doing so you give your student powerful permission to “not know”, too.  Creativity often has more space to move when we open spaces of “I don’t know.”

Listen deeply.  Lead with the interrogative rather than the declarative

Risk vulnerability.  Students learn more from experiences where we messed up than ones where we got everything right.  We give them permission to mess up and learn from “mis – takes.”  Isn’t it brilliant that movie production has a process for this with language of “Take 1” Take 2” Take 3”….and that big hinged sign that snaps shut to indicate “try again.”

Interrogate the urge to correct or chastise the student.  There is a good chance that some button of ours is being pushed.  This is usually a “stop sign” indicating that we are needful of engaging in another round of our own inner assessment. 

Explore your theological framing for supervision – why are we doing what we are doing?  For me, teaching, supervising, preaching, mentoring – all are about relationship, a theological claim about who we are. It is a theological anthropology of the interconnectedness of being itself.  In Christianity, Trinitarian theology suggests this elemental connectedness. In southern Africa the Xhosa and Zulu languages have a word, “ubuntu”, variously translated as, “I am because you are” and “I am human because I belong.”  Below is a link to a video that speaks more eloquently than I ever can:

With gratitude to all who choose to offer themselves in supervisory relationship,

Trudy Hawkins Stringer


  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Conversations Around Case Studies: Making Space for Theological Reflection

At a recent training session for new supervisors, someone asked a very provocative question about reflecting on case studies with our students.  She asked, “I’ve read the case study, the student is meeting me in a few minutes to talk about the case study, how do I open up conversation?”

Writing a thoughtful case requires a certain amount of transparency and vulnerability on the part of the writer.  Honesty about one’s emotional landscape, one’s (dis)comfort with various aspects of the pastoral role, as well as one’s most cherished beliefs and values is key to gaining insight. 
Therefore, an important dimension in reflecting on a case together is to comment (at some point in the conversation) about the degree to which the student was successful in doing this.  If the case study reflected a high degree of self-awareness and transparency, affirm this.  If the case study felt thin, or guarded, or trivial, it is important to find ways to say that, as well.  It is sometimes necessary to remind the student that this kind of learning does not always feel safe, and maybe even ask them if there are things we need to put in place during this Field Ed experience that can increase their sense of safety.  (The importance of this spans far beyond the Field Ed experience.  Religious leadership of any sort requires the capacity to be honest about one’s inner life.)

One of the primary agendas of these supervisory sessions around case studies is to begin to tease out the theological questions that the student is encountering and to help them begin to clarify their own values and beliefs around the question.  Some supervisors open up these kinds of conversations by having the pair (student and supervisor) brainstorm together about all of the theological issues that are present in this case.  This list-making, in itself, can be a teaching moment as students come to see how the ordinary dilemmas that are the stuff of ministry can be richly layered and nuanced with theological questions and intersections.  Once a good list is established, the supervisor might ask the student to name one or two of the items on the list that are most pressing for them.  Then jump in.  “How has your mind changed?”  “Where are you stuck?”  “What claims can you make?”  “What do you have difficulty claiming?”

Another supervisor suggested that in order to make these conversations more mutual, they have started a practice of each person (student and supervisor) choosing one theological issue raised by the case to explore in deeper discussion.  This way the student can see that the work of reflecting theologically is a lifelong process, one that continues long after Divinity School.  In this model we become theologians together, trying to make faith sense of the dilemma the student has presented.

I also think it’s helpful to let the conversation extend beyond the supervisory hour.  As we come across things (articles, blogs, poetry, books) that address the questions we talked about when we were together, we would do well to share them generously.  Invite students to do the same.  Put lots of stuff in the pot and let it simmer.  Return to it every now and then to see how it’s shaping up.

The more we can enter into the theological streams in which our students live and move, the more this process itself will remind us that theology is never really a finished product, but more an organic and vibrant process, requiring the best of our intellect and imagination.

What wisdom would you add?

--Viki Matson




Monday, September 17, 2012

Creativity and Theological Field Education Supervision

Creativity and Theological Field Education Supervision

We gathered two, three, five then seven women on a perfectly beautiful Saturday morning, seven sane women giving over a perfectly beautiful Saturday morning to Name Game, Dr, Know-It-All, Peeves and Rants - all manner of jumping, shouting, laughing, ridiculous [from and "adult" perspective] games.  On a perfectly beautiful Saturday morning seven sane women played games for three hours.  Why did we play games for three hours on a perfectly beautiful Saturday morning, you might ask - [beware - here comes the paradox] - because we had work to do.   We had important work to do, official work to do, pressing work to do.  We had to design a program and devise an implementation strategy, including time line - now.  So for three hours we played together.  Then we broke bread together.  Then, and only then, did we begin to work on our project.

Creativity shakes up our linear thinking, creativity encourages us to connect, creativity call us to knowing in ways that engage multiple senses and intelligences.  Creativity is integrative.

"But I am not creative!"  Yes, I hear the wail from here.  Have you wondered why children don't regularly proclaim, "I am not creative!"?  Because children have not been thoroughly starched, pressed and folded into the uniform box shape of adulthood.  The good new is that starch and folds can be washed right out - go play in the rain for five minutes, seriously.  You will be amazed.  I do not paint, sculpt, dance, act, or sing (I was the only student invited not to join the high school chorus), and yet I am discovering creativity.

What in the world does this have to do with theological field education - the serious business of preparing the next generation of religious leaders?  First of all, at its best, this work in not business but art and craft, knowledge and openness, planning and improvisation. The Free Online Dictionary declares that "inspire" and "breathe" have common Indo-European roots.  Found in the Hebrew Bible "ruach" means variously breath, wind, spirit.  Is it possible that creativity and Spirit are kindred? Is it possible that clearing space and time for Spirit is necessary to to enter the holy stream of the ongoing work of creating?

But what about those seven sane women and our irresponsible playing when we had Important Work To Be Done?  By 3:00pm on that perfectly beautiful Saturday, we had collaboratively created an innovative program, implementation plan, and time line - with an hour to spare.  In the midst we discovered joy in community.   Joy in community, innovative common work, inspiration, permission to breathe, Spirit space - and a most important piece - permission to mess up, look silly and learn from what "adults" usually hide in shame.  Might this be what life-giving religious leadership is all about?

"Creativity is contagious, pass it on" – Albert Einstein
Trudy Hawkins Stringer



Friday, August 31, 2012

Tilling the Soil for Planting: The First Few Weeks of Supervising
by Viki Matson

The first few weeks of a supervisory relationship are crucial to setting the tone for the remainder of the experience.  If you are like me, we tend to get impatient for the good stuff – those times when we can really dig deeply into questions of theology and practice –  when we feel like we are making a difference in the life of someone who is venturing onto a path that for us is well worn with time and love.

Even though it might feel like not much is happening in the early weeks, let me remind you of how central these weeks are, and perhaps remind you of some best practices that will get your supervisory relationship off to a good start.
 
First and most obviously, it is important to show up.  Signal to the student early on how important this time is, and keep your supervisory appointment.  Use these early weeks as an occasion to get acquainted with the student.  Using your best pastoral sensibilities, invite them to make themselves known to you.  Listen, listen, listen.  Ask artful questions.  Gently probe and prompt.  Begin to get a sense of your student’s personality, humor, stories, and keep track of the questions they are living with.  Find out the ways Divinity School is both deeply satisfying and deeply challenging.  Invite their trust, and demonstrate by your faithful presence and listening, that their trust in you is well placed.

I also find it helpful in these early weeks to do what we can to reduce anxiety.  Our pedagogical philosophy is that the best learning happens when students feel safe.  Model for them a kind of supervision (there is an art to this) that communicates love more than judgment, conversation more than critique, and mutual growth more than an expert/novice relationship.  Let your time together be marked by a kind of sighing your way into a comfortable way of being together in which the threads of trust are gradually strengthened.

It can be appropriate, in these early weeks, especially, to let yourself be known.  Each supervisory relationship has its own character, and there are countless right ways to do it.  I would invite you to consider to what extent it would be appropriate, even helpful, to share something of yourself in this relationship.  Often these relationships have a quality of collegiality, an unexpected gift to be celebrated.  Being mindful of the power differential that is undoubtedly present, be wise and intentional about letting yourself be known.  Model self-awareness.

And finally, consider getting out of the office.  Take a walk.  Get a latte.  Meet for lunch.  These small efforts signal to the student that you place a high premium on this time.  They experience you acting in ways that tells them (as well as other folk) that this regular weekly time is important.

I think of these early weeks of supervision as rather like the early stages of planting a garden.  We might walk around the yard a time or two, sleuthing out the place that is just right.  We might pore over seed catalogs and even sketch out some rough draft plans.  We might begin to make sure we have all the tools we need for this work.  And of course we plant some seeds.  The fruits (and vegetables!0 we are sure to experience in the coming months would not be possible without this early work.

Enjoy!

 

 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

THE "F" WORD IN THEOLOGICAL FIELD EDUCATION SUPERVISION

The "F" Word in Theological Field Education Supervision

 

 

"I don't have time*!"  "I can't find the time!"  "They** won't give me time!"  How many times have we heard – and said - the same thing?  As mid-term approaches, I hear this Greek chorus in the halls of the academy.   In my recent conversations, this mysteriously missing time is time for attention to life of/with/in Spirit – time for the "F" word, formation, spiritual formation - life forming of/with/in Spirit.  I call this missing time the tyranny of "when" – "when I finish the semester" – "when I turn in my senior project" -  "when I graduate" – "when I develop this new course" – "when I finish this book" – "when I get through Advent" – "when Easter is over" – you get the idea.  We all do it.  Futurity will provide the elusive missing time.  Except that it won't, can't.

 

Dictionary.reference.com defines the "F" word as "the act or process of forming or the state of being formed." (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/formation)  This tidy definition points to tensions inherent in "practicing spiritual formation."  Is formation the "act or process of forming?  Or is formation the "state of being formed"?   Well, yes – and no – and it depends.  Look closely at the definitions.  Remember active and passive voices from old school English grammar?  "The act or process of forming" situates agency within.  "The state of being formed" locates agency externally.

 

Theories of the social construction of self suggest that we are continually participating in the forming of our larger culture, as we are simultaneously being formed by that culture.  Formation is dynamic.  It is neither exclusively active nor passive but an integration that refuses binary definitions.  It is process; it happens in self in community. Spiritual formation happens whether we attend to it or not.  Without attention this formation can become malformation that leaves us still searching for that mysterious missing time.

 

What does this mean for supervision in theological field education?  Well, as the movie title goes, "It's complicated."  Intentional spiritual formation is not a set of practices or disciplines that we can give to a student to enact.  It is not direction that we can give another to follow. Neither is intentional spiritual formation something best unmentioned and left to the student's own devises (It seems that culturally we have tried that with human sexuality to less than salutary results.)  I suggest that spiritual formation is relational, intentional, mutual engagement of/with/in Spirit.  Intentional spiritual formation requires the courage to risk engaging that which "blows where it will."   Intentional spiritual formation requires self-aware vulnerability.  It requires transparency and honesty – with ourselves and with one another.  Intentional spiritual formation has no hierarchy of "experts" but is a democracy of journeyers.  It is not just students who are challenged by Rilke's advice to:

 

Be patient with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.                   Rainer Maria Rilke

 

 

Intentional spiritual formation invites us to "STOP in the name of love" (a nod to Diana Ross and the Supremes), to listen for Spirit in and among us.  To stop "buying, finding, saving, spending, giving, losing" time, to refuse time – and life – as a commodity and to engage it as gift, a gift of love from a God who is Love.

 

This understanding of "spiritual formation" may well open itself to charges of not being rigorous enough, demanding enough, even sacrificial enough.  My experience is (yes, I am appealing to a particular epistemology) that life provides plenty of rigor, opportunities for sacrifice, and demands.   Only in learning the practices of loving are we equipped to live into the fullness of our creatureliness within creation, to be life-giving.

 

So, what are we to do about spiritual formation as supervisors of students of practicing theology?  STOP, breathe, listen, risk transparency, live our questions, love every day with intention.  Practice these actions in relationship with our students.  Sleep.  Begin again.

 

Trudy Hawkins Stringer

 

 

 

*Time - noun) Middle English; Old English tīma;  cognate with Old Norse tīmi;  (v.) Middle English timen  to arrange a time, derivative of the noun; akin to tide1     http://dictionary.reference.com 

 

**My high school English teacher, Corrine St. Clair King Guild, referred to this usage as "the old, indefinite 'they'."