Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Community of Truth"

"A Community of Truth"


In Proverbs of Ashes:  Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, Rebecca Parker, addressing her own journey of healing, writes:

       I also had to find a community of truth.   When friends sent me to a

       support group for people struggling with their response to the 

       effects of alcohol on those they loved, I found a place of unmasked

       human presence.

       Because that group was one in which people didn't hide, I   

       began to learn not to hide.  It took a long time, but I gradually

       began to tell the truth about my life.  It was like learning

       to speak all over again.  The habits of hiding and denying

      were so old, I didn't know how to speak except in a way that

      was a kind of a lie.  I didn't know how to say, "I hurt.  I am afraid." 

      I only knew how to say,  "I'm fine.  Nothing is wrong.  Everything is great."

      (Brock and Parker, p. 214)


What is a "community of truth"?    According to Merriam-Webster a "community" is "a unified body of individuals", and "interacting population" with "a common characteristic or interest." (Merriam-Webster)  What would a community whose stated common characteristic is truth telling look like?  This is not, I think, truth with a capital "T", connoting an absolute certainty beyond the capacities of human finiteness.  According to Parker it is a community that does not require hiding and denying.  It demands a new language – or perhaps the reclaiming of an old, old language forgotten in the pull and tumble of human existence, a language that can express what is real inside and among us, our truths with a more modest lower case "t."  A "community of truth" needs listeners, those able to hear the hard, tragic , sharp, brutish edges of life and hold fast in community.   A "community of truth" requires a kind of mutuality born of an awareness of sharing in the human condition.   A "community of truth", I think, is based in the ancient art of story telling, in this case, our own tattered volume, including chapters of hurt, fear, anger, and grief.  A "community of truth" holds one another accountable in love.  A cheap love can embrace the "fine and great" and even a measure of woundedness.   A "community of truth" needs an expensive, extravagant love to encompass the hard, tragic, sharp, brutish edges of life as well as its joys and to remain vulnerable to hope and possibility.


What does this have to do with theological supervision?  That hinges on the goal of theological supervision.   I am not sure what exactly is meant by "training the next generation of leaders", a phrase we hear often enough, but it strikes me as timid.  What if, rather than settling for "training", we decided to risk mutual forming –perhaps trans-forming - by gathering and "practicing" being "communities of truth"?

In some ways this is easier than being the expert with "answers."  However, vulnerability does seem to be requisite - not unfettered disclosure - but a willingness to at times forthrightly "not know", to listen, to be as authentic as we can be at any given moment, to do our own hard, necessary, continual practice of  inner assessment.   There just may be more authority in this practice of authenticity than in having answers.


Come to think of it, in the Christian faith tradition, a "community of truth" sounds a lot like some descriptions of the "the Body of Christ."


Trudy Hawkins Stringer


Brock, Rita Nakashima., and Rebecca Ann. Parker. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. Boston: Beacon, 2001. Print.


"Community - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary." Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community>.



Trudy Hawkins Stringer
Assistant Professor of the Practice
Associate Director of Field Education
Vanderbilt University Divinity School
615 343 3962

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"Coaching" in Supervision

A recent article in The New Yorker (“Personal Best” by Atul Gawande) raised the very provocative question of whether or not all kinds of professionals might benefit from a personal coach.  The author, a very accomplished surgeon, described himself as being “at the top of his game” when he decided to experiment with this question.  Interestingly, it was a random encounter with a much younger tennis player who offered the author some tips on improving his serve, which prompted this vocational reflection.  

The entire article can be found here:
I will go ahead and spoil the ending by telling you that even a seasoned surgeon found it useful to invite a trusted colleague to observe his work and offer feedback about becoming even better at what he does!

While the work of personal coaches is often geared toward a particular challenge such as weight loss, improved athletic skills, better public speaking, etc., there is some wisdom in the practice of coaching that might be of use to those of us who supervise Divinity students in the mysterious process of coming to confidence and competence in daily practice.  Religious leadership is difficult to teach partly because  “jobs that involved the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master.”  (p. 44)

Often I think that I do too much of the talking when I am supervising a student.  This article offered some concrete techniques that help me quickly shift into listening mode, while still being attentive to important feedback that needs to be given.  After the student has engaged in some work of their own, instead of the supervisor immediately offering praise and possibly critique, experts from the world of coaching suggest a few simple and straightforward questions:
  • what worked?
  • what did not work as well as you would have liked?
  • What might you do differently next time?
  • What else did you notice?

What I like about these questions is that they ask the student to quickly get to the heart of the matter.  It gets them in the practice of reflecting on their own work, in the moment.  Part of the work of supervision is to be attentive to unhelpful dynamics, such as exaggerated self-criticism or self-praise, a tendency toward perfectionism, etc.  But the starting point for this work is what the student herself says about her work.

Sometimes a student’s reflection offers a natural segue for the supervisor to share practical wisdom.  “Others in this situation have done this or that.  Or: sometimes I have had success with this.  Saving this part of the conversation for later assures us hat we are offering advice that is needed and welcome, and speaks directly to the student’ situation.

I invite you to read the article for yourself and share your own comments and reflections about times you have coached or been coached.

--Viki Matson