Supervision: Finding grace under pressure

Supervision: Finding grace under pressure

By Sister Helen Cahill O.P.

FOR 15 YEARS I have been companioning vocation and formation directors in supervision, and it continues to be a joy in my life. Supervision provides me with insights into religious life that confirm my strong conviction that God is doing a new thing that will move religious life forward into the 21st century. A surprise is on the horizon! At the same time sometimes I know more about what is going on in the initial stages of religious life than I care to. With many others I believe that U.S. religious life as it has existed for the last 60 years is a thing of the past. We must now pay attention to the horizon. We can make changes in our lives and in the structures of religious life to create space for God’s creative work. 

Notes on the nature of vocation ministry today

1. Vocation directors have one of the most significant and demanding ministries in the church. 

Because religious are less visible than they used to be, religious life is not in the consciousness of young adults as they dream about their future. Often the vocation director is the first sister, brother, or priest that many laity meet. The vocation director embodies what it means to live a vowed life, and he or she invites young adults to consider religious life when choosing a vocation. Directors have the privilege of engaging inquirers and applicants in a process of discernment. They honor the sacredness of the person’s journey and, at the same time, the processes of the congregation for admission. Functioning as coach, they walk the person through the required application materials. 

2. Directors need to be intentional about keeping their focus on the discernment process.

It’s important to maintain this focus so that the paperwork of the admissions process does not derail a true vocational discernment. Discernment should begin with the director and then continue with the admissions committee. Of particular concern to both is understanding the person’s attraction to religious life. Is God the attraction? Do they desire to give themselves in the service of the people of God? 

3. Vocation directors and admissions committees have a holy and shared interest. 

That shared interest is to present people interested in religious life to the congregation for admittance. For this reason directors and committees should enjoy a strong professional relationship. The director should present an interested person to the admissions committee only when he or she is confident the applicant can live life fully as a vowed religious. Likewise the committee should feel the same before presenting the person to the congregation. This confidence allows for an immediate focus on nurturing the vocation of the applicant; in contrast to always testing it.

It is an injustice for directors and committee members to keep encouraging an applicant even though red flags are evident. A belief that everyone should be given a chance often takes priority over good common sense. It is not fair to encourage people when they present evidence that religious life is not for them. The results of such encouragement can be unhealthy for both the congregation and the new member. 

In the end everyone pays a price! Pope Francis has advised communities many times not to sacrifice quality for quantity. A guiding principle is to not admit unless there are specific signs of a vocation. The admissions process, the discernment process, the paperwork, and the quality of relationships provide the evidence. The work of the admissions committee is to either confirm the director’s findings or come to a different conclusion.

4.  A particularly challenging aspect of the ministry can be a lack of new members. 

When this is the case, directors often have to give themselves to a ministry that provides little satisfaction. A tremendous spiritual depth is needed for the directors to maintain a healthy reason for doing their ministry—God’s call. To persevere in vocation ministry, directors have to be open to the transforming power of God in their own lives. This openness to God is what keeps discouragement and boredom at bay.

Last summer, when Sister Marcia Allen, C.S.J. addressed the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), she looked honestly at the struggle she faced as she prepared her presentation. How could LCWR move forward into the future when the overall numbers of women (and men) religious are decreasing at an alarming speed? She raised the question: who is going to be there to go forward? 

[Editor’s note: Men and women do continue to be called to religious life. According to data from the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate, 216 men and women entered religious life in 2016, an increase over the number in 2015. However the overall number of U.S. religious is decreasing because of the large number of elderly religious who have died or are near the end of their lives.]

If truth be told, most religious and especially vocation directors, face the same dilemma as Sister Marcia Allen. Facing this question within themselves will enable vocation directors to be real with discerners about the current demographic reality. Even though the latter “know” this before they enter, it is very different for them when they actually begin living the life. The aging populations of religious communities and the small number of new entrants have generated a strong sense of insecurity, instability, and vulnerability among many members. These days new members typically have little or no peer support in their local community settings since professed members are, generally speaking, old enough to be their grandmothers or grandfathers. 

This situation raises an ethical question in some communities: should congregations that have not had anyone take final vows in the past 20 or 30 years be admitting new members? Some congregations recognize the seriousness of this situation and have courageously decided to bring their communities to completion by not admitting new members. Others continue. (See “A new springtime in vocation ministry” on page 25.)

It is beyond the scope of this article to look at the internal and external pressures that have resulted in communities with few persisting new members. However, it is the position of the National Religious Vocation Conference (this journal’s publisher) that God continues to call people to religious life, and that religious life remains a viable life option and gift to the church; a major demographic shift is underway, but the way of life continues to hold great value.

5. The director has to have assurance from the leadership team that once a person is admitted, a healthy local community will be able welcome the person. 

Such a community must both welcome and nurture the new person’s vocation. Dysfunctional behavior among professed members in a community can make it difficult to provide healthy living situations for newcomers. It has broken my heart to hear new members say, “I didn’t expect community living to be easy but I never expected this [dysfunctional behavior].” A lack of healthy community can create an ethical dilemma for vocation directors.

6. The current stages of formation, which basically have not changed in 50 or 60 years, need to be rethought. 

Members entering religious life today have very different histories and approaches to life than in the past. To mention a few: some come with very rich experiences that members of the community have never experienced; others have little faith formation; some speak languages foreign to most members; some enter having lived many years with a high degree of independence, e.g. having owned homes, cars, etc. Others come with family of origin concerns that require therapy.

Each community needs to ask, “Are we shoehorning people into traditional structures rather than creating formation structures to meet the needs of those entering today?” We need to question if the traditional two or three years in formation under current structures are sufficient to prepare new members for first vows with a certain amount of freedom. The rethinking and restructuring of formation needs to begin with conversations that will spark creative ideas. Vocation directors must be intimately involved in these discussions. 

Supervision can enrich

Having offered some thoughts on the current context for vocation ministry, let us now look at how supervision can be a helpful tool in coping with the demands of this context. Let’s look first at an example of how supervision can help provides perspective and insight to the minister.

Vocation director Bill is in contact with a man interested in exploring the possibility of religious life. They meet regularly to discern his call. The vocation director shares with his supervision group that he is aware that he does not like the man. The last time he was supposed to meet him, Bill canceled the meeting under the guise of not feeling well.

When Bill presents at supervision, he tells the group what is happening. As the conversation proceeds, Bill realizes that the man he doesn’t like is just like his father, who did not like Bill. By naming the source of his resistance and by committing himself to work with his own issues, Bill realizes that he is now much freer to meet with the man and keep his own personal issues out of the way.

Being human, we all have unresolved issues, internal blocks and internal lacks of freedom that hinder the flow of God’s grace and affect our relationships. An operative principle in supervision is the premise that when vocation directors share their reactions in a supervision group as Bill did, then the director will be freer to compassionately be with other people. Relationships ordinarily become easier as we are more and more in touch with ourselves. Supervision is a safe place for vocation directors to explore their feelings about the ministry and their emotional response to potential new members. 

It is my position that everyone in the public ministry of the church has an ethical responsibility to be in supervision or, at a minimum, to be in conversation with someone who will listen to them and help them sort out how they are responding to their ministerial responsibilities. This applies also to vocation directors who need to be companioned as they companion others. Discerning a life call with young adults is an awesome responsibility that requires, as we see above, the directors’ attention on many levels. When vocation directors come to supervision, they bring up any situations in their ministry that are difficult for them to handle. This includes relationships with any of the publics they engage with, including but not limited to their leadership team, the persons seeking religious life, members of their community, and so forth.

Supervision is a graced opportunity with a goal of growth in self awareness and interior freedom. Although participants experience support and companionship in what can be a lonely experience, supervision is much more than that. Supervision is intended to focus on the experience of the minister, with special attention to his or her interior movements of the heart. The process asks what is going on in the minister as he or she works with those interested in religious life.

In a supervision session I was part of recently, a director shared with the group her sadness and discouragement. In the past month, a woman who was ready to begin the admissions process informed the director that she was backing out. A boyfriend from the past had re-emerged. A second person called to say she decided against religious life. Finally, aware of her loneliness in the ministry, she was in touch with the fact that no one in the community had contacted her to suggest anyone who may be interested in the life. What is the point of her ministry she wondered. It felt like a waste of time. 

In the course of the session the director learned that others in the group had shared her experience and were living with similar concerns. The group was able to be compassionately present to each other and to talk through what was happening interiorly for each them. The process helped those involved to know themselves more deeply and strengthen their spiritual and psychological foundation for this ministry. 

Meetings must be a priority

The directors I companion in supervision are busy people, and yet they are faithful to meetings. It is a priority for them, or they wouldn’t bother to attend. Just the other day one of the men who has been attending sessions for five years said, “I wouldn’t miss these meetings for anything (and he doesn’t). I travel two hours to get here, but let me tell you I would come from Mars!”

Directors need to attend to what it is like for them to companion others and what it is like for them in their particular ministry. For example: are they excited, happy, bored, anxious, angry, or maybe out of touch with their own feelings? Common reactions that directors experience may be: attraction (sexually or otherwise) to the person in discernment; or they may not like the person, even dread seeing them. Lacking confidence in themselves directors may be afraid to get into certain issues and therefore not bring them up. 

Supervision as described here is different from supervision in the workplace, and it is distinct, too, from consultation. The former, an experience of accountability to a superior on the job, often focuses on performance and what is or is not working. The latter, consultation, is a “how to” experience: “Help me. I don’t know what to do with this situation.” The form of supervision I advocate for vocation directors focuses on the internal experience of the person seeking supervision.

Supervision can be done one-on-one or in a group. In my experience groups need good leadership to be effective and to endure. The ideal situation is to have a professional person who is not necessarily in vocation work to lead the group. Unless there are people in the group who grasp what supervision is and have the ability to exercise leadership, a group without a professional outside leader will not survive. 

When people go to supervision, it is important that they be honest and open for supervision to be effective. Participants put themselves in a vulnerable position when they share in this manner. One cannot predict where the conversation will go. Supervision requires trust, which grows over time. For trust to grow among the participants, confidentiality is a must. What happens in the group stays in the group. No one is ever free to tell another person’s story to anyone. (The stories in this article are composites, not narratives lifted from actual sessions.)

The focus of the group is the experience of the person presenting. Peer supervision is a process of staying with a person in an attitude of reverence and respect. The group is not judgmental and makes every effort to refrain from analysis, assumptions, or interpretations. The latter must always be checked out.

The group must be clear about boundaries and not get into counseling or therapy. For example, it would not be appropriate for the group to explore with Bill the issues that he had with his father. Supervision enabled him to get in touch with the reason he disliked the applicant. Bill may need therapy to continue his inner work, especially his relationship with his father.

Getting started in supervision

As I understand it, the network among vocation ministers is quite strong. A beginning point to start a supervision group would be to inquire whether others are interested in forming a group. If so, they would have to discuss their understandings of peer supervision and establish some ground rules for their particular group. They may want to do some common reading to facilitate their conversation. Depending on their experience, group members may decide to avail themselves of professionals to at least get them started. These professionals might include spiritual directors, formation personnel, or others in the helping professions who are experienced with this type of supervision.

Opportunities for supervision are not always available, especially in regions with scarce resources. Zoom, Skype, Facetime and other communications technology may be helpful options. If these are not possible, finding a person who can act as a coach is another viable alternative. Although a coach may not have the expertise of a professionally trained person, she or he can be a strong support simply by listening. We know from experience that when we articulate what is going on in us, we can sometimes be surprised by what we say. We then ask ourselves, “Where did that come from?” A coach can also assist the director in sorting out the dynamics of the relationships involved, that is, which concerns belong to the director and which belong to the discerner. If the director agrees, a coach may suggest behavioral changes to help the relationships. 

In whatever form supervision is available, it is not uncommon for vocation directors to resist it, claiming they don’t need it. Sometimes this response, especially in women’s communities, arises from the fact that they are not in relationship with any potential new members. Even so they work at making religious life known to young adults and, as noted above, vocation directors have struggles particular to them. What is it like for them to entertain questions about what they are doing with their lives? What is it like to be in a ministry with few signs of success? Vocation directors are not strangers to disappointment! “Numbers are not important” is often repeated in circles of women and men religious, but how true is that? Vocation directors frequently field the question, “How many do you have?” Such questions can put burdensome pressure on directors. What they need to understand is that supervision is a safe place to process their experience—whether or not they are relating to discerners. When directors do not go to supervision they run the risk of isolating themselves from peers. 

In my years of accompanying vocation directors in supervision, I have found the process a graced and necessary place for soul work.     

Related HORIZON articles

“Supervision and consultation: the vocation minister meets the mirror,” by Sister Cindy Kaye, R.S.M., p. 20,  Spring 2009.

“Peer supervision: path to self-awareness in vocation ministry,” HORIZON interviews Sister Helen Cahill, O.P., p. 19, Fall 2001.

Sister Helen Cahill, O.P., a Dominican Sister of Peace, currently serves as a spiritual director on the staff of Claret Center in Chicago. For at least 15 years she has led supervision groups for vocation and formation directors. She holds a doctor of ministry from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago where she is also an adjunct faculty member.

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