Supervision Myth Busters

by Susan Beaumont

Pastors generally do not enter ministry with a strong desire to supervise the work of others. For many, supervision is a necessary job, a burden to be tolerated on the way to the good stuff. If you are struggling in your role as supervisor, you may be harboring false assumptions about supervision—myths that get in the way of a healthy supervisory approach.

Examining these myths and replacing them with more truthful assumptions is the first step in developing an effective supervisory style. The act of supervision becomes easier, and a more natural expression of your authentic personality, when you begin with the right assumptions.

Myth #1: Pastors don’t make good supervisors. Pastors are just too compassionate to invite accountability. And, a pastor needs to tend to the spiritual well-being of the congregation. Serving as supervisor, especially when you need to discipline or terminate an employee, diminishes the pastoral and spiritual presence of a leader.

The Truth: Supervision is a learned skill set. Pastors can master this skill set as well as anyone. Being clear with people about the performance standards against which they are being evaluated is inherently compassionate and ethical. Providing ongoing feedback, in the spirit of transparency, strengthens all covenantal relationships within the community. Congregants respect a pastor who demonstrates mastery of a variety of roles.

Myth #2: If I could just get the right people on my team, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time supervising them.

The Truth: Good supervision requires an ongoing investment of time. It’s not something that you “get out of the way” so that you can get back to the real work of ministry. Supervision is ministry.

Supervision is performance management, not people management. Supervision is NOT about making poor performers do better. Supervision IS about aligning the resources and energy of each staff member in pursuit of a common goal or mission. This requires time invested in clarifying expectations, providing ongoing feedback, and aligning the energies of all your workers. Supervision is not simply cajoling your underperformers to step it up. Our best workers should receive at least as much attention, if not more attention, than our problem employees.

If you supervise five or six people, then you will spend about one third of your time on the task of supervision. You have a choice. You can either spend that time putting out the fires and chaos caused by underperformance, or poorly supervised staff members; or you can spend that time proactively setting up a performance management system to align the collective energies of the staff team. Either way, you WILL spend about a third of your time on supervision.

Myth #3: It is just too late to introduce accountability. I inherited this problem from my predecessor. There isn’t anything that I can do to fix the problem now. The employee has too much support from a problematic membership group. I just have to wait it out, until they retire or quit.

The Truth:It is never too late to invite accountability into an employment relationship. Righting an employment relationship begins with clarifying expectations through a job description, and then providing ongoing feedback. You can openly acknowledge that you haven’t been doing a good job with supervision, and that you owe it to the employee to clarify essential functions and core competencies, so that they have an honest shot at satisfying your expectations.

Problem employees will often step it up once the expectations become clearer and they see that you are serious about supervision; or they may choose to leave because they are uncomfortable with the increased accountability; or the increased accountability may make it abundantly clear to everyone that the employment relationship is not working. In any case, it’s never too late to begin.

Myth #4: Every employee is redeemable and deserves another chance. This is not a business, it is a congregation. We owe it to our employees to overlook mistakes and extend an abundance of opportunities to get it right.

The TruthAll of the people on your staff team are redeemable as human beings, but not all of our employment relationships are redeemable.

Once we have appropriately defined the expectations of the employment relationship, and provided ongoing feedback, with invitations to step up to our expectations, then we have done our part. If the employee demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to satisfy the basic expectations of the employment relationship over time, then the employment relationship should be brought to an end.

Myth #5: The underperformance of an employee primarily hurts me, the supervisor. I am the supervisor and I am the one spending significant time dealing with this employee’s dysfunction or under-performance. What does it hurt if I choose to wait a little longer before engaging progressive discipline?

The Truth: The underperformance of one staff member impacts the whole. The employees who bear the greatest burden are our competent, high functioning employees. These are the people who will over-compensate for the under-performer, working ever-harder to ensure that the congregation feels well served by the staff team. By your inaction, you communicate that their well-being is not as important as the well-being of the problem person.

Supervision does not need to be the most onerous part of your role.  Adjusting your assumptions about accountability in employment relationships will help you engage your authentic voice as a supervisor.  It will ease the burden of supervision in your own mind and lead to healthier, more productive employment relationships.  What other unstated assumptions are standing in your way?