The Models of Supervision

Supervision has many models, some of which are appropriate to one context but not to another. Moses had a crisis model until his father-in-law taught him the administrative model (Exodus 18:13, 14, 17-18, 19-23). David used a military model, Nehemiah was a great administrator. Jesus used the intern model. The point is that there is no one biblical model. We must find a model that fits the situation and the person we are supervising.

Family Model: Parents closely supervise an infant’s food, sleep, and time spent awake. As the child grows, parental supervision becomes less intense, and the child makes more decisions as he/she moves toward adolescence and adulthood.

Industry Model: Supervision in industry is basically related to production. The supervisor relates to employees in a manner to oversee the production line and job performance in order to maximize production.

Business Model: The boss apportions work to employees, sets deadlines, and serves as a kind of “answer person.” The boss gives the authority to do the task.

Military Model: Chain of command supervision is close rank discipline and straight line authority. Commands are given, and strict compliance is expected. Thinking on the part of the subordinate is not recommended in this model and authority is not questioned.

Craft Model: Craftsmen (electricians, plumbers, and carpenters) have developed a system of teaching by example. The master demonstrates the work for the apprentice who learns through actual example and hands-on experience.

Prison Model: In this controlled environment, the warden instructs the guards, who in turn, enforce the rules and regulations on the inmates, allowing for minimal freedom and movement.

Academic Model: In this professor/student relationship, the instructor supervises students in order to facilitate learning through assignments, labs, and other learning activities.

Clinical Model: The medical profession uses this model as young interns participate in the treatment of patients with the writing of reports regarding the patient’s condition and possible treatment, for submission to the supervising medical doctor.

Orchestra Model: The conductor’s responsibility is to guide an orchestra of professionals into a faithful interpretation of a musical score. The conductor may not be able to play the instruments, but is ultimately responsible to organize, correlate, and bring together individual performances to one great performance. He keeps everyone on the same note.

Marriage Model: Goals shared by a husband and wife, mutually strengthen their love and help them to develop and support one another. Each is enhanced by the give and take of the other.

Athletic Model: The coach prepares the players for the game. While direction and guidance are given during the actual playing of the game, emphasis is placed on the practice and “coaching” done prior to actual play. Coach may be a better word than supervisor. Sometimes there is the player-coach, which suggests a high level of partnership. The coach develops the game plan and helps each player to know his role on the team

Mentor Model: The mentor model is dependent upon a relationship as well as an official responsibility. These pledge to work together in a relationship of learning. There is guidance, teaching and accountability.

Biblical Models: Scripture is loaded with examples of dealing with people. In the life of Jesus alone, we see numerous times when He used different models to achieve different ends. Review the following list and discover other models as you research and study:

  1. Shepherd – Pastor: the ancient practice of tending sheep, keeping them from danger, providing for their needs. The shepherd risks himself for the well-being of the sheep.
  2. Counselor – Support: the counselor points out problems to avoid and possible actions to help the supervisee. The person must submit oneself to this relationship.
  3. Friend – Relationship: like the counselor but there is a personal relationship. The friend stands by and talks through the issues, making suggestions.
  4. Servant – Deacon: the apostles handed over the daily tasks to others who took ownership, and accomplish the work with assuming little or no supervision.
  5. Teacher – Disciple: Jesus took a group of twelve unorganized men and transformed them into men under the influence of the Holy Spirit, ready to carry out the Great Commission.
  6. Master – Authority: we see this in many parables where there was a person considered to be a steward, one who cared for the estate of the owner.
  7. King – Leadership: throughout the kingdom we see this sort of model, some were abusive and others were not; but the king was large and in charge.

The best supervision occurs when the supervisor uses the model that best fits the situation. Supervisors often function with a model they have observed elsewhere, and the supervisor should avoid the temptation to use one model exclusively. A supervisor with military experience might use that model at the exclusion of all others. The supervisor should examine each supervisory situation separately to determine the needs of the supervisee and implement the best supervision model needed. Then the model should be adjusted as the person develops.

The Art and Science of Supervision

There are good and poor supervisors. The best supervisors have good positive personal qualities and follow the proper roles that make them good supervisors. Many books on supervision have reported surveys about the characteristics of good supervisors. Usually these have some characteristics in common and others are different.

I read a story about Doran and Gloria McCarty, who took a group of students to Belize on an overseas project. One Sunday morning they spoke at meetings in the city and in the afternoon went into the rural area for an afternoon service. Because of the distance, road conditions, and having to take two ferries each way, they were late returning to Belize City that evening where Gloria was scheduled to sing. She had only one copy of the music and had no time to reproduce another. A local member assured Gloria that the pianist would be able to play the song if she would go through it with her once. Gloria was skeptical. After a brief rehearsal on only a portion of the music, Gloria took the songbook and the pianist played the song perfectly.

The pianist playing was a beautiful example of the art of music. Since she did not have a copy of the music, she could not exercise the science of music, but rather she demonstrated incredibly the art of music. We refer to it as “playing by ear.” The art of music represents the natural gifts a person possesses. The science of music refers to the music structure and the laborious hours of practice required.

The art of supervision refers to people who are especially good at building relationships and understanding human behavior without specialized supervisory training. Their sensitivity enables them to discover and deal with issues. Supervision as an art is done through intuition. Intuitive supervisors follow their hunches.

The science of supervision offers supervisors training in diagnosing issues and assisting supervisees in dealing with issues. Since supervision is a human enterprise, a person should utilize all of his/her abilities in the art of supervision. Yet the supervisor’s perceptions, even if generally correct, are not always accurate. They need a system to check out their perceptions.

The science of supervision offers a way to check those perceptions, a scientific backup. A medical doctor may have the uncanny ability to diagnose a condition, but no one would want a physician to operate until he/she had passed the necessary tests. Through good supervision training, the supervisor will gain a heightened sense of the art of supervision and have at his/her disposal the tools of the science of supervision.

Regardless of the helpfulness of science, there is always the subjective element in supervision. Value judgments have to be made. This is important because people cannot be transformed into things to be quantified. There are some qualities of supervisors that help them to become effective. McCarty points out these twelve characteristics:

  1. Faith: which reflects the image of God
  2. Health: emotionally and spiritually
  3. Care: the essence of the support system, there is no reason not to care
  4. Courage: facing hard tasks and issues rather than avoiding them
  5. Growth: if it doesn’t grow it is diseased or dead
  6. Authority: using the wrong type in the wrong situation
  7. Preparedness: the supervisor needs training to be good at it
  8. Insight: inner vision to understand what’s happening
  9. Communication: listen and hear, clarify
  10. Flexibility: meet the demands of the situation
  11. Perspective: keep the whole situation in mind, not just while in the trenches
  12. Relational: we work with people, don’t forget it

The Definition of Supervision

While there are many possible definitions of supervision, the following fulfills our unique perspective in Christian ministry: “Supervision is the development of a support system for the enrichment of the personhood and performance of task.” The definition has several important parts.

Supervision is developmental: It does not happen with full maturity from the first day. Each employee is a special person, and each task of supervision is different. Relationships between supervisors and supervisees must develop.

Supervision is support: It under-girds a supervisee’s needs. Caring supervisors who foresee disaster confront because they care about the person, as well as the work. Affirmation may be confrontation, as well as a pat on the back. The supervisor needs to make the system a support system which provides the necessary physical, intellectual, spiritual, financial, emotional, and personal support. A support system provides a way of affirming those being supervised.

Support involves two aspects: the enrichment of personhood and the performance of tasks. Both aspects are important for successful supervision. If the emphasis is entirely on the performance of tasks, the supervisee is treated as a “thing” rather than a person. Sooner or later he/she will “run dry” and be unable to perform tasks properly. Neither is the enrichment of personhood the only object of supervision. That would be a counseling relationship rather than a supervisory relationship.

Both the enrichment of personhood and the performance of tasks are needed in order to achieve successful supervision. Because fulfilling a task is an important way of growing, it is part of the enrichment of personhood. A good supervisor helps the supervisee conceptualize the task, plan for action, and execute the plan.

The Work of Supervision

I used to work at the International Mission Board Office of Mission Personnel; mainly reading missionary wannabe applications, and then selecting and preparing candidates for overseas service. One main issue in sending short-term personnel overseas (two to three years) is the topic of supervision. Here is a lot of information out of Doran McCarty’s book called, Supervision: Developing and Directing People in Ministry. This post is an introduction.

Contents of this Series:

  1. The Work of Supervision (below)
  2. The Definition of Supervision
  3. The Art and Science of Supervision
  4. The Models of Supervision
  5. The Covenant within Supervision
  6. The Covenant Process in Supervision
  7. The States of Supervision
  8. The Supervisory Conference
  9. The Biblical Basis of Supervision

What’s the first thought that comes to your mind when you hear the word supervision? Answers range from “an administrative chore” to “a boss” to “controlling” to “time consuming” and the list seemingly goes on forever. It takes effort to change that type of thinking. However, if people are the focus of your work, remember that those you supervise are people, too.

Supervision is a work comparable to everything else you do. Supervision can strengthen the life of the person in your care through the attention and support you provide. Supervision extends your work. With appropriate supervision, employees are extensions of your work as you share your goals with them.

Some businesses point to their employees as their most important resource. Support personnel, undoubtedly, are important components of your system. They provide help in the work of the your team. If employees become burned out or used up, the team may suffer the loss: the loss when goals are not met and the loss of integrity because of a supervisor’s insensitivity to their needs as people.

The supervisor should ask, “What is the object of my work of supervision?” Is the object a program or a person? Every supervisor is either program oriented or people oriented. Balance is most difficult. An administrator administers a program but a supervisor supervises a person.

If the supervisor’s central focus is on the program, he depersonalizes the personnel and makes him/her an errand runner rather than a fellow worker. The supervisor’s work is helping the employee fulfill the task to which they have been assigned. Your focus is not on the task, but on the person. The employee’s focus on the task.