Chaplains are often asked ‘Who padres the padre?’ or ‘Padre, who’s your boss?’ The simple answer is God; but this cheeky reply isn’t sufficient. Chaplains work for their sending denomination, the Chain of Command and they also have a Technical Chain of senior chaplains.  Through this complex relationship, chaplains get some support, pastoral care and management and professional development. But something is missing. Other ‘helping’ professions such as psychologists and social workers participate in a process called supervision. The recent Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse recommended that all clergy receive professional/pastoral supervision. Below I will outline, what supervision is and is not, why supervision is important and I will also mention some of the blocks to receiving supervision.

What is supervision?

Pastoral Supervision creates space for the supervisee to critically and theologically reflect on their work in a disciplined way. A positive view of supervision is that it is practised for the sake of the supervisee as well as the people with whom the supervisee works and the organisation they work for.  The nature of issues which are discussed in supervision means that confidentiality is an important aspect of the process, although there are some things which would need to be reported, for example ethical violations or disclosure of self-harm or harm to others.  Supervision is not about management in the sense of control and it is not an additional line of reporting. Although there will undoubtedly be some record keeping and policy will need to be further explained around this. Sessions generally last for one hour and chaplains should undertake between 5 (mandated in DGCHAP-A’s directive) and 10 sessions a year.[1]

Why have supervision?

At the turn of the 20th century, Welsh miners were working 16 hour days and going home filthy. This had negative health impacts on the miner’s family as well as the miner. The miners campaigned and even went on strike for the right to wash and change as part of their shift; it was called ‘pit head’ time.  While many authors use this analogy to explain the importance of supervision, McNamara, in his blog, highlights a photo of the Beaconsfield miners coming out clean after being underground for 14 days to illustrate his point.  The photo shows them ‘clocking off’ clean and in clean clothes.[2] This concept of cleaning up at work in the pastoral sense is one way the Australian Defence Force can help chaplains keep work at work so that it is not carried home. Supervision allows space for chaplains to grapple with new ideas and it can help them respond to the complex demands of their job.[3] The three basic tasks of supervision originally described by Inskipp and Proctor are normative, formative and restorative and they are often represented as a three legged stool.[4] 

  1. The restorative task supports the supervisee by giving them space to ‘clean up,’ debrief and reflect, by offering encouragement, sharing ideas and helping them to connect with their vocation.  
  2. The normative task deals with managerial and boundary issues. This helps the supervisee assess their competency, how well they are working within their relevant code of professional ethics and how well they are maintaining their boundaries. 
  3. The formative leg allows the supervisee to receive guidance on how to handle situations, teach on aspects of work and develop their skills by introducing new ideas, new readings or books on different perspectives. The formative leg is about encouraging growth.

What supervision is not

Some churches and people believe that supervision is the same as coaching or mentoring and while they are similar and use comparable micro-skills such as active listening, reflecting and reframing, they are different. Mentoring is a relationship between two people which seeks to improve certain values or behaviours which the mentee has identified within the mentor as being beneficial. Over time as the relationship develops it becomes more mutually supportive. Coaching differs from supervision in that coaching occurs where an individual chooses a particular skill or discipline they want to improve on and they seek out an expert in that field to assist them. Put simply, supervision is a relationship which focuses on the ministry/work of the supervisee using guided reflection and other processes to support them. 

What are the blocks to supervision?

Some chaplains may be hesitant to receive supervision. Initial discussions with some chaplains have highlighted the following four main blocks to overcome: 

  1.  Some chaplains simply do not recognise the importance or value of supervision. They will do whatever they can to avoid it and may eventually engage in the bare minimum in order to check the box.  
  2. Some chaplains may feel as though supervision is about someone checking up on them or looking over their shoulder, spying on them and reporting back to their line manager, Senior Chaplain or Commanding Officer. 
  3. Some chaplains may believe that they are too busy to engage in supervision or give priority to other elements of their ministry. This can lead to burn out or compassion fatigue and can ultimately end up reducing the chaplain’s effectiveness.
  4. Some chaplains may believe that there are limited options when it comes to supervisors because there are few trained supervisors with military experience and where military chaplains are trained in supervision, offering it to colleagues can cause potential conflicts of interest. For example, ‘in house’ supervision is currently practised by Army psychologists but this can cause issues around promotion, future postings and Performance Appraisal Reports. Similarly, being supervised by someone who may become your commander or career advisor can have a negative impact on a supervisee’s willingness to be fully open with their supervisor. The fear of some chaplains is that if they are completely vulnerable with a supervisor who is another chaplain it may be detrimental to their career later if that chaplain supervisor was to become a Coordinating Chaplain or Senior Chaplain.
  5. Another potential block could be a lack of support from the Chain of Command.  If a chaplain's superior for example, the Commanding Officer or Executive Officer, does not understand the importance of supervision or continually undermines its necessity, this can have an impact on the value an individual chaplain places on supervision.

These potential blocks may cause a chaplain to not seek supervision or to not engage properly in the process. This can have negative long term effects on the chaplain, their ministry/work and their family. Effective supervision provides them space to reflect on and evaluate their work and leave it as work. 


Supervision is becoming an important component of religious ministry. While it is not new for some denominations, it will be for others. The Australian Defence Force needs to continue to develop its understanding of what supervision is, why it is important and how it can increase the capability of its chaplains. Although there are some blocks to supervision, it is a worthwhile and important endeavour for the Australia Defence Force to investigate with more work to be done with regard to rolling out a robust supervision program.

For further reading, a more detailed paper will be offered for publication in this year’s chaplaincy journal.