The Archbishop of York preached at an ecumenical service in the Frauenkirche in Dresden this morning. This service marked the conclusion of the German celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Meissen Agreement in 1991 (obviously). It also marked the end of the Delegation Visit. We were in Meissen yesterday.

However, it wasn’t all about partying. We also had work to do and this time the theme was ‘visitation’ – which sounds unbelievably dull until you get into it. The basic question is: how do our churches provide for effective pastoral supervision and support of clergy and parishes? In both the Landeskirchen of the EKD and the dioceses of the Church of England part of the bishop’s role is to find a way of encouraging and challenging clergy and local parishes. The genius is in getting the balance right between the encouragement and the challenge.

The Germans contributing to this visit described a very thoroughly worked out approach to visitation, instigated by the bishop, but involving a team of people. Lots of paperwork is required before the team visits and meets with people involved in church and local life. Reports are written afterwards, with an emphasis on the local church identifying it’s priorities for the next five or ten years. It clearly involves a huge amount of time and resource.

This process was described at one point as ‘pulling the cupboard away from the wall and seeing where the spiders are hiding. The process leads to some clergy deciding their future ministry lies elsewhere; some parishes decide they need a change of minister. Most, however, find the whole process constructive, helpful, encouraging and challenging because it compels them to examine their corporate life and ‘own’ its future shape and direction.

In the Church of England ‘visitation’ is driven by the bishop and archdeacon. We try to minimise the bureaucracy and maximise the impact, but there is no single, simple way of doing it across the country.

The interesting point here, however, is not the specifics of how visitation is done in a particular Landeskirche or diocese, but, rather, how the exercise of thinking about it away from home – and seeing it through the eyes and experience of another culture – is immensely helpful. I might have been away from Bradford for four days, but the benefit for the Diocese of Bradford comes from the bishop thinking through how to shape the pastoral care, support, encouragement of and challenge to clergy and parishes from 2012 onwards. Amid the sheer busyness of normal life in Bradford it is hard to take a step back and think clearly; thinking with others in Dresden has been very useful and stimulating.

Basically, it looks like this. I have so far visited six out of the eight Deaneries in the Diocese of Bradford – the last two will follow before Christmas. Having by then met all the clergy and seen many of the churches and parishes, how do I best ensure from 2012 that I and my colleagues know the clergy and the contexts in which they work? What sort of achievable and manageable structure of regular visitation will help the clergy and parishes best whilst also keeping me up to speed with developments? How do I best support what is going on in the parishes?

Some see any such thinking about visitation as threatening. Indeed, we asked the Germans how these visitations are regarded by their clergy and churches: most welcome it because (a) it means they are being taken seriously, (b) it means they will get a reality check with the help of people who see from a different perspective, (c) it will force some strategic thinking, (d) it will raise confidence in the ability of the bishop to understand the realities of the particular parish’s life, and (e) it will ensure that accountability is taken seriously on all fronts.

But, some will see it as some sort of Ofsted inspection from hierarchy.

It seems to me that good management and supervision equals good pastoral care. Such visitations – however they are shaped – brings the benefit of an outside eye and must be essentially supportive. Which is the same principle as coming away and looking through the eyes of another group in order to better see and understand what is going on at home.