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The art of listening: an interview with humanist pastoral carer Lindsay van Dijk

We spoke to Lindsay van Dijk a member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network and the first humanist to lead a pastoral care or chaplaincy department in the NHS. She spoke to us about listening to patients in need of support, and providing somebody like-minded to speak to during some of life’s most difficult moments.

Hi Lindsay. What exactly is non-religious pastoral support?

Non-religious pastoral support is quite different to the support you’d get from a counsellor, a friend, or a religious chaplain. We don’t pray for you and we don’t give advice either. Our method of care relies of simply listening, questioning, and providing feedback.

The underpinning value of humanist pastoral care is that we empower somebody to come up with their own solutions by being listened to. We find that often, patients have never been able to share their story with somebody who takes the the time and patience to so sit with them. It’s a very simple but powerful approach.

What’s the difference between traditional counselling and non-religious pastoral support?

The main difference is that we put a person’s values, morals, and worldview at the forefront of how we interact with a patient. This might come as a secondary emphasis in cognitive behavioural therapy or psychotherapy, for example. Taking this approach means we better understand how a person views life. Understanding how a person copes with difficulties is the best reference for us to provide truly person-centred care.

Why is it so essential that hospitals offer non-religious pastoral care?

‘You’re not religious, right?’ is something I get asked by my patients, because for them, it’s really important to have somebody like-minded to speak to before they feel comfortable enough to disclose the difficulties they’re facing. Non-religious people, quite often, would rather speak to nobody than speak to a religious chaplain, so it’s really important that they are heard and we are there to provide that service.

And of course, over half of the population is non-religious…hospitals can’t simply neglect them by providing religious chaplaincy and nothing else.

Is there a difference between pastoral care in hospitals and prisons?

Yes. We provide non-judgemental support, which we call ‘unconditional positive regard’. In prison, it’s likely that carers will encounter somebody who has done terrible things. So it’s very important to keep this non-judgemental perspective. Prisoners are still human beings and they deserve our support. It’s important for humanist carers to be able to separate the [criminal] action from the person, which may sound beautiful, but there always limitations. It’s extremely important for us to match the right carer with the right patient. Our training goes into this in some depth, and it helps to ensure that all of our carers take this approach.

Where do you want to see non-religious pastoral care in the future?

I would really like to see non-religious pastoral care embedded in the armed forces and the police. These are people on the frontline, who’re put in extremely high pressure environments, and who have extremely limited support they can access. The armed forces, for example, has such as strong Christian presence. You’re asked to pray even if you’re not religious, you’re required to attend Sunday service, and so on. Obviously, if this doesn’t align with your values, then non-religious pastoral care becomes extremely useful to you. We want to be able to offer these people support through difficult times.

If I was interested in becoming a non-religious pastoral carer, where would I start?

Volunteering with the Non-Religious Pastoral Care Network is the best way to get involved. Practical experience will teach you how to engage with someone a pastoral way, whether that’s in hospitals, prisons or in education. But I’m happy to say that there’s also an academic route into humanist pastoral care too. In 2018, Humanists UK and the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling developed the MA in Existential and Humanistic Pastoral Care, and we have our first cohorts graduating this year, which is exciting! Graduates receive a degree that is accredited by the University of Middlesex and provisional accreditation in both pastoral care and humanist ceremonies.


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