Providing people-centred care: an interview with two upcoming graduates in humanist pastoral care

26 July, 2019

Humanists UK set up and developed the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network in 2016, and now the network provides emotional support to vulnerable people in over 40% of hospitals and 20% of prisons across England and Wales. While most pastoral carers are volunteers, an increasing number are paid professionals. The best professional route into this work, as well as into conducting humanist ceremonies, is through the MA programme co-developed by Humanists UK and delivered by New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling.

We spoke to Louie Savva (40, Leicestershire, pictured left) and Josh Turner (52, Bedfordshire, pictured right), both up-coming graduates of the MA in Existential and Humanist Care to find out more about their journey towards non-religious pastoral care, what the course entails, and how they’re putting their new skills into practice as employed pastoral carers working in the NHS.

What inspired you to study the MA in Existential and Humanist Care?

Louie: In 2015 my brother died suddenly from a drug overdose. I am an atheist and so was my brother. I learned a lot from that experience. I learned about my own personal resilience, but also about the lack of support available for people of my own non-religious position. When the MA was first advertised I was already working in a hospice offering bereavement support. It seemed like a natural step to me to move from working with the bereaved to offering people-centred care as a non-religious pastoral carer.

Josh: Over the last decade I’ve felt a growing desire to help people. I’ve been an actor all my working life until now, but I wanted to engage with a much smaller audience – just one person at a time! The MA seemed to be the all-round package, not just a vocational qualification in healthcare and prison chaplaincy, but also training in humanist celebrancy. I’m a Samaritans volunteer as well, and this degree seemed to be a good way to move into a career in care.

Why, in your view, is humanist pastoral care essential?

Louie: As a non-religious person, I believe it is important to be able to offer the same quality of support that religious chaplains offer, but to non-religious people. It’s about choice. Most of the time my own beliefs don’t come into the work that I do. I am a pastoral carer who happens to be non-religious. But if a patient asks for a non-religious person to talk to, then me and my colleagues are on hand to provide that.

Josh: 52% of the population is non-religious. Sometimes non-religious people don’t want to talk to a person of faith in circumstances where they are vulnerable, and that’s where non-religious pastoral support is crucial. These people might otherwise not speak to anyone, and that experience can be extremely isolating.

Could you talk about the practical experience the MA gave you?

Louie: Thanks to the course, I am now a trained humanist celebrant as well as a pastoral carer. This has given me a vital and important set of skills that I use in my caring work. Non-religious people can gain a huge amount from reflecting on important rites of passage, and I have seen first-hand how much humanist funerals can be an important part of the grieving process. As well as the celebrancy, we have had lots of practical experience of what might be called ‘counselling skills’. Active listening is an important part of my job as a chaplain, and we have had lots of opportunities to hone our listening skills during the MA.

Josh: We really honed our listening and empathy skills, readying us for our work. I started work experience last summer in the middle of the two year course. I’ve gone from being a volunteer at a hospital to being on an honorary contract, and I’ve just become a hospital bank pastoral carer. I’ve become very familiar with how the chaplaincy department works within a busy hospital, which is great experience for getting a job in the sector.

What have you personally enjoyed most about the MA?

Louie: For me the most enjoyable aspect of the course has been learning more about existential philosophy. Trying to get my head around Heidegger has been intellectually taxing, but also very stimulating. I also enjoyed writing my celebrant scripts far more than I ever imagined. It is really important to tell the story of a life in the right way, whether for a funeral, wedding, or naming. Each script is different, because each life is different.

Josh: It’s all been great, although going back into education after a 30 year break was an adjustment! Writing the first essay was a bit of a stretch. Everyone has been very supportive, my fellow students particularly. It’s great to have found a community to which I belong, and the beginnings of such a fulfilling career in a safe, caring environment.

What qualities are most desirable in a humanist pastoral carer?

Louie: To show genuine care for the other human being in front of you. To be open to what they are saying to you, and to listen in a respectful and non-judgemental manner. I have a passion for caring for others which drives everything I do in my work.

Josh: It’s all about empathy and listening, being present with other people and supporting them, giving them a safe space to open up and talk. You need to be interested in others, and you need to be able to work with people who you don’t agree with at all. No dogma, no judgement. Just care and attention.

What job prospects do you now have post-study?

Louie: Luckily, I obtained a chaplaincy/pastoral care position in the NHS before finishing the MA. I think that non-religious pastoral support must grow because there are so few of us out there. Personally, I love healthcare chaplaincy, and I think I will remain in the NHS until I retire. 

Josh: I’ve just been appointed as a non-religious pastoral carer at a hospital in London, and as a ‘sessional chaplain’ at prison in Milton Keynes. One of the things that makes us so employable compared with others is the is the celebrancy aspect of the MA. There are a number of infant funerals a month at any general hospital, as well as deathbed weddings and the occasional naming. Both the lead chaplains I’ve spoken to have told me that this skill is extremely valuable. The whole sector is open to us.

How does pastoral care relate to your view of life as a humanist?

Louie: We only live once. We do not lose anything by supporting one another through the difficulties that life throws at us – holding each other as we pass from birth to death. For me, that is the essence of humanism. As a pastoral carer I do that every day, and it is an absolute privilege to be there for others, offering them support in their hour of need. If we do not help each other, who will?

Josh: When you look at the 2002 Amsterdam Declaration, it could have been written about pastoral care! I try to be: ethical, rational, I support the human rights of the patient, to be socially responsible, and I hope that I’m helping people to fulfil themselves. I know I find the work supremely fulfilling myself.  

The MA in Existential and Humanist Care is available via the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling. For more information about the course and how to enrol, please visit their website.