Humanists in hospitals: interview with Head of Humanist Care, Clare Elcombe Webber

25 July, 2022

Clare Elcombe Webber is our Head of Humanist Care, she works to improve access to humanist pastoral care in hospitals, prisons, and universities throughout the country. Clare’s work is vital. Everyone, including the non-religious, should be able to talk to a like-minded person during life’s most difficult moments.

Hi Clare! For those who do not know, what exactly is humanist pastoral care?

In a nutshell, humanist pastoral care is like-minded support which encompasses the emotional, moral, ethical, and existential aspects of life. It is grounded in a pragmatic, non-religious outlook.

As part of my role, I coordinate the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN), through which we train and support pastoral carers to work in hospitals, hospices, prisons, and universities. Our pastoral carers often support people in crisis or who are at a crossroads in their lives.

Humanist pastoral care provides people with an active listening ear, a person to walk alongside in their emotional journey, and crucially, for non-religious people, someone who shares their worldview who can help them navigate whatever is going on at that moment.

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 can 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 important for Humanists UK to provide pastoral care?

Historically, this kind of emotional support in prisons and hospitals has always been provided from a religious perspective, with Anglican chaplaincy being the mainstay of pastoral support in the majority of institutions. Over the last 30 years or so this has expanded to include other religions, but as the UK becomes more and more non-religious it is essential that everyone is able to access inclusive, like-minded support when they are in need.

If you are facing your own mortality, looking for meaning in your life, or grappling with any of the ‘big questions’, then having someone who shares your beliefs to support you is vital.

What are the main duties of a humanist pastoral carer?

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.

What are the benefits of becoming a humanist pastoral carer?

This can vary enormously depending on their institution, their team, and their individual strengths. Most often, humanist pastoral carers can be found visiting wards in hospitals and hospices, or walking the wings in prisons and having incidental conversations with whoever needs them.

In some places there is also a request mechanism for someone wanting a humanist or non-religious pastoral carer to see them, and sometimes pastoral carers will build up a rapport with particular individuals and visit them regularly. Some pastoral carers run discussion groups or mindfulness sessions, or hold non-religious book clubs. Pastoral care is all about responding to human needs, and so no two days ever look exactly the same.

How long does it take to become a humanist pastoral carer?

Route one: our volunteer programme: For anyone who wants to become a pastoral care volunteer, we run five or six training weekends each year, in various locations around England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. We’re very proud of the incredible standard of support NRPSN members provide, and to ensure that remains we have a rigorous (but not frightening!) application process. You’ll be asked to complete an application form telling us about your experience and why this work appeals to you, you’ll have an interview with our lead trainer, and we’ll ask for two referees.

The training itself is two days, in a group of 12 with four experienced trainers. You’ll learn some theory, understand about the different settings of pastoral care, and have a chance to practice support skills.

If you are accredited at the end of the training weekend, we will support you in finding a placement. Some people come to us with a clear idea of where they want to practice, and some have even already lined up positions. For others, we can make introductions to institutions which we know are interesting having a non-religious pastoral carer, or help you approach somewhere we don’t already have a relationship with.

Pastoral care volunteers are volunteers for their host institution, and so must go through their recruitment processes as well – this often includes a DBS check, additional training, or shadowing and mentoring by someone else in the team. For health settings this can take a few weeks, but for prisons the additional security checks can take several months when things are busy. Don’t get downhearted if you have to wait for the administrative wheels to turn!

As an accredited member of the NRPSN you will then have access to supervision, CPD sessions, regular bulletins, and a coordinator to support you.

If you’re interested in hearing about our training weekends you can join our mailing list. Some recent trainees have said:

‘Wow! It was a privilege to be supported by such experienced role models.’

‘[the trainers] created a very safe atmosphere that encouraged us to share our vulnerabilities and address any concerns we had. No question felt too stupid to ask.’

Route two: professional qualification: There’s another route, of course, and that’s the professional qualification route. For paid roles, most institutions look for relevant experience and a recognised qualification, such as the MA in Existential and Humanist Pastoral Care. We have a small but growing number of non-religious pastoral carers in paid roles, including two heads of service in the NHS and one managing chaplain in a prison – so it’s a growing sector to be part of.

How does pastoral care differ in prisons/hospitals/hospices?

In these institutions you’re serving very different populations, who may be having very different experiences and difficulties. However, common across them all is that you’re providing a listening ear, and like-minded existential support when people are in crisis or considering the ‘big questions’ about life and meaning.

In prisons, you will support people who have lost their liberty, and who may have also lost relationships, their job, or their homes. You might help someone struggling with feeling guilt or shame for their crimes, or trying to find a new direction for when they’re released. In some prisons our pastoral carers run discussion groups to consider non-religious approaches to morality and ethics, or you might find yourself working alongside religious colleagues in running inter-faith and belief events or groups.

In many hospitals and hospices pastoral carers visit wards freely, offering support to anyone who would like it at the time, and in some patients, visitors, and staff can request support directly. This sometimes means having very complex and meaningful conversations about reconciling what a diagnosis means for someone’s life, or helping someone examine the trauma they carry from family relationships. It can mean just being there for someone in a myriad of ways  – a carefree chat, arranging some non-religious books, or listening to someone’s wishes for after they’ve died.

The enduring theme of pastoral care is common human experience, that no matter the setting you’ll be meeting someone where they are and walking alongside them, helping them to work out what is important to them and make meaning out of their experiences.

How does the UK compare to other countries in terms of humanist pastoral care?

The core difference between humanist pastoral care in the UK and other countries is the legislative and policy framework which is currently holding us back in some areas. In some other European countries – particularly Norway and the Netherlands – humanist pastoral care is so embedded and well-developed that it is absolutely the norm, and the idea of having ‘just’ religious care seems absurd. However in more southern European countries such as Spain and Malta, the humanist movement is comparatively small and non-religious pastoral care as a sector simply doesn’t exist.

In the United States, humanism is a small but well established part of the ‘chaplaincy’ world, with humanist Greg Epstein serving as the president of the Harvard Chaplains, and humanist provision growing slowly but steadily across the country. In Canada the sector is small, but making great strides, with the first-ever humanist chaplain being appointed in the Canadian Armed Forces recently.

We work with our humanist colleagues across the world wherever we can to help and support them, or learn from their successes.

How has the pandemic affected the provision of humanist pastoral care?

It’s not hyperbole to say that Covid-19 has had a seismic impact on humanist pastoral care. For all the right reasons, in March 2020 all of our volunteers were stood-down from their placements and it is only very recently that we have seen a full and open return of volunteering in some institutions. In the intervening time many volunteers decided not to return at all, and some institutions lost sight of how enriching and impactful humanist pastoral care can be. However, for some institutions the loss of their humanist team members has been felt keenly, and in the first part of this year I fielded many requests for volunteers.

What are the biggest challenges we face in providing pastoral care?

The core challenges we face in the provision of humanist pastoral care are changing legislation and policy, and being accepted at the front line by religious colleagues. Prisons, hospitals, hospices, the armed forces, and more, still use models of pastoral care based on religious provision, and in order to meet the needs of the growing proportion of the population who are non-religious, this must become more inclusive. There has been progress, but at times it is painfully slow.

At the other end of the spectrum, we sometimes find that religious colleagues in frontline services are not welcoming of non-religious pastoral carers, and don’t see the need for like-minded provision for non-religious people. It can be hard to win over hearts and minds, but by having good pastoral carers out there delivering excellent support, we can show how vital it is and slowly keep changing the status quo.

What resonates with you about the humanist approach to life?

One of my first formal introductions to humanism was in my A Level philosophy classes, where we studied some works of Bertrand Russell. His thinking really stuck with me – the notion that we could be guided by science and evidence but at the same time be happy, kind, and courageous, and not need anything more than this one, wonderful life. I love that humanism is a community, one which cooperates and collaborates with people from all religions and beliefs, seeking to make this life the best it can be, and leave a positive legacy for those who come after us.