Humanist chaplains help normalise spirituality in healthcare

Credit: The Guardian

Lindsay van Dijk, a humanist, has been appointed by the Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust to lead a chaplaincy team that includes Christian, Buddhist, and Bahai members.

As Lindsay told the Guardian, ‘A lot of people don’t have an organised faith, but still have spiritual and emotional needs at difficult times. Often people are trying to make sense of their lives and the situations they find themselves in.’ This normalises spirituality as an ordinary part of being human.

My role as a Spiritual Care Coordinator shows me that Lindsay is spot on.  And the truth is that even if people are part of an organised faith, making sense of their lives and suffering through illness is often more central to pastoral conversations than religion is. An international definition of spirituality, developed through a series of robust consensus conferences, helps clarify what we mean by this, wherever we live and whatever group we choose to identify with.

Spirituality is a dynamic and intrinsic aspect of humanity through which persons seek ultimate meaning, purpose, and transcendence, and experience relationship to self, family, others, community, society, nature, and the significant or sacred. Spirituality is expressed through beliefs, values, traditions, and practices. Puchalski et al, 2014

Interestingly, when I show this definition to healthcare staff, some who are aligned with a religious tradition and others not, everyone can see themselves. It works without reference to God but does not preclude someone finding meaning in the gods, Christian or otherwise.

My experience is that what matters most is to have spiritual care practitioners with a core set of skills that may include immersion in a particular tradition but, at a deeper level, have an understanding of and are open to the religious and spiritual impulses of humanity.

Practitioners then need a range of other listening and people-centred skills like counselling,  narrative therapy or similar, all constantly reviewed through professional supervision and reflective practice. However, like any profession, these skills form a well to draw from but must never dominate when responding to the unique need of the person in front of us, however that is presented.

Spiritual care associations across the world including the United States, Australia, Canada, Scotland and Britain are striving to professionalise spiritual care and have invested in research, especially around evidence-based quality indicators, patient-reported outcome measures and objective standards. This work also helps to normalise spirituality.

But in New Zealand, we would not yet be able to follow Britain’s lead in employing a humanist chaplain in a public hospital. This is because the government originally contracted a Christian organisation to provide spiritual care and their rules stipulate that only Christian ministers may be employed. Nevertheless, as professional chaplains, they are expected to and do provide care to anyone. New Zealand hospices, however, see spirituality as core business and directly employ their own practitioners.

Change takes time, however, if spirituality, the essential human task of making meaning and purpose, can help a person regain functioning, it seems crucial that it becomes normalised as core business in the New Zealand public hospital system.

4 Replies to “Humanist chaplains help normalise spirituality in healthcare”

  1. Sandy thanks again for some excellent material which indicates even more clearly the direction in which things are moving – whether this direction is sensed or not by our sluggish Anglican institutions. The issue of “interfaith” operation comes into this whole large direction in which we are definitely moving. I trust that you get some solid encouragement in your vital specialist research and writing. Kia Kaha.

    1. Thanks for the comments George.

      And I’m keen on all people being seen as having and needing faith to live, that is, we all ‘lean into life’ in particular ways as pointed out by the remarkable James Fowler in his Stages of Faith research. So, I hope that we can eventually lessen the boundaries between religious faith and ordinary everyday faith so that we are all seen as people who lean into life in unique and sometimes corporate ways.

  2. Spirituality definition is perfect……….Definitely “hit the nail on the head”. Let’s be respectful humans first so we can help others regain their functional capabilities.
    Let’s think of others and be respectful.
    We are sooo antipodean when we could be so capable at thinking for ourselves.

    1. hi Sarah
      Thanks for the feedback. I like broad definitions that people of all kinds can find themselves in. And the encouragement to think!
      Glad the article found resonance.

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