Secular Spiritual Care Network

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Photo of couple holding hands closeupProject Background

In 2015, the British National Health Service (NHS) required providers of health services to enable pastoral care for people who declared themselves to be of no religion. In response, the British Humanist Association (BHA) established the Humanist Pastoral Support service with the initial aim of training secular care givers. Once trained and accredited, BHA then enabled these care givers to support patients on request in hospitals and other health settings.

In August 2017, Lyndon Storey, President of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS), encouraged the Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) to explore providing humanist carers in Victoria. Lyndon had been practicing as a Humanist Volunteer Chaplain at Canberra Hospital for the previous two years. With several HSV members expressing interest, he recommended Spiritual Health Victoria. This organisation offers to non-religious volunteers a short training course of five half days. During the final half day, participants undergo work experience under supervision in either a hospital or other health facility. Under the lead of HSV Vice-President, John Russell, 10 people completed the training with Spiritual Health Victoria in November 2017. At the close of 2018, four humanist spiritual carers were working in three hospitals in Victoria, tending to the needs of the non-religious.

Network Formation

Although completing the short Spiritual Health Victoria training program led to a limited number of placements, HSV discovered that most local hospitals are unwilling to take on secular spiritual carers. This is the case even where secular spiritual carers restricted their care to non-religious patients. These hospitals required that, paradoxically, secular spiritual carers complete a unit of theologically-informed Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). And this is regardless of the carer’s skills, experience, education and educational equivalencies.

Most regrettably, patients not identifying with any religion comprise the largest cohort needing care. This means that in a few hospitals, these non-religious patients are not visited by any member of the spiritual/pastoral care team. Alarmingly, HSV discovered that many patients who do not identify with a faith community do not feel comfortable receiving emotional-existential support from someone who they perceive as religiously affiliated. This fact is borne out by recent UK research by Marie Curie.

A new, secular approach was needed to recruit, vet, train, support and place secular spiritual carers, similar to what has begun to take place in other parts of the world. For example, humanist pastoral care in Europe is being embedded within a variety of service environments. With this goal, HSV member, Joe Sehee, approached the HSV Committee about setting up such a scheme in Victoria. In July 2018, the HSV committee committed funds for the project and the Secular Spiritual Care Network (SSCN) was born.

Spiritual Care Philosophy

In 1984, the World Health Organization called upon its member states to include in their health strategies a spiritual dimension in keeping with their social and cultural patterns. The Director General, Halfdan Mahler, justified the innovation without referring to other-worldly beings:

The spiritual dimension is understood to imply a phenomenon that is not material in nature, but belongs to the realm of ideas, beliefs, values and ethics that have arisen in the minds and conscience of human beings, particularly ennobling ideas. Ennobling ideas have given rise to health ideals which have led to a practical strategy for Health for All that aims at attaining a goal that has both a material and nonmaterial component. … The spiritual dimension plays a great role in motivating people’s achievement in all aspects of life.

[World Health Organization Publication: Year 1991,
Issue 9290211407, Ch 4: The Spiritual Dimension]

Spiritual care (or emotional-existential support) has been found to be helpful for people dealing with transition, illness, trauma or loss. Such care can also contribute to positive mental and physical health outcomes. These benefits led to the Department of Health and Human Services in Victoria regarding spiritual health as an ‘allied health’ profession.

Network Aims

The Secular Spiritual Care Network (SSCN) has as its aim to create opportunities for secular spiritual carers to work alongside religious chaplains and pastoral carers in order to better serve the needs of the whole gamut of non-believers. These include people who regard themselves as humanists, atheists, agnostics, sceptics, heathens, inter-believers, spiritual-but-not-religious, theologically fluid or who, for any other reason, tick the ‘no religion’ box. The objective is to place humanist chaplains in hospitals for the benefit of all of these kinds of religiously unaffiliated patients.

SSCN had worked at developing credentialing criteria for secular spiritual carers. The project also sought to build out a roster of qualified secular spiritual carers and find placement opportunities for them in a variety of settings, including hospitals, schools and workplaces.

To that aim, SSCN had also been working to engage the Victorian Council of Churches Emergency Ministry (VCCEM) so that people who do not identify as religious will be permitted to train in psychological first-aid and serve as chaplains/personal support workers in emergencies/disasters. VCCEM currently has in place a policy that allows people of any faith background to volunteer for VCCEM Emergencies Ministry. Despite the organisation receiving most of its funding from government sources, VCCEM bars people who do not identify as religious.

Workplaces is another opportunity for secular spiritual care services and SSCN had made a beginning. To date, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider, Converge International, had been the only entity in Victoria that recruits people for chaplaincy/pastoral care positions to serve in workplaces. However, it has only been willing to hire Christians for these roles. With the intervention of SSCN in Converge International’s push to hire a pair of Christians to provide pastoral care to the 4,000 people working in a landmark Melbourne building, the building owner’s requirement has now been broadened to a more religiously-neutral approach to workplace wellbeing. For many of the same reasons that three out of four Australians getting married choose civil celebrants over clergy members, SSCN envisions there will be growing demand for secular spiritual care in a number of settings.

In March 2019, SSCN held its first two-day induction program for 13 people interested in working as secular spiritual carers. They included a psychotherapist, social worker, nurse, palliative care practitioner, and several experienced counsellors. This training had originally been planned in conjunction with Caulfield Hospital, but was cancelled after a decision was made by the hospital to no longer allow humanist spiritual care volunteers from visiting patients at the hospital unless they had designated humanism as their religion upon admission.

Further pushback was received from Spiritual Health Victoria after Joe Sehee, SSCN Director, was featured on the ABC Radio National program Soul Search. His interview consisted largely of sharing the positive role spiritual care had played in his own life.

Social Health Australia

Because no government body has endeavoured to determine public preferences for spiritual care in healthcare settings, SSCN submitted two questions to a market research panel of 16,000 people reflecting the demographics of the Australian public. The first asked what kind of support respondents would prefer in a time of crisis. Half the respondents (48%) said they would want ‘humanist social support’, while 14% of respondents opted for ‘theologically-informed spiritual care’. For the second question asking respondents if they ‘identify’ as religious, a full 62% said ‘no’.

Due to the constraints SSCN experienced in placing secular spiritual carers in a number of settings—mostly because of requirement for theological training and/or being in good standing within a faith community—SSCN began exploring other ways of providing an alternative to conventional spiritual care for people dealing with illness, transition, grief or loss. In August 2019, SSCN was awarded community grants from Bayside and Glen Eira City Councils to run an innovative program in support of older adults at risk for social isolation and loneliness. The program, ‘Meaning, Purpose, and Connection’, will pair SSCN-trained volunteers with seniors in those communities to engage in arts and nature-related activities and guided conversations.

In order to diversify its base of support and to be able to obtain deductible gift-recipient status (DGR), which is typically necessary to receive philanthropic donations, SSCN transitioned in September 2019 into a new organisation called Social Health Australia (SHA). The new entity will be stewarded during its start-up phase by a steering committee comprised of Rod Bower (President, Humanists Victoria), Meredith Doig (President, Rationalist Society of Australia), Neale Roberts (Manager, Spiritual Support Services, Canberra Hospital), Collin Acton (Director General – Chaplaincy at Royal Australian Navy), John Davey (former Caulfield Hospital patient), and Annie Whitlocke (Buddhist Spiritual Carer, Monash Medical Centre). Joe Sehee is acting as Director, while Ally Scott co-ordinates Programme Development.

Social Health Australia has begun exploring a couple of pilot projects, including one planned to be launched in conjunction with Dying with Dignity Victoria. That project will make available theologically-free emotional-existential support to people interested in voluntary assisted dying. Another project being developed will train people from sporting clubs with skills to help fellow club members make meaning and move through difficult circumstance, such divorce and death.

This program was inspired by Al Admanson, an 88 year-old ice hockey club member who experienced extensive grief after the loss of his wife of 60 years. Admanson credited the support received from a fellow club member with greatly helping his recovery, and for wanting to help other sporting club members be able to do the same.

To find out more, visit the Social Health Australia web site or contact SHA at


Radio interview with Joe Sehee (Director, Secular Spiritual Care Network) on ABC Radio National, 10 March 2019