Secular Spiritual Care Network

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. Currently, four humanist spiritual carers are 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 is 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 is currently developing credentialing criteria for secular spiritual carers. The project also seeks 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.