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A commitment to be there for people: Interview with humanist pastoral carer Joanna Mutlow

Joanna Mutlow is a humanist working as a non-religious pastoral carer at Rotherham, Doncaster, and South Humber NHS Foundation Trust. She is also a board member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN), which trains and accredits pastoral carers across the UK, and is the regional coordinator for pastoral carers in the Yorkshire and Humber region. We spoke to her about her work as a pastoral carer on the frontlines during the covid crisis.

Hi Joanna, what drew you to working with the NRPSN?

A few brushes with acute care made me aware of the need for a listening ear alongside body-focused medical care. After a bit of searching, I came upon the work the NRPSN were doing to be included in pastoral and spiritual care services (also widely called ‘chaplaincies’) and I signed up for the training, which was challenging and pragmatic.

I felt I’d found a shoe that fitted exactly and the mystery of what to do as my ‘twilight career’ was solved. It took a little longer to negotiate myself a volunteer placement in a hospital as my enthusiasm and motivations were not of the religious kind (which many chaplaincy departments have come to expect), but I got there and have since gained an employed position in another mental health trust.

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

Pastoral care is all about kindness and respect to others. It is about non-judgement of others’ choices and situations and a commitment to be there for people by listening carefully and acknowledging what they are telling you.

It is a way to actually enact my belief as a humanist in valuing others, appreciating their diversity, supporting human resilience, and making meaningful connections. It is easy to get disorientated or lost in a healthcare setting and it can prompt a deeper reflection on life; I am continually humbled and impressed by what people share with me and how varied our conversations can be. Meeting these people also reminds of the precariousness of our one life, and the importance of living well each and every day.

Why do you think humanist pastoral care is essential?

Non-religious pastoral care is sadly not available in many healthcare settings. This is because there are not yet enough people trained to take up these roles, but also because there is some reluctance (even hostility) to take on non-religious people into traditional chaplaincy teams.

The data, however, suggests that one half of the UK population are non-religious and since chaplaincy posts are funded by the NHS, there is an equality issue here. Non-religious patients and staff are not likely to contact services if they are perceived to be exclusively religious, or if support is exclusively delivered by religious chaplains. But non-religious people do have the same needs to discuss their worries and concerns, their existential questions, and their search for meaning and purpose.

These discussions most often work best with someone who shares a similar worldview, who is not worried about your soul – someone who is not going to offer to pray for you and is not trying to solve or explain your situation using their own faith. It is not as easy as ‘leaving out the god bit’. I urge anyone using healthcare services to check first of all that their admission information on belief is correct, and secondly to ask for a visit from a humanist or non-religious pastoral carer. Asking the question can help shift the mindset that chaplaincy is an exclusively religious domain.

You’ve been working as a pastoral carer at an extraordinary time just recently. What can you tell us about how it’s been during lockdown? 

My Trust has taken a very proactive and rational approach to the pandemic and one decision was that all who could should stay away. Unfortunately, the pastoral and spiritual care team fell into this category, and it has been a difficult job to do remotely. We do not yet know when we’ll be allowed back physically into work. [At some other NHS Trusts, humanist pastoral carers are working on wards once again.]

I’ve used some of my time to write a book about humanist pastoral care, thinking about how to ‘demystify’ it for religious colleagues with examples of what we might actually say to a patient, prisoner or student. On more than one occasion I have been asked how I do the job without prayers and scriptures, and this book will answer that question. I was also thinking about what I didn’t know before I started, and how more examples of our responses might have helped me, so the book also has contributions from other pastoral carers and will be useful in our NRPSN training. Writing it has been a very reflective and consolidating experience, affirming of what contribution humanists can make in pastoral and spiritual care.

During lockdown, I was also awarded my accreditation to deliver funerals as a Humanist Ceremonies™ celebrant, with my final assessment involving me delivering a practice funeral at home behind an upturned coffee table lectern. The overlap between being a celebrant and pastoral care is an area of real interest for me, whether delivering contract funerals in a hospital or helping people with terminal diagnosis to plan their funerals. Networking with Humanist Ceremonies™ and pastoral care colleagues has been an important part of lockdown. There is such a sense of common purpose, enthusiasm and good intention amongst us that inspires me.

What have you learned from your experiences with the NRPSN?

I have learned that human diversity is immense. That people have led extraordinary lives. That you can never judge a book by its cover. That human resilience is incredible. That the NHS is a precious safety net that holds us together, in body and in mind, but which needs critical investment and support. That hostility to humanism needs to be challenged as it is based on misunderstanding and protectionism – we add to pastoral and spiritual care services, we do not take away. That there are religious colleagues who recognise this and are NRPSN allies, ready to help create inclusive pastoral and spiritual care services.

Joanna, thank you for speaking with us.

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