Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

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An Interview with Lindsay van Dijk

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I am delighted to have had the opportunity to interview Lindsay van Dijk on her work as a humanist pastoral carer and senior NHS chaplain. With half of UK citizens no longer claiming a religious affiliation, demand is increasing for nonreligious pastoral care in hospitals, prisons, universities, schools, workplaces and the military. When human beings can no longer seek solace in their imagined gods, they must seek solace in one another.

Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong, Lead Editor, Secular Liturgies

Lindsay van Dijk

Lindsay is a humanist pastoral carer and a member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network. She is the first humanist in charge of an NHS pastoral care and chaplaincy department.

Lindsay trained to Master’s level in the Netherlands at the University of Humanistic Studies (in Utrecht) to provide humanist and existential counselling, coaching and pastoral care. She is a member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) and the British Association for the Person-Centered Approach (BAPCA). Lindsay is accredited as a pastoral carer through the UK Board of healthcare Chaplaincy (UKBHC), the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN) and as a humanist funeral celebrant at Humanists U.K.

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Lindsay van Dijk

1. What inspired you to become a nonreligious/humanist pastoral support worker?

I was always interested the the philosophical questions of life – ever since I was a child. I would ask myself why we were here and how to lead a life with purpose and how to create meaning, or why we can be so mean to one-another.  When I was younger I didn’t yet know that there was a whole university dedicated to such questions – namely the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, the Netherlands. When I discovered that I could learn about humanism, philosophy, sociology, psychology and much more – while training towards my MA degree for humanist pastoral care – it was a no-brainer and I instantly felt at home.

2. What kind of training is most helpful for the role?

Any background of counselling and psychology, or communication skills would be helpful. There are programs for humanist and existential pastoral care within London and the Netherlands, or specific healthcare chaplaincy courses. Anyone working within pastoral care or chaplaincy work would, however, need endorsement from their faith or belief community. In the case of humanist pastoral care, the individual concerned would need to follow an accreditation course through Humanists U.K.’s non-religious pastoral support network (NRPSN) in order to receive endorsement for the humanist belief group. This would need to be pursued regardless of a counselling, psychology or even an MA in humanist and existential pastoral care course.

3. Which thinkers, writers or philosophers have influenced your perspectives on life, death and pastoral care the most?

Many writers and thinkers such as John Rawls, John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Epicurus and Steven Pinker, but also Jan Hein Mooren (who describes the practice of a humanist pastoral carer and its difference to psychotherapeutic practices) and Greg Epstein’s book called ‘Good without God’, where he describes morality from a non-religious perspective.

4. What methods do you use to help patients and their families cope with physical/mental suffering?

With humanist pastoral care we stay in the moment of what the person is experiencing, which can indeed be physical or mental suffering. I try to stay alongside the experience of that person, which includes their thoughts and feelings but also their values and worldviews with regards to their experience.

The difference between humanist pastoral care and psychotherapeutic practices can be described through two frames of reference: the first frame of reference for the humanist pastoral carer is the person’s worldview, which includes their values and morality (codes or rules they live by). The second frame of reference is the method that accompanies this, which includes lending an empathic, non-judgemental listening ear, and to provide enough space for the person to share his or her story while staying in that precise moment in time.

Psychotherapeutic practices have this the other way around, where the first frame of reference is the method, may that be existential, integrative, psychoanalytic, CBT etcetera. The second frame of reference might include the worldview of the person along with their values and morality. On top of that, psychotherapeutic practices also try to link the past and the current situation to each other in order to hopefully work towards a different outcome in the future. The entrance to psychotherapeutic practices is usually the point at which a ‘client’ describes an issue he/she would like support with. This is followed up by a set amount of sessions of a certain length of time, and these usually take place in the same location.

A humanist pastoral carer needs to stay in the moment because their encounters are bedside or on a prison ward, where there isn’t a specific time to talk to the individual or a set location. Due to the unpredictable environment of a hospital or prison, you’re not always sure if you’re seeing the person the week after. Therefore, the contact is open ended and a specific issue isn’t required to enter the service. It is immediate support, provided for that specific moment in time.

5. Since you do not offer people the hope of an afterlife, how do you help them to make the most of the time they have?

Humanists or non-religious people do not believe in an afterlife, and therefore, wouldn’t require any ‘hope’ or ‘salvation’ for this. It can still be scary to near the end of your life, however, and most of my encounters have been around voicing concerns they have, if any. I’ve also noticed that most people would like to reminisce about their lives and share what they’ve seen or done. People also often talk about the relationships they cherish with friends, family or even with pets. With nonreligious funeral ceremonies, family members often refer to the deceased living on through their memories, in contrast with  religious funerals, where they might believe in a heaven.

6. Do you carry out any secular rituals or preside over any secular liturgical gatherings as part of your work? If so, please describe a few of these.

Part of my work is to provide funerals for those who are humanist or non-religious. I also provide baby naming services for the parents and their families. Once a year, I provide a baby memorial service, and on a monthly basis, I provide baby funerals, which are organised from the hospital. Humanist services are often personalised according to what the person would like. Therefore, there isn’t a prescribed way of doing this. A good example would be humanist funerals, where the tribute is the heart of the service. The tribute is written in as personal a way as possible, with the family including those special memories of the deceased, which ensure a very personal ceremony.

7. What are the most common questions, expectations and requests that patients make of you?

Most of the time, people just want to share what they’re going through while in hospital. This could be a scary and emotional time for people. Even people who have a supportive network still like to speak to someone like me. Often friends and family members are too close to the person and it gets harder to show worries, fears, sadness or even anger. I remember one time, when I was asked to support a patient in hospital who was non-religious, I walked into the bay and noticed her husband was with her, so I mentioned to her that I could come back at a later time so they could enjoy their time together. The woman told me that wasn’t necessary and asked cheerfully whether her husband could entertain himself elsewhere so she could speak to me. Her smile changed rather quickly when he turned the corner of the bay and she started to burst out in tears. I sat next to her, letting her cry. It felt like there were a lot of feelings she had accumulated, which she needed to express. When she looked at me after a while, she told me she had always been the head of the family and that she didn’t wanted to worry anyone. However, she was scared as her condition was deteriorating and her time on earth was running out. We spoke about her fears, worries, hopes and dreams. She then realised herself, at the end of our talk, that she wanted to write down her life story to leave behind for her family after she passed away – just to leave something physical of herself behind.

8. Do you speak only with humanist, atheist and other nonreligious patients?

At my Trust we provide ‘generic chaplaincy’ which means that anyone of our multi-faith and belief service can respond to referrals of any background, ethnicity, faith or belief. With the encounters I’ve had, it mostly revolves around the relationship you build with the person. I remember when I supported someone who was Roman Catholic. When I asked her whether she wanted to speak to someone of her own worldview, she said she wanted to continue seeing me, as she felt able to share her feelings with me. When she was discharged from hospital, she wrote me a lovely card thanking ‘Lindsay the humanist’ for the support she had received from me. However, there are times when people are able to share more when they speak to someone of their own worldview, and we can then refer them to someone else in the team. The team works, therefore, very closely together. We also provide specific support when requested by the person. The service is firstly and foremost person-centred.

9. What are the greatest challenges of leading a pastoral care team composed of people with very different world views?

Shattering assumptions… When I first started as humanist lead, a lot of people had assumptions about what humanism entailed. Many people thought it was the same as just being an atheist, or that I wanted to secularise the department. I urged them to ask the ‘difficult questions’ in order to foster an open and transparent work environment, and to shatter these assumptions (which we all make). When we make assumptions, it can shut down our curiosity, and with this our own learning process and understanding. I therefore organised a multi-faith and belief day, where we all shared about our faiths and beliefs to understand each other better. It was brilliant to see how this helped towards creating a warm, caring and open culture. It was the Roman Catholic sister that summarised adequately that we all share a love for what we do and that we all have compassion for people.

10. How would you like to see nonreligious pastoral care work develop going into the future?

We’ve had humanist pastoral carers in the Netherlands since the 1950’s, and this is now rapidly developing in the U.K. within healthcare and prisons. I would love to see it develop further in the armed forces and police service, as people working within these settings encounter very challenging situations. It might help support them to talk to someone of a likeminded worldview.

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