Lifelines of the soul

Transformative listening requires certain qualities of strength, endurance and discipline to master. And, in many cases, it may require the acknowledgement of failure and a renewed dedication to becoming available again and again, even in the course of a single conversation.

In Australia, we have traditionally had a high level of volunteerism demonstrated through sporting clubs, service clubs, parents and friends’ associations, hospital auxiliaries, conservation societies, churches and faith-based organisations. There have always been people who have generously visited people in hospitals, and prisons and provided support to people before the courts, offering what has been traditionally called pastoral care or volunteer chaplaincy. While few would challenge the generosity of the people who offer to these ministries, there remains a need to closely review the correlation between the needs of the recipients and the personal attributes, skills, knowledge and experience of the volunteer both to honour the gift of the volunteer and the needs and the expectations of the recipients.

We know from studies in the UK, that patients value chaplaincy that allows them to speak about what is really on their mind. In fact, when asked to list what they value, the patients values being able to speak of what was on their mind ahead of the chaplain being a good listener or valuing their religious or spiritual beliefs, because listening and valuing the patient for themselves are prerequisites for creating the type of space and trust necessary to allow one to share the things that a deep within their soul. A study from Victoria showed that patients believe the faith affiliation of the spiritual care team member is important but not as important as other attributes such as kindness, listening skills and a nonjudgmental attitude. This leads us to conclude that a listening presence that enables to other to speak what is on their soul, is the minimum requirement for anyone, whether, employed or volunteering in the chaplaincy or soul care sector.

We also know that transformative listening provides a space for reflection that transcends polite or social levels of conversation. Conversations which help people transcend their current circumstances happen only in a space of deep trust, connection and attunement. We also need to add to this the extenuating circumstances which lead people to be speaking with a chaplaincy or spiritual care volunteer. Such circumstances, as the need to be in residential care, hospitals, prisons, before the courts, living with a disability, or having experienced a natural disaster will include at the very least, loss and grief. We need to be mindful as well that this loss and grief is often combined with shock, trauma, or ongoing disability giving rise to suffering at multiple levels of reality, physical, emotional, social and spiritual.

I wish to ask, what are the minimum standards that would equip a person to safely ministry in this space? There are several short courses offered that aim to train a person for volunteer chaplaincy, companions or listeners in various roles in residential care, hospital, and disaster settings. Some organisations assume theological, social work or counselling qualifications have met the basic requirements and require no additional training for spiritual care. Some courses for volunteers are a week-long intensive, others are ten weeks of 2–3-hour long seminars. Others have a learn-on-the-job approach. I wish to suggest that none of these approaches provides adequate training for guiding a spiritual conversation, safety for working one-to-one with vulnerable individuals, or adequate supervision and follow-up once the volunteer has been placed.

Telephone counselling services work with many of the same sensibilities as volunteer chaplains. Both services are working with vulnerable people to provide an opportunity to speak about what is worrying them or uppermost in their minds. In both services, there is a need for self-aware people to have the ability to self-reflect and are settled and stable within themselves. Secondly, the person needs to have the ability to connect and attune in a safe and bounded way, and thirdly, they need to have the necessary skills and knowledge to minister within the limits of their role.

It could be that we seriously underestimate the extent to which a good conversation represents a lifeline to those we listen to.

It might be that some may say that chaplaincy or spiritual care volunteers are just there for a friendly chat or to provide a listening ear, but such an attitude belies the point that like so many activities that appear effortless, good listeners are formed arriving at a state of unconscious competence through training and practice. It could be that we seriously underestimate the extent to which a good conversation represents a lifeline to those we listen to. There are some who temperamentally and spiritually are good listeners, but why would we not seek to extend their gifts for their sake and the people they listen to?

For these reasons, I wish to suggest that we look towards the training of telephone counsellors to provide a minimum framework for training and supervising volunteer chaplains or spiritual carers. Below is a modified version of one such telephone counselling service, Lifeline, who train volunteers in three stages:

Stage one: 3 months

Initial training takes place over 12 weeks, including 12 consecutive face-to-face group training sessions once per week for 3 hours; in addition, there are approximately 1–3 hours per week of independent e-learning to be completed.

Stage two: 2 months

Supervised visiting includes visiting with a chaplain and then being observed by a chaplain. The 3-hour face-to-face sessions during this time are Value-Based Reflective Practice Groups (VBRP), which allow participants to reflect on their individual progress. It provides opportunities for learners to practice new skills and gain constructive feedback. Successful completion of this stage leads to an invitation to stage three.

Stage three: 6–12 months

The probationary period consists of visiting one-half day (3.5 hours) per week, supervision and mandatory professional development. On the successful completion of this final stage, the volunteer is a trained volunteer of the ministry, who should continue to receive supervision and continuing education.

This training model has flexibility where the initial three months could be conducted on or off-site, allowing for resource sharing between sites. The e-learning material should include both general approaches to soul care and spiritual care (transformative listening, limits, boundaries, cross-cultural competencies, trauma informed care etc.) and context specific training (dementia, men’s sheds, hospitals etc.). Stage two involves a closely supervised volunteer placement with further group supervision and stage three is a closely supervised probationary period.

Photo by Antoine Barrès on Unsplash

Author: Pastoral Thinking

This web-page is a place where chaplains, pastoral and spiritual carers are encouraged to think both deeply and laterally about the world we live in, and the pastoral care we provide.

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