I wish to suggest that soul care, either specifically religious care or more general spiritual care, is a supportive scaffold accompanying a person through a difficult situation rather than intervening with a mortar mix that becomes integrated into the structure.
Soul carers have been hampered by the inability to give a clear account of the skills they bring to their role, and it has become tempting to turn to clinical interventionist language. There are, however, inherent dangers in speaking of intervention when ministering to people in complex and multilayered constructs where many factors are obscured from us, and we have no way of predicting the myriad possibilities of future unfoldings. While it is true that the term intervention is used in the sense of becoming involved in a difficult situation and providing facilitation, empowerment, resources, support or mediation, it is equally true that the semantic range of ‘intervention’ also includes instruction, direction and involvement right through to intrusion, imposition and interference.
An attractive aspect of the term “intervention” may be that it captures something of the disruptive nature of certain events in a person’s life; yet, on closer inspection, the disruptive aspect more closely corresponds with the actual events rather than granting permission for interuptive actions of care for the person. It is this care that I think is more properly conceived as a scaffold, providing a framework and support around a person while they make the necessary adjustment to a new reality or realisation.
…good scaffolding must be from a trustworthy source, safe, and consist of high-quality and well-integrated components that can bear considerably more weight than is required. Scaffolding is also diagonally braced to provide strength and stability, designed to resist both tension and compression forces.
In the construction industry, good scaffolding must be from a trustworthy source, be safe, and consist of high-quality, well-integrated components that can bear considerably more weight than is required. Scaffolding is also diagonally braced to provide strength and stability and is designed to resist both tension and compression forces. This provides an apt metaphor for soul care. Soul care must be trustworthy, safe, fit for purpose, and internally well-integrated, maintaining separation while being intimately connected and able to withstand pressure and tension.
Soul carers, not unlike the scaffold around Notre Dame, provide external support where and while it is specifically needed and then at the appropriate time is dismantled. Scaffolding provides support during times of repair and change. Soul care accompanies, supports and holds people (while maintaining critical distance) through their process of sense-making and finding their way into their new reality. Such scaffolding is both an art and a skill.
Scaffolding creates a framework that is robust enough to hold space for another when they are struggling to bear the weight of their own burdens. This is not to imply that a person’s healing comes from within or only from their own resources, any more than a building builds or repairs itself, but scaffolding provides support, safety, and space while repair is undertaken. Nor do I mean that to scaffold is not to speak, but rather, it is a type of speech that helps the other find their lost words and voice. The scaffolded space is a transformative space where reassessment, realignment, restorative work, and replacement of elements can happen. Scaffolding, while holding space and providing structure and security, remains separate, allowing for restorative work to happen and all the emergent possibilities that arise from the scaffolded time.
As the soul carer quietly and safely externally scaffolds, internally, they are drawing on all their training – their theological and philosophical frameworks, reflective practices, deep listening skills, trauma-informed care, cross-cultural and diversity competencies, mental health first aid and patterns of grief and loss. As they scaffold, they bear witness to the circumstances of the other and bear witness to the wisdom and skill entrusted to them, and begin to locate the focus of the patient’s concerns and listen for the soundings of spiritual distress.
When someone is comfortable, they are more likely to open up about themselves and their beliefs. This type of dynamic two-way communication is predicated on the listener being a good listener and valuing the other person and their beliefs, which in turn leaves the other person feeling like they have been understood. Soul carers can be trusted to work safely with others’ exploration of meaning, belonging, and purpose, or even their faith, hope, and love, without becoming mortar by inserting themselves into the other’s life. The soul carer scaffolds through listening and reflective questioning, creating space for deeper narrative integration on both the horizontal and vertical domains.
The metaphorical phrase ‘Scaffolding, not mortar’ has been borrowed from a daily lectionary reflection by theologian, Alistair Roberts
Photo credit: Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, by Melinda Young Stuart (edited slightly)
One thought on “Soul care—scaffolding, not mortar”
Thank you for another wonderful article that provides deep insight into the work we do.
It is important to find the words that articulate our work however, it can be quite challenging at times. I find myself thinking about the clinical charting process we use and how we are required to identify our interventions (such as derived from the Chaplaincy Taxonomy). Often I settle on wordings that are too coarse, or perhaps vague, in meaning and do not convey the subtlety or complexity of the work. There are many good reasons for quality charting which I fully support and appreciate, but so often what we leave out, or find too hard to express, is the real mystery (the soul care) of what we do.
Perhaps, it is the way we provide individualised and unique scaffolding to those we meet where the gentle art of spiritual care comes to the fore?
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