Dear Raising Faith: on pastoral care for humanists

This guest post, from “Alicia,” asks what Unitarian Universalism, and what our ministers, specifically, might have to offer in times of personal crisis.  These are great questions, and I’m happy to put them out here.  What think you, trusty readers?  

All the best,


My teenaged baby sister still lives with our parents. She’s been suffering with depression for quite some time now, and it’s recently come to enough of a head for our parents to seek psychiatric help for her. spilled pillsShe’s currently on her second prescription in as many weeks (it is always hard to find the right medication and the right dosage), and after spending time with her this weekend (when she seemed to be in relatively good spirits, discussing with me her plans for prom and the future), I got a message from my mom today telling me that they had taken her to the hospital, because she is having suicidal thoughts.

My immediate reaction was one of helplessness. I live not only in a different house but a different state, unable to provide my physical presence as support, nor practical help with household duties, cooking, or anything, really, while they help my sister work through her depression enough to safely leave the hospital. I do what I can to be there for her emotionally, trying to keep up with her through Facebook and text message, making time for her when I visit. But ultimately, there’s nothing tangible I can do to help.

On the heels of lamenting my helplessness, I had an impulse to e-mail my minister. He is great at being aware of the stresses present in his congregants’ lives and asking how he can support them. But as someone who sucks at asking for help, much less directing it, what can I say? Honestly, I have no idea, in this moment of helplessness and brokenness, what kind of meaningful help he could offer.

If I were a Christian, I would be seeking spiritual reassurance, a reminder that even if I am helpless, God is not, and He has both a plan and the power to remedy any situation. A Christian minister would pray with me, for God to soothe my heart and my sister’s (and my parents’), to heal us, or at least wrap divine arms of love around us, providing security as we weather the storm.

But even though I’m sure my minister would give that to me if I wanted it, I don’t – I’m agnostic. If I believe in something beyond physical reality, it’s not anyone moving the chess pieces of humanity about with a grand design in mind to checkmate the devil. I don’t believe in a personal God who knows the sorrows of every sparrow. So while I’m quick to suggest that my mother seek out her Christian minister’s care for her own needs, I hesitate to do the same, even when it occurs to me that I might – that perhaps, I ought.

In the context of a humanistic religion, what does pastoral care have to offer that a good friend – or a good therapist – doesn’t? The space to express my feelings of sorrow and helplessness abounds here on the Internet, and in the hearts of a few loving and trusted friends. They offer me non-anxious presence, love, an awareness that I’m not alone. A therapist (if I had one), would undoubtedly validate my concerns and offer me some secular coping strategies. I am fairly emotionally and spiritually self-aware, and don’t need anyone to tell me to engage in self-care during this time (though it seems a bit ludicrous to worry about myself because of my sister’s pain, I know it’s important). So what does the minister of my humanistic religion have to offer me in this time of difficulty?

This question feels big to me, the crux of a wider (if tired) conversation about Unitarian Universalism, and what makes us a religion rather than a social group, a lecture circuit, or a gathering of activists. And I’ve never really known how to answer that, except that it is a feeling, a sense of wonder and unity that can only be called religious. But while that is nice when all is well in life, what does it offer when all is not well?

(click here for a response from the Rev. Jill Jarvis.) 

2 thoughts on “Dear Raising Faith: on pastoral care for humanists

  1. Sometimes, our faith movement isn’t much more than a social club or lecture circuit. I was recently at a UU worship service and nearly cried, knowing that someone in that room was there for the first time, heart-broken and in need or in longing, and will never come back. Yet when we allow for the Mystery that exists and among us, and we cultivate an appreciation and connection with it, we can touch what some of the best of all mystical arms of religions/faith traditions touch. I believe that and have experienced that.

    So in terms of what humanists have to offer — well, I know humanists who self describe that way, but who are agnostic on a divine essence in the world/universe. They use their reason and skepticism in service of comfort and engaging the Mystery, rather than circumscribing it (which is my complaint of many organized religions, particularly Western Christianity). This same Mystery holds us when we are in pain — sometimes it can soothe us, but sometimes it does not — and we, humanist or not, are here to embody that on this plane that we inhabit. I go to seminary with a lot of people who feel they have a deity that will comfort them in the afterlife. Sometimes I have envied them. Certainly, I have baffled them. But I have never felt the comfort they seem to gain from a salvific god — I have wanted to feel that comfort, but in fact, I have felt belittled by it, incredulous, condescended.

    As a non-deist, my path to comfort has come, over and over again, from my engagement with Buddhism. Not just meditation, though that has been key, but in not just seeking comfort in that tradition’s wisdom, but deeply experiencing it beyond my intellect. Without that spiritual understanding of the universe (which isn’t orthodox Buddhism, since I do believe in a larger essence that is divine), I would wonder, too, what solace humanist ideas offer different than what a good secular healer can offer (which can be pretty damn good, if they are skilled — but usually, having been in that field, the really skilled ones tend to have a spiritual practice that informs their secular work). All that said, when I provide pastoral care to congregants who do not share my Buddhist inclination and who are “typical” deists (personal god stuff), I become more Socratic, helping them to find within them access to their own idiom for understanding/meaning/comfort/guidance.

  2. Pingback: UUs discuss marriage equality, worship, holy days and more « : The Interdependent Web

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