Ethical considerations in pastoral support

Simon O'Donoghue

In order to operate as an effective pastoral carer, it is fundamental to have a well-developed ethical framework that can be referred to quickly when practising. Frequently, there will be occasions when supporting individuals requires deep ethical deliberation, and in order to do this effectively a strong awareness of one’s own internal paradigm is essential. Some situations may not have a clear right or wrong answer, but it is a crucial element of the training of a pastoral carer to reflect on and conduct a detailed examination of the beliefs that underpin our personal ethics. For the humanist pastoral carer, it is their humanist worldview that acts as the first reference point, however, an awareness of our legal obligations is also imperative – and these obligations will also play a crucial role in the ethical decision-making process.

When supporting vulnerable people, embodying the highest ethical code and standards of integrity is paramount. Patients, prisoners, children, and those with mental health issues or learning difficulties may be considered vulnerable in this context, and the impact that this has on the dynamic of the relationship between the carer and cared for must be acknowledged. The nature of this relationship means that all pastoral carers receive ‘safeguarding’ training before being able to offer support, the aim of which is to heighten awareness of the measures to protect individuals from ‘abuse, harm, and neglect’. Issues related to safeguarding are perhaps more easily understood, as the institutional and legal parameters can be made clear, for example knowing what abuse looks like and how to report it. But, what about those situations that require immediate attention but don’t necessarily sit within obvious legal parameters? As advocates for the vulnerable, a pastoral carer will regularly come across situations that demand sensitivity, integrity, and understanding, with only their worldview to refer to, and they must be thoroughly prepared for this.

The six categories of the model of ethics used by pastoral carers during training

The model of ethics used by pastoral carers during training can be broken down into six distinct categories. Each of these categories warrants thorough consideration and is made up of many facets, however, a brief outline of each is provided below:

  • Welfare of the individual: Involves both promoting and safeguarding the welfare of those we support. It is about respecting the rights of the individual to hold their own beliefs, not causing distress, and not proselytising on humanism.
  • Protecting the vulnerable: heavily linked to the legal context, ensuring those in our care are safe from abuse, harm, and neglect.
  • Diversity and discrimination: respecting difference and treating everyone with equal respect and dignity. Identifying possible instances of discrimination and challenging it.
  • Personal ethics and capability: working within ethical and competency boundaries. Having a strong sense of self-awareness, and seeking relevant support to develop capabilities.
  • Working with colleagues: playing an active part in a multi-faith team. Working with religious colleagues to the benefit of service users, by seeking to better understand their worldview and referring cases when appropriate.
  • Probity: having strong moral principles and working to the highest standards of integrity.

It would be impossible to train someone in how to respond to every given scenario while operating as a pastoral carer, but by constant reflection and analysis, it is possible to build a greater sense of awareness to inform how we might respond. The categories listed above do have some utility as a means to help develop our thinking. However, it should be acknowledged that the complexity of the issues faced when providing support can often require a greater level of flexibility than simple categorisation allows for. It is also important to recognise that, try as we might, we are not completely infallible and we may not always opt for the best course of action. This is why supervision and/or reflective practice is so valuable, as it allows us to reevaluate our response with deeper examination, which in turn informs improved decision-making when faced with similar dilemmas in the future.

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