Empathic Flow: Dutch Humanist Chaplains' Experiences with Professional Empathy and Its Challenges

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Empathy is considered a key component of chaplaincy care, but little is known about the
daily practice of empathy and the empathy barriers that chaplains encounter. This study
investigates the factors that encourage or discourage empathy and provides insight into
what chaplains actually do to achieve empathy and to overcome empathy challenges.
Semistructured interviews were used to collect data from twenty humanist chaplains in
the Netherlands. A grounded theory approach was applied to analyze the data. The core
concept of empathic flow emerged from the analysis. This refers to the stream of empathic
experiences that arises within the relational, dynamic exchange between chaplain
and client. Based on the analysis, three types of empathic flow were distinguished: (1)
uncomplicated empathy, which flows smoothly and easily; (2) challenged empathy, which
fluctuates between flow and temporal stagnation or disruption; and (3) failed empathy, in
which the flow of empathy is blocked. Professional empathy emerged as a second core
category from the interview data. This refers to those chaplains’ activities that aim to
establish or enhance empathic flow, particularly in the face of challenges. Professional empathy
relies on several underlying key components: critical self-reflection, self-care, professional
standards, and the chaplain’s humanistic worldview and values. The qualitative
analysis yielded 10 themes of professional empathy. Our findings suggest that empathy is
a rich and complex practice to which both chaplain and client contribute. As professional
caregivers, chaplains consider themselves ultimately responsible for establishing empathy
and overcoming challenges.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalPastoral Psychology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Nov 2022


  • Humanist chaplaincy
  • Pastoral care
  • Challenged empathy
  • Professional empathy
  • Qualitative research
  • Empathic flow

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