If you have noticed the need for a chaplain program (and if you are in a fire department that has no chaplain then you have a need . . .), then it’s time to do something about it. We all know that many of the greatest feats, inventions, successes, and accomplishments have come from one person with a simple idea, a single-minded focus and determination, and a willingness to take one step and continue following the path laid out before him or her until the goal was met. A chaplain program is started and becomes successful in much the same way. It takes an individual who sees the need and does something about it. Let me share a little secret with you: many of your brothers and sisters see the same need you see, but somebody has to step up, take the reins, and do something about it.
You may be a new firefighter in a volunteer department, an established chief in a major metropolitan department, a mechanic in fleet maintenance, an administrative assistant in a training division, or even a local clergy man or woman who loves fire department culture and wants to help. You may have a Masters of Divinity, some type of theology or seminary degree, experience in local ministry, or none of the above. It doesn’t matter who you are or your educational or ministry experience; it only matters that you see the need and want to do something about it.
It won’t be easy to do this, but nothing worth doing is ever easy. I promise that if you follow the basic plan, you will be surprised what can be accomplished in your department. In this article, I am going to lay out a simple plan in three basic steps that you can follow to start a chaplain program in your local department. Some portions of these steps will merge with other steps, so don’t feel like it has to be 1, 2, 3, 4 with no adjustments. Take each step as it comes, and don’t quit until you have established the chaplain program that your department needs.
1) Establish a Need
This almost goes without saying as we mentioned above, but just in case you’re still not convinced, let me elaborate. The fire department is full of PEOPLE, and PEOPLE have issues. We all are human beings that deal with the stuff that life throws at us: Making our personal budget work (if we have one), dealing with marital issues, kids and school issues, family problems, work struggles, balancing life’s schedules and more. However, we also know that firefighters have all of these issues plus we have a second family that multiplies all of those problems exponentially. Our family can be our greatest ally, but when we are dealing with outside issues, it can cause problems within both sets of families (work and home). Often a chaplain can be available to listen, give advice, or even offer a solution to the problem that our firefighters are facing.
2) Establish Partnerships
Once you have established that there is a need for a chaplain program, it is important to find people, churches, and other agencies that can aid you in the growth of the program. These partnerships may be obvious without any effort in searching them out, but some of these partnerships may require an aggressive, detailed search. Do whatever it takes to gain the allies you need in beginning this program. The most significant partnerships will come from individuals. These individuals may be other firefighters in your department who have the same passions, local clergy who have an interest in the fire department, or a chaplain from a nearby department who is interested in helping you. (One of those partnerships could be me and the rest of my chaplain team!!!!) The local churches, synagogues, and cathedrals, and other places or worship are also essential because you will need to have a wide representation of all denominations and religious beliefs so you can meet the diverse spiritual needs of the people in your department. Based on your past and current religious experience you will be able to help those with a similar experience. However, you will need assistance from others to help those with who share a spiritual or religious experience different from yours.
Other agencies can also step into a role to assist you in your development of the chaplain program. Those agencies can include the Federation of Fire Chaplains, Local Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), Unions (if applicable), and any other agencies where you see a common thread that could help.
3) Get approval and buy-in from the administration and the union (if applicable)
Once you have established a need, developed partnerships, and started thinking about what your chaplain program will look like, it will be important to reach out for approval to those who need to give the “ok” for your program. In any type of department, this will at least require the approval of the department chief. In larger departments it may also require the approval of the city or county commission, other elected officials, and in some cases the union leadership. When you get to this point, it will be important to have your desire and your proposal prepared in a way that shows your detailed plan, how it will work, why it will work, and why it will benefit your department. Please reach out to an experienced chaplain during this process since most of us have had this experience and know what to do and what not to do. One of us can walk you through with a template that will make your presentation professional and hit all the significant talking points.
4) Train your chaplains and get started
This step will work in hand-in-hand with step 3 as you and your leadership will determine the goals of your chaplain program. Together you will need to determine what type of chaplain program will be the most effective for your department. This determination will be based on the type of department you have, the resources available, the needs of your personnel, and the type of help that is available to you from other agencies in the area.
The ideal chaplain program would include a “full-time paid” or “paid on-call” chaplain available 24/7 with supporting assistant chaplains to meet the needs of the personnel whenever necessary. This is obviously financially impossible for all but a very select few fire departments, however if you are able to accomplish this, you can be assured the rest of us will be extremely jealous.
A second option is to have a comprehensive list of local clergy representing all possible denominations. These clergy can be set up to cover the whole department or a certain geographical portion of the department based on the size of the department and the number of willing and available clergy. If you think this type of program would be beneficial for your department, I can walk you through setting it up based on some local departments around me that run a successful program in this manner.
Another option is for your program to be made up of firefighters within your department. It may be that they have experience in the ministry, or maybe they just see the need and want the help. Regardless of experience, this can be a very effective way of beginning and establishing a chaplain program. As I mentioned before, this is what we do at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue so I can help with that if you’d like.
Whichever type of program you choose to start with, the key is to actually start one. You can walk your potential chaplains through an “Essentials of the Chaplaincy” course, and each of them can become certified to act as a chaplain and serve the personnel of your department in whatever way they have been gifted to serve.
I am excited for those of you who are ready to begin this process. I am happy to help in whatever way I can. The more people who do this, the more firefighters we can help. Together we can make a big difference in the lives of firefighters all over the country.
In the next blog we will discuss how to make sure your chaplain program is as effective as it could be. Don’t forget to reach out and ask any questions you may have about getting your chaplain program off the ground.