In the first two blogs we discussed the different factors that are important if you want to begin a chaplain program. Many of them relate directly to your drive and determination in seeing the plan through regardless of the obstacles you face in beginning this important program.
This time I would like to focus on how to be effective once this program has gotten off the ground. How do you make sure that you are influencing people and making a difference in your department? Because let’s be honest: If you don’t do this right, you have a “shell” of a program that doesn’t do anything for anybody, and eventually it becomes a joke. All of us who are firefighters have seen an initiative or a new program that has great ideas, goals, and motivated people who are running it, but it just doesn’t ever get traction and it dies before it does anything it was developed to do.
So, how do you make sure you’re doing it right? Here are four key principles to keep in mind as your chaplain program begins moving forward.
If you want people to utilize the services of the fire chaplain program, then you need to have a plan. You have to be planning and preparing for the instances that you will be helping others. You can’t prepare for every single call you will run, but you can begin to look at the types of calls that chaplains face and begin getting ready to respond to all of these types of calls. Without any preparation, you will not be able to effectively reach those individuals when the call comes in.
One way to do this is to talk to other chaplains and find out what kind of calls they respond to and how they deal with certain situations. You may quickly see a pattern of the types of calls you can expect. You will also hear some crazy, off-the-wall calls that you never would have thought possible, but you will be talking to chaplains who have “been there and done that”. This kind of preparation is essential to make sure you are ready to help whoever needs you whenever they need you.
One of the mistakes that can be made is to not respond when we finally get the opportunity. We have to be ready at a moment’s notice – FOR ANYTHING. A lack of preparation will show up on calls you respond to which is bad for your reputation, but sometimes an even worse affect on your reputation can be when a need is seen and no chaplain is available to help . That lack of response can be detrimental, and unfortunately you may spend the rest of your career trying to overcome that negative reputation.
This doesn’t mean that YOU have to ACTUALLY GO every time the phone rings or the pager goes off. It means that you need to have a plan in place. You should know the times that you are not going to be available and have a back-up plan in place. It could be a local clergy who is skilled in pastoral care with an ability to understand multiple religious beliefs. It could be a firefighter or two who has a background in counseling, pasturing, or critical incident stress management who is willing to step in when needed. There are many people out there who have no interest in STARTING a chaplain program and assuming all the responsibilities that go along with it, but they are willing to help for periods of time. They just need the leader who is willing to jump in and lay the difficult groundwork so they can begin helping their firefighter brothers and sisters.
I am going to spend some extensive time in a later blog regarding personal balance for a chaplain (work, home, relationships, volunteerism, etc), but for the purpose of this discussion, we are going to focus on how to present a “balanced” platform as a chaplain. Your role is not to present every one of your doctrinal beliefs and convince others that your beliefs are the best.
This is a touchy subject amongst many people who love the chaplaincy. Most people who feel strongly about ministering to our firefighters’ spiritual needs have a foundation that is laid in a particular religion or denomination. Those beliefs don’t need to be pushed off to the side, and they SHOULDN’T be! The beliefs that are your foundation are necessary to fulfill the role of ministering to others. However, most of the people you help will not be coming from the same background from which you come. In fact, if a firefighter has the same background as you, then he or she probably already has a place of worship and clergy on whom he or she relies for spiritual advice or counsel. The chaplain often steps into a void where a firefighter has no place or person on whom to call. It’s imperative that the chaplain understands this dynamic. You and I are called to help people where they are. We aren’t called to “win them over” to our belief system. We are called to meet their need. Don’t let your belief system or worldview keep you from being able to minister to others who don’t know or care what you believe.
Above all, we must treat all those we are helping with love and compassion. This should go without saying, but it must be said that the chaplain is not a role for someone who is interested in growing their name, position, or sphere of influence. If those are motivations for your becoming a chaplain, get out now. Don’t waste your time. People will be able to tell if you care about them or if you’re just using them to further your own cause.
The Chaplaincy is an essential part of the pre-planning that should help our people be prepared to face the daily calls and the “one-in-a-million” calls that occasionally shake us to our core. We need to be a part of the preparation, training, and response to these calls. Make sure your chaplain program is following the 4 key principles listed here, and you will see a successful program that meets the needs of the people you are serving.