THE Question

As a volunteer chaplain for my local fire department, I was having a professionally made picture taken for a special event when the photographer asked me a question, which I was not anticipating, “What is a chaplain?” My response to her was in the context of institutionalize ministry related to the military, hospital or prison chaplaincy. A chaplain is an ordained minister of their denomination plus meeting the requirements, usually educational, for that specific ministry i.e.: military, hospital, prison etc. For an example, to become a military chaplain, one has to be an ordained minister and be endorsed by their denomination. The Army, Navy and Air Force and Bureau of Prisons require the ordained minister to have a Bachelor of Arts, Masters of Divinity Degree and two years of pastoral experience. The same is true for a hospital chaplain but with the addition of two or more Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) units depending upon the hospital’s requirements. Prison chaplaincy requirements are the close to the same as the hospital chaplain but it is dependent upon that specific state’s requirements.

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An institutional chaplain provides pastoral care to a diverse, pluralistic religious audience who may have a faith background or does not have any faith at all.

In respect to a fire department chaplain, the chaplain is usually a local pastor who is willing to volunteer their time and has a passion to minister to firefighters. Also, I have seen the chaplain to be a local firefighter who is a lay minister of a church or has some theological education who is interested in becoming their unit’s chaplain. From my own personal observation, each fire department has its own standard by which they select their chaplain and not a national standard like the other major institutions, which may have some drawbacks.

The major difference between a chaplain and local pastor is the local pastor ministers to a congregation in accordance to their denomination or faith i.e.: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. However, an institutional chaplain provides pastoral care to a diverse, pluralistic religious audience who may have a faith background or does not have any faith at all. The term “Cooperation without Compromise” was the slogan for the Navy Chaplain Corps for a long period of time meaning the chaplain helps “facilitate” (cooperation) a person’s faith while staying true (without compromising) one’s own faith.

Hopefully this explanation has helped in defining a fire department chaplain. In the next issue, “The Question” will be “What should you expect from your chaplain?” or send in your comments, “What I would like to see from my chaplain?” Until next time, Stay Safe!

Chaplain Steve Bird retired as a Navy Chaplain with 40 years of military service in 2011. He retired as a North Carolina State Correctional Chaplain with 22 years of service 1 April 2018. Desiring to serve his local community, he has been actively involved with the Monroe Fire Department, Monroe, North Carolina as their volunteer chaplain since May 2018.

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