My wife and I are vacationing this week. We booked these few days many months ago, looking forward to some rest, adventure and time with family. Although we’ve had more than our share of driving - Pennsylvania to South Carolina to Nantucket, MA, and home again - we’ve had some unforgettable hours talking, reflecting and looking toward the future.
I hadn’t a clue what I was getting into.
Driving up the NJ Turnpike, of all places, our conversation turned to fire chaplaincy. We talked about the blessing and honor it’s been to be part of the Palmer Municipal Fire Department (PMFD). When I agreed to take the position three years ago, I hadn’t a clue what I was getting into! But I haven’t regretted one moment. As I’ve observed the crew and command staff, as I’ve read articles from veteran fighters and completed training classes to be a more competent Chaplain, I’ve seen some amazing correlations between a firehouse and the church - with the institutional church coming out on the short end.
PMFD is in the process of building two trucks, a tiller ladder, and an engine. A tiller is a tractor trailer-type of a vehicle - the kind where there’s a driver up front and in the back! The decision to purchase a tiller came after a careful examination of the needs of the community and the capabilities of the vehicles. (Keep both of those criteria in mind, they’ll be important later). In ordering these custom machines, an assessment of the current buildings also took place. Personal interests took a backseat to the real needs of the community. As I listened to the department discussions over the past years, I realized something foundational to firehouses; they exist, ultimately, for others.
I know of no firehouse, although there probably are some, existing only for its members; they’re not clubs. Every firehouse, no matter how small, is designed from floor to ceiling to house apparatus, assisting others in time of need. A firehouse contains all manner of gear, also for the sake of others. Its vehicles are always pointing outward, never in. Ever drive past a firehouse with its bay doors open and see the backend of a truck? I bet not. Everything is ready for dispatch on a moments notice.
And the crew? They’re trained or should be, to protect, defend and rescue. They’re schooled in exterior and interior fire fighting techniques, vehicle rescue, fire behavior, mass casualty incidents, hazardous materials and more, much more. A firefighter unwilling to execute the tasks necessary for the safety of self, team or public is not a firefighter, they’re fakes, phonies, frauds. Signing up just to get the t-shirt gets you ejected!
The weight of the department rests on the broad shoulders of the capable volunteers.
In our department, at present, there’s only one paid professional, the Commissioner. But he doesn’t do all the work; he’s not expected to! The weight of the department rests on the broad shoulders of the capable volunteers - command staff, firefighters and significant others. If the Commissioner can’t respond to a scene, there’s no worry. Others are trained to assume command, assess the situation and respond with vigor and effectiveness. The responsibilities are spread out over the whole of the department, each person deploying with the skills necessary to perform accurately and safely.
And in the down time, when motor vehicle accidents, fire alarms or “odors other than smoke” calls are few, there are many things to do. Times to check gear. Times for fellowship. Times for food - there’s always time for food! And times for rest. But all of the activities of a firehouse, a true-to-the-faith firehouse, swirl around one vision, to protect, defend and rescue. Shouldn’t the church be the same?
I’m proud to be part of the Palmer Municipal Fire Department as its Chaplain. I’ve learned more than I knew there was to know in the few years in service. I take my role seriously, even though it’s not the role of the Commissioner, Assistant Chief, Captain, or Firefighter. We’re called to stay in our lanes, always vigilant in training, learning and executing. We’re expected to know where all the tools are and how to use them. It can mean the difference between life and death.
What would it look like if the church functioned the same way? What would it be like if everyone who entered the doors of any church, proclaiming to be a constituent of the faith, were required to train and deploy in time of need? I’m not talking about those who are curious or just want a tour; I’m talking about adherents to the faith. Statistics reveal that 80 percent of ministry is executed by 20 percent of the people. And, what if everything inside the building of a church was set up and structured like a firehouse - always facing outward, never inward? What if the church embraced the standards of a firehouse? I suspect much would be different, across the board.
They all have a t-shirt.
What if the church took the same approach as a firehouse, assessing the needs of the community and the capabilities of its members first, then training and dispatching accordingly? I know of some houses of worship existing only for the club members rather than the community. They all have a t-shirt. They take up real estate, looking inward instead of outward. Jesus came to seek and save that which is lost. The church should do the same. Seeking to be a firehouse church; defending, protecting and rescuing. Anything else is just a club.