A Ministry of Presence

By Thomas N. Warren

Fire Departments across the country have many things in common. One of the oldest and longest standing traditions within the fire service community is the establishment and presence of a chaplaincy to serve the pastoral, spiritual, and emotional needs of its members and the victims of the many emergencies to which we respond.

The fire service, in the vast majority of cases, is a publicly funded emergency service organization financed by taxes levied by a government and managed through a municipal budget. This is not true in every case, however; in some communities, there is an independent local fire district that is chartered by a governmental body with the authority to levy taxes to support its operations, but by far this is truly in the minority of cases. The fire service is, at its core, a publicly funded (tax dollars) emergency service organization that is responsible to local, state, and federal government policy and law.

So, with this funding, formula, and organizational structure in mind, how is it that an organization designed to serve the public, financed by the public, managed by public policy, and responsible to the public is allowed to maintain a chaplaincy within its organization? It can be argued that a chaplaincy is a religious presence within a publicly sponsored and financed organization, and that it would seem to be in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and good public policy. It brings into question the concept of separation of church and state.

To understand this long-standing relationship of the fire service and a chaplaincy within the fire service, we need to examine the history of chaplaincy, the First Amendment and the constitutionality of a chaplaincy, the role of chaplains in today’s fire service, and the expectations of the public in emergency situations.



The idea of a chaplaincy began to appear and take on the concept of a special ministry when it was required by the established military of the ancient Roman Empire. The Roman Empire began around 27 B.C. and lasted into 476 A.D. Roman military leaders were required to perform religious duties in addition to military functions. The philosophy at that time in history was that God or the gods were a very important force behind military success. Military leaders were also responsible for providing the spiritual needs of their soldiers in addition to the success of the military campaign in which they were engaged. There were no additional priests or ministers assigned to the military to meet this need; only the military leaders themselves to perform this special ministry for the soldiers1.

The role of military chaplains began to evolve from bringing the blessing of God or the gods for the cause of the military campaign and strengthening the fighting power of the army to ministering the individual soldiers themselves. The work of the chaplains eventually began to take the shape of tending to the moral, spiritual, and pastoral needs of the soldiers and to also provide the sacrament to soldiers who were preparing to kill other people or being killed themselves. This shift from blessing the military weaponry prior and during battle to ministering to the soldiers laid the foundation for the work of today’s chaplaincy in the military and, eventually, to the ministry of fire department chaplains.

The distinction or title of chaplains (Latin for cappellani) dates back to the 4th century, when a priest or minister kept the famous half cape of St. Martin of Tours. This sacred relic gave its name to the tent and later to the simple oratory or chapel where the relic was preserved. Later, other relics were added and stored at the chapel. A priest or minister was appointed by the king and placed in charge of the chapel to guard the sacred relics stored in the chapel. These early chaplains were appointed by the king and served during the Merovingian (500 – 751 A.D.) and Carolingian (748 – 814 A.D.) periods. In addition to guarding the sacred relics, these chaplains also said mass for the king on feast days, worked in conjunction with the royal notaries, and assisted the king with writing any documents that the king required. In their duties, chaplains gradually became more identified with direct service to the monarch as advisors in both ecclesiastical and secular matters. The practice of kings appointing their own chaplains spread throughout western Christendom. Chaplains were ordained members of the clergy who were assigned a special ministry2.

In modern usage of the term, a chaplain is not confined to any particular church or denomination but retains the concept of a special ministry. Clergy and ministers are appointed to a variety of institutions and corporate bodies such as cemeteries, prisons, hospitals, schools, colleges, universities, police departments, and fire departments as well as the military. The United States House of Representatives has had a chaplain on staff since 1789 and, over the years, these chaplains have been Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopalian among other religious denominations. There are also many nondenominational ministers serving as chaplains in very meaningful ways throughout the country in many different institutions.

One of the most famous Chaplains was Father Mychal Judge who served as a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) from 1992 until his death on 9/11. He was a Franciscan friar and a Catholic priest who died on 9/11 during the attack on the World Trade Center (WTC). He refused to be evacuated from the area around the WTC buildings and, as he prayed for the firefighters and gave sacraments to the victims, he was struck and killed by a storm of falling metal and concrete as the South Tower collapsed. Father Judge was designated as “victim 0001” because his was the first body recovered at the scene3.

The history of chaplaincy illustrates two principles. The first principle is that history has shown us that the concept of having a person (chaplain) present with a spiritual presence is a basic human need that must be met. It has been a part of the human experience since early times. This presence is as valid for any one religion as it is for another. The second principle is that the chaplaincy is not something that is broad based in nature, but rather something that is more of a special ministry specific to the a particular group or mission. It is this second principle—that of a special ministry—that gives rise to the work of fire department chaplains. Fire Department chaplains have an understanding and passion for the unselfish and dangerous work that firefighters perform, and they develop a keen sense of the special ministry required by the fire service.


The First Amendment and Constitutionality

This is the area that often raises questions and concerns for both supporters and detractors of separation of church and state issues. The governmental support, such as that provided to fire department chaplains, can raise concerns and must be structured in such a way that the emotional and spiritual needs of the community and the firefighters themselves can be met and at the same time respect the political and patriotic values of the public.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is one of the first 10 amendments that were ratified in 1791 and have become know as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment states the following:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an established religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, of the press, or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition Government for a redress of grievances.”

The United States Supreme Court has heard only a small number of church and state cases since 1791. The most notable cases regarding church and state issues have been heard since 1947, and they have essentially shaped the way public funds can be used to support a chaplaincy.

The first case was Everson v. Board of Education (1947). This case created the principle for the Establishment Clause Test and was the basis for deciding church and state cases until 1971. The Establishment Clause Test contained six main principles4, which follow:

  • Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church.
  • Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, nor prefer one religion over another.
  • Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or remain away from a church against his will of force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.
  • No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or nonattendance.
  • No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or intuitions, whatever they may be called or whatever they may adopt to teach or practice religion.
  • Neither a state nor the federal government can openly or secretly participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.

In 1971, the Supreme Court heard Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), a second case relating to the church and state issue. This case created the modern standard that is now used to determine if a chaplaincy in any institution is constitutional. This case established a new set of standards known as the Lemon Test for determining the constitutionality of church and state related issues. Fire department chaplaincies fall under this decision as do other publicly supported chaplaincies such as those in hospitals, prisons, schools, colleges, police departments, and even the United States House of Representatives.

The case involved Pennsylvania and Rhode Island statutes that provided state aid to church-related elementary and secondary schools. A group of individual taxpayers and religious liberty organizations filed suit, challenging the constitutionality of the program. They claimed that since the program primarily aided parochial schools, it violated the Establishment Clause. The issue was whether states can create programs that provide financial support to nonpublic elementary and secondary schools by way or reimbursement for the cost of teachers’ salaries, textbooks, and instructional material in specified secular subjects (in Pennsylvania) or pay a salary supplement directly to teachers of secular subjects in religious schools (in Rhode Island). In a unanimous decision, the Court held that both programs violate the Establishment Clause because they create excessive entanglement between a religious entity and the state5.

The Lemon Test, created by the Lemon v. Kurtzman case, is the standard of judicial review used in cases involving the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Lemon Test created three test questions for judging whether governmental actions such as creating or supporting a chaplaincy are allowable under the Establishment Clause. A negative answer to any of the following three questions means the act is unconstitutional.

  • Does the challenged law or other governmental action have a bona fide secular (nonreligious) or civic purpose?
  • Does the primary effect of the law or action neither advance nor inhibit religion, i.e., is it neutral?
  • Does the law or action avoid excessive entanglement of government with religion?

If the answer to all three questions is yes, then the law or action passes the Lemon Test. When the action, in this case, establishing a fire department chaplaincy, passes the Lemon Test, it is a constitutional endeavor. More simply stated, if the chaplaincy has a secular purpose, does not promote or advance a particular religion, and does not create excessive entanglement with government and religion, then the chaplaincy is allowed to exist within a government body such as a fire department.

In the case of fire department chaplains, the three tests that allow for the chaplaincy to be active, also by necessity, must provide for the chaplain to be issued the tools necessary to operate in the dangerous environment in which fire departments normally operate. To actively serve, fire department chaplains require full personal protective equipment, dress uniforms, radios, reflective vests, and other equipment. The cost of this equipment will be borne by the fire department itself. The fire department will fund the equipment for the chaplaincy. However, the chaplains are volunteers—not employees—of the fire department.

Fire department chaplains are active in many fire departments in this country and through this legal evolution they have served a need within the confines of the United States Constitution. Their ministry has sustained many firefighters and civilians alike, providing the spiritual and emotional support that is often needed in times of crisis.


The Role of Chaplains in the Fire Service

The role of chaplains in the fire service today is closer to that of a counselor than that of religious advocate. They are called on to counsel people of all faiths in moments of personal crisis, which can occur for emergency responders as well as civilian victims. The presence of Chaplains at emergency scenes always projects a sense of calmness during those chaotic and emotional times that occur during emergency operations. I have witnessed some of the most burley and rugged firefighters remove their helmets and bow their heads when the chaplain enters a burned out room to administer last rites to a fire victim. This simple gesture seems to place some perspective into the loss of a human life at that fire. It serves at once the needs of the firefighters and the deceased fire victim.

The Federation of Fire Chaplains was established in June of 1992 and has formalized the mission and ministry of fire chaplains. The organization was incorporated to bring together individuals and groups who are interested in providing effective chaplaincies for fire service organizations. Their goal is to provide aid and comfort to firefighters, and their families in particular, but also serve victims of fires and other crisis happenings.

In a more generic sense, a fire chaplain’s ministry takes the form of ministering to crisis victims, fire department funerals, severe injury and death notifications, confidentiality, critical incident stress counseling, and integrating themselves into the fire department. An effective chaplain will become part of the very fabric of the department he serves and will build a strong scene of trust with the public. He attends promotional ceremonies, award ceremonies, some training programs, funerals, and hospital visits and assists with Red Cross and similar organizations. Most importantly, he is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A friend of mine, a chaplain in a neighboring fire department, once said to me that many times his fire service ministry is simply a ministry of presence. He summed up in a few words how he effectively meets his challenging and critical work6.


Expectations of the Public

The public, in most cases, doesn’t think in philosophical, emotional, or political terms about the chaplains in the fire service. There is not a clamoring from the public for fire departments to have chaplains as part of their local fire departments. It can be said that, for the most part, the public is somewhat indifferent to this concept.

It is also very evident to anyone who has witnessed a chaplain at work at emergency scenes, specifically where the chaplain is at work ministering to the public in their moment of crisis, that the chaplain’s presence is valued deeply by those who are counseled. People of any faith find comfort when a chaplain reaches out to ease their suffering and provide for their basic needs. The public places great trust in the actions and service of their fire department, but their response when a chaplain reaches out to them is truly one of complete faith that the chaplain will provide the comfort needed. Sometimes the only thing a chaplain has to do is just be present .

There are not very many things that have served firefighters as long and as faithfully as chaplains. They have been part of the fire service since the beginning and have been part of our deep history and traditions. They serve with distinction and with a presence that calms the wildest of storms.



  1. Christian Science Monitor.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  3. BelieveOutLoud.com.
  4. Education for Freedom – Everson v. Board of Education.
  5. Education for Freedom, First Amendment Schools – Lemon v. Kurtzman.
  6. Federation of Fire Chaplains.


Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.


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