Lacombe is a city in central Alberta with a population of just over 13,000. Its fire department is staffed by a full-time fire chief, full-time deputy fire chief, and up to 40 paid-on-call firefighters. Around six years ago, the chief approached the Lacombe Ministerial Association, asking if one of its members could serve as chaplain for the fire department. Initially the task was divided among four local pastors, but eventually Neil deKoning, pastor of Woody Nook Christian Reformed Church, became the sole chaplain. Last year, the Lacombe police service asked if he would serve them as well.
At the outset, deKoning received training in critical incident debriefing. The time he spends as chaplain is flexible. “I listen to the calls when I can, touch base with the fire chief and deputy chief, show up at training once a month, and at shift change when I am able. Chaplaincy is a ministry of presence, and in that capacity, I have been able to have numerous chats about faith, mental health, and other pastoral care concerns among the members of the volunteer department.” With the police service, “I have done ride-alongs with several members and regularly drop by for lunch with members and staff. Last fall I became a trainer for the R2MR (Road to Mental Readiness), which is designed to help members and leaders become better equipped to handle stress and deal with mental health concerns in themselves and their fellow staff members. I have since taught the course a few times.”
“I engaged both chaplaincies,” explained deKoning, “because first responders are regularly called upon to face difficult aspects of community life. Their health and well-being is an important part of the health and well-being of [the] community. For me this is deeply spiritual: What we see when we are seeing, how we respond with care and a concern for justice, when we face another person as an imagebearer of God, how we respond in the face of criticism, all expose spiritually rooted worldviews. I hope along the way to have conversations that bless and encourage both the first responders and the community.”