A Chaplain’s Task

by Ray Wickham:

3 am

It is 3 am and your dive team is cleaning up from its last mission.   You successfully located the suspect’s weapon, several other pieces of evidence, and the three-year-old boy he had disposed of in Lake Wantaka.   Think about that.  Imagine a young child walking away from a family picnic at the lake, and hours later you are responsible for recovering him from the water.  Your team is cold and tired.   Mechanically, they clean and store their gear.    Soon, they will be parting ways and heading home for a few hours of shut-eye.   Some of you reading this have been there, others of you will.  Unless you have experienced this, it is very difficult to comprehend the scope of a tragedy such as this on a family, and those tasked with providing closure for that family.

The divers stow their gear so they are ready for the next call. But where do they pack the emotions of today? The gray face and blue lips of a child who should be playing at the picnic; the unfathomable anguish and shock of the family; their own doubts about their purpose, life, God, worry for their own loved ones? Many of these are hard men; ex-military and public safety veterans who expose themselves to personal danger and the tragedies of others regularly because they are called to it. But will the next call be the one that turns a rescuer into a victim… maybe physically, maybe emotionally, maybe spiritually?

All part of the job

What do you do after the adrenaline wears off and reality sets in?   Who do you turn to for the discomfort, grief, and anger that you are feeling after enduring one more emotionally charged call?    Your teammates are in similar states of mind. It is a part of doing this job.

Have you considered a volunteer chaplain position for your team?   A person who has been professionally trained and perhaps has years of experience in dealing with people who have endured trauma, grief, and stress?    There are some of us out here and we are willing to help!

Helping others

After completing my DM with SDI, I was encouraged by the owners of Air Hogs Scuba to continue my training and assist with local dive teams by being certified at all levels with ERDI.   It has been tough work for a 60-year-old guy, but it has also been some of the most fun, challenging, and rewarding times I have ever had.   I have also come to see the stress and trials that rescue dive teams endure on a regular basis.   I was able to do this because the church I founded, and have pastored for 23 years, has encouraged me to explore the possibilities of helping people who help others.

I have done research and discovered that most police and fire departments have chaplains that serve either part-time or volunteer for local and municipal areas.   Many of these chaplains are trained and certified by denominational agencies from their respective faiths.   They are mostly seasoned pastors and ministers who have a heart for those who serve and protect.

When called

However, when it comes to dive teams, the word “volunteer” is often used as a prefix.   Most local dive teams, unless they are located near large bodies of water or a coastal region, must operate on a shoestring budget and work hard to deliver proficient and professional assistance when called.   The position of chaplain is usually not considered because of economic restraints.

A volunteer chaplain on every call can be a valuable asset to victims and responders alike. A chaplain can provide some comfort to victims until their own spiritual guides arrive, or possibly be the only source of comfort for those without a faith. But a chaplain can also be there for responders as they process the emotions of the call, helping reactions that should not be suppressed get handled in a safe, healthy way. A trusted volunteer chaplain, outside the chain of command, can be a safe place for hard men to unload those feelings that may hurt them or their comrades on the next call. That same chaplain can be there for them in the happy times too, like weddings and births.

Duties and responsibilities

What you may discover is that you have some nearby clergy who enjoy scuba diving as a hobby and would most likely volunteer to help with chaplain duties for local dive teams.   Here is a list of suggested duties and responsibilities that a chaplain could fill for your team:

  • Attend and assist with call-outs with the dive team. Depending on his level of training he may actively participate in search and rescue with the team.  Because of his training, he may also assist relatives and acquaintances of the victim and organize aid from community organization.
  • Provide hospital visits for sick and/or injured team members and their families. He can also assist in the notification of family members if one of the dive team members is injured or killed.
  • Offer counseling and spiritual guidance to team members without the team members having to go through the team captain or other members. Confidentiality is paramount.
  • Perform weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies, as his schedule allows, for team members and their families at no charge.
  • Act as a liaison between the dive team and other religious leaders in the community.

Beginning steps

The volunteer chaplain must realize that his primary role is the care and camaraderie of the team, not recruitment for his local religious organization.   He recognizes that his service to the team is above and beyond his call to serve his local congregation.    That is why someone with a passion and a developed skill set in diving is preferable.

Here are the suggested steps for beginning a chaplain ministry from Chaplain Fellowship Ministries International:

  • Schedule a meeting with the team chief.
  • Determine what needs are not presently being met.
  • Share programs and services with the chief that the chaplain could implement.
  • Recruit and train chaplains and volunteers for the program outlined.
  • Set a starting time for the chaplaincy program to begin.
  • Implement the chaplaincy program.
  • Re-evaluate program needs at least every six months.

Hey guys, this is all new to me!   I had no idea that after my first certification several years ago, I would be exploring this path.   I am learning as I go and have a lot more to study.   However, I am looking forward to your feedback, ideas, and suggestions for these ideas and welcome any comments or critiques you can offer!

Ray Wickham
Senior Pastor
New Horizons Fellowship
Apex, NC

OW Instructor SDI
Public Safety Diver

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