Serving as Raleigh Fire Department’s first official chaplain involves much more than performing religious duties. “It’s really about being present for our brothers and sisters,” explains Chaplain Jeff Neal.
A chaplain seeks to motivate and initiate meaningful use of each firefighter’s beliefs and attitudes in the management of the difficulties they face.
Neal, a senior firefighter, is an ordained minister and a chaplain certified to help others in emergencies. While he does perform many traditional chaplain duties, such as represent the department at funerals and officiate weddings, most of his time is spent on helping firefighters with their mental health.
“I offer peer support and help with stress management and PTSD,” he says. “I’ve worked hard at becoming a really good listener and also know of a variety of resources that can help.”
While the chaplain position at RFD was established just last year, Neal had been helping his fellow firefighters in a similar capacity for several years.
Need for a Chaplain
Fire Chief Herbert Griffin saw the need for a chaplain position when he joined the Raleigh Fire Department. “I came here during the height of the Covid -19 pandemic and saw the comprehensive strain it put on the department both mentally and physically,” Griffin says. “Chaplain Neal provided a coordinated pathway for our organization by providing peer support, religious comfort and spiritual guidance.”
Neal was tasked with several initiatives prior to getting the Chaplain Program implemented, Griffin says. “His diligent work allowed the department to implement our first-ever chaplain. Since then, Chaplain Neal has grown the program to include assistant chaplains to help us."
Powerful Personal Experience
Neal had a powerful personal experience that led him to want to serve as chaplain.
“In 2015, I got really sick and thought I had cancer; I lost 25 pounds in three weeks. The illness also affected me mentally – I suffered from anxiety, panic attacks and depression and was embarrassed that I was sick and weak. I asked God to heal me and promised to myself that if I ever got better, I would continue to give back for the rest of my life. Fortunately, I got well again. I realized others in fire service were hurting, too, and wanted to share my faith or just encouragement. I got my first seminary training through hell but understand that I had to go through all that to get to where I’m now.”
Neal and a few others founded Christian Fellowship, a peer support group for first responders. Once he realized that he had a calling for helping firefighters and police officers, Neal became an ordained minister and continued seeking education on how to help others.
Worst Parts of Life
Firefighters often see the worst parts of life at work, and it’s difficult to avoid taking their job home. That can be hard on their families. “Divorce rate at fire service is higher than the average, for instance,” Neal says. “In general, many people’s home life has changed significantly within the past two years because of COVID-19. Many people are spending more time at home due to remote work and while that offers numerous benefits, it can also cause issues within the family. Also, substance abuse has increased, and many kids and teens have been negatively impacted.”
Firefighters often think that due to their work, they need to be “supermen,” Neal says. “So, it can be difficult for them to seek help when they do struggle with something. I try to emphasize to them that it’s not about the fall, but about what you do after you fall. We need to take care of ourselves, so we are able to take care of our families and our community.”