It has been a “relentless” past year for volunteer chaplains across NSW as they’ve supported communities through droughts, bushfires, a pandemic and, now, flood recovery. Last year it was bushfires and now, as flood-affected communities across New South Wales begin the long process of recovery, chaplains are standing alongside them once again, resulting in many having worked continuously over the past 12 months to support our State’s disaster-affected communities. Director of Chaplaincy Australia Pastor Ralph Estherby explained, “We were helping people in the area of drought. And so we went from droughts to bushfires to COVID-19 response, back into the recovery phases of the bushfires, and now into yet another disaster setting. So it’s been a bit relentless.”
Chaplaincy Australia forms part of the NSW Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (DRCN), a multi-church agency funded and operated by the Uniting Church which offers chaplains to disaster recovery centres. DRCN coordinator Reverend Stephen Robinson said, “What’s unusual about DRCN is that it draws chaplains, ministers, pastoral carers from every major denomination and trains them to work together.” Rev Robinson is currently coordinating chaplains, including those from Chaplaincy Australia to minister to flood-affected communities across NSW. During the floods, he had chaplains in 11 evacuation centres around the State. “At the moment we’re transitioning from evacuation centres to what they call recovery centres which are run by the local councils,” he said.
The recovery centre will allow affected communities to access a range of services to help them move forward. Pastor Estherby explained that now that communities are moving from the initial trauma of flood evacuations to assessing the damage that has been done, having the support of chaplains is vital. “Often people just do not know what to say. So many agencies are doing practical stuff but not many agencies are actually able to do the human stuff,” he said. Reverend Robinson agreed, saying a chaplain’s role is “primarily about comfort”. Pastor Estherby told the story of one chaplain, who last week visited a flood-affected caravan park. The whole park had been inundated and there were a number of permanent residents whose homes and possessions had been swept away. Now, with no insurance, they face the reality of restarting their lives.
“We’re actually there to support,” he said. “So if they need to rebuild and there are serious emotional or spiritual challenges, we will help.” Chaplaincy Australia works closely with local churches to ensure the disaster relief is community-led. “We’re not there to take over,” Pastor Estherby said. “Local churches are going to be there long term and we want them to be the heroes. But we’ll try to resource the churches in what they’re doing.” Who looks after the chaplains? The relentless demands placed on chaplains mean it’s important to ensure they also have the support they need to be able to minister to disaster-affected communities. Pastor Estherby explained that often people forget chaplains are always working, not just when disaster strikes. “They just tend to get noticed more when they go into a disaster setting,” he said.
Part of Chaplaincy Australia’s ethos is that the carer needs to be healthy to be able to provide support. To make sure their chaplains feel supported, Pastor Estherby explained they have a number of safeguards in place. “Every chaplain in Chaplaincy Australia has to have a support network. We have mandatory pastoral supervision of all our chaplains. We provide debriefing after emergency settings for all of our chaplains that are deployed. We also ensure that they practice self-care.” Similarly, as part of their duty of care, DRCN provides their chaplains with a number of support avenues when they are working in disaster zones. “When they’re in the field they have a team leader that’s trained to make sure they’re fed and looked after. When the operations wind up, we have an operations manager who debriefs the teams,” Rev Robinson said.
Additionally, DRCN limits out-of-area rotations to five days to ensure that no chaplain is faced with traumatic events over an extended period of time. And support for the chaplains continues once they are no longer in the field. “We do follow up phone calls to make sure they’re OK. If at any point we feel like that’s not the case or people put their hand up then we can offer a good psychological debrief and follow up,” Rev Robinson said. How can you support chaplains? The last year has demonstrated the continued need for chaplains in the community, said Rev Robinson. “People have recognised the value of our work.” And there are a number of ways that the community can rally behind those providing support for vulnerable communities.
The likelihood there will be a continued need for chaplains means that DRCN are keen to hear from people interested in joining their chaplaincy network. “If they are pastors or ordained or commissioned and if they would like to train or work within the network we are always open to hearing from people,” Rev Robinson said. He also asked for prayer support for all chaplains currently ministering to disaster-affected communities. “Prayer support is really important. We just would not be able to do anything without the prayer of people carrying us and the grace of God.” Most of all, Pastor Estherby wants to see some community appreciation for the chaplains. “Pat them on the back if you see one,” he said. Visit the NSW Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network for more information and ways to help.
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