Five Leadership Insights from a Firefighter

My father was a volunteer fireman when I was a boy, and I have vivid memories of his responding to emergencies when the signal sounded. On several Halloweens I dressed as a fireman. In a somewhat odd scene, our family sometimes shared lunch at the scene of a “practice” fire when the fire department burned down dilapidated buildings.

Following in my dad’s firefighting boots, I became a volunteer firefighter in my late 40s. Little did I realize how much I would learn about church leadership by serving with that team of first responders. Here are just a few of those insights.

1. Firefighters recognize the urgency of their role. The signal sounds, the details are given, and the firefighter springs into action. He must be focused on the task at hand, for a distracted firefighter is a dangerous one. In fact, everything else stops until he returns from dealing with the emergency.

I wish that were the case with all church leaders. We have the life-giving message of Christ to proclaim to the world. The signal has already sounded, and we know the details of the emergency—millions die every year without Christ. What would happen if we really recognize the emergency and prioritize evangelism again?

2. Firefighters understand the value of teamwork. From the truck driver to the pump operator to the Rapid Intervention Team (ready at any moment to rescue a fallen firefighter), every firefighter is critical to the team. More importantly, the other firefighters recognize that fact. They are trained to watch each other’s back, seldom if ever facing a raging fire alone. The best firefighters, in fact, are those that are both trained and trusted like brothers.

Church leaders, on the other hand, tend to be lone rangers. Not only are we not trained to be team players, but we also often don’t even trust one another enough to work together. Sometimes we’re simply too arrogant to ask for help. The danger is clear: church leaders who work alone are the most liable to being shot down in the spiritual battle that ministry entails.

3. Firefighters are well trained. Firefighters are required to complete training that includes book knowledge and practical training. Only when the recruit firefighter gives evidence of his ability is he granted permission to be an official firefighter. Even then, he is expected to complete additional practical education courses in order to stay current in his profession. Veteran firefighters walk alongside new firefighters, teaching them even as they together fight a fire.

I am a seminary professor, but training future ministers requires the support of the local church. We can provide head knowledge, but we can’t offer needed practical training apart from a church where praxis occurs under the care of a veteran pastor. Yet, church leaders are seemingly so busy that they have little time for this task.

4. Firefighters love what they do. Firefighters love the exhilaration of tackling and defeating a fire. Actually, they love the fire station, the fire trucks, the fire equipment, the firefighter uniform, their firefighting squad – almost everything associated with their task. They risk their lives every time the signal sounds, but they do so because they believe in what they are doing. They know that lives depend on them.

Perhaps here is where I am most concerned about young church leaders. Young leaders recognize that the North American church is in need of much reformation. We are reaching few non-believers, and church members sometimes live so much like the world that non-believers see the church as irrelevant. Some young leaders view the church in such a negative light that they find themselves trying to change a church they don’t love. That kind of leadership is quickly draining.

5. Firefighters serve proactively. Their role is to respond to fires, but that’s not the entirety of their role. Firefighters also educate the public on fire prevention. They visit local schools to teach children about fire safety. They enforce local codes to prevent open flames. In general, firefighters are always leading proactively so they won’t have fires to put out.

Good church leaders lead that way, too. They cast vision and build teams. They proactively make disciples. They know that if their leadership is only reactionary, the church will not move forward. In fact, they know that kind of leadership is not leadership at all.


  • Michael Cassity says:

    Dr. Lawless, I’ve had the privilege of serving as chaplain for Pike Road Fire and Rescue for about 2 1/2 years. Great comments and application to the church. Thanks for honoring the men and women who volunteer to serve communities across the US. I forwarded your article to our chief and know it will be a witness and encouragement to everyone. l also had the privilege of attaining my DMin under the leadership of you and Dr. Rainer in 2004. Thanks

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Michael, I remember you well. Thanks for your service to first responders– and for forwarding the article. Hope it’s encouraging to others.

  • peyton jones says:

    Dr. Lawless, I also was a firefighter as was my Father. We’ve got that in common. My Dad has since gone home, but both of our helmets hang up side by side in my office. Your article touched a sentimental bone in me. I’m a church planter, and University lecturer. I recently wrote a book called “Church Zero” with David C. Cook about planting 1st century churches. I’d like to send you one if you’re interested. Anyways, your welcome to a free copy. Grace and Peace, Peyton Jones

  • David Rupert says:

    The teamwork aspect really struck me. As an able-bodied, trained, and willingly layman, I am constantly offering my skills and talents to church leadership. The kids are gone and I have the time. Rarely am I allowed any kind of room to minister. Maybe it’s like the full time firefighter treating the volunteer firefighter as a lightweight. “Stay there son and polish the truck. We are the only ones who fight the real fire.”

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks for the comment, David. My experience is that the FT firefighters allowed us to work right alongside them. Frankly, sometimes church leaders have been so accustomed to doing all the work that learning how to share the work is not always easy. I’ll be praying for God to open the right door for you.

  • Heartspeak says:

    I, too, have served as a volunteer firefighter and found myself greatly loving the job. You captured the truth of what we do and make a great point about the similarities that should be observed in the church. Oh, that our church leaders would share these values and viewpoints!

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks, Heartspeak. Let’s just pray together that churches will experience and apply these truths.

  • Les Fogleman says:

    I could comment on all of these but will only comment on #2. Lots of times I want to or need to talk to a fellow pastor or my DOM but have a since that they are really not genuine with respect to honest conversation among fellow pastors. Sometimes I would enjoy just a converstation of friendship. I am at fault also. I find that when I go to a meeting of pastors I am looking to leave as soon as posible and the reason is I really don’t think any of them want friends. I have no preacher friend, I would like to have is one.-Les

  • Chuck Lawless says:

    Les, thanks for your honesty. I’m an introvert (very much so), and it was a fire captain who encouraged me to hang out more with the firefighters for the sake of strengthening the team. My encouragement to you is to push yourself to initiate some lunch times with other pastors. You might find that they’re as ready as you are for friendships. Praying for you, friend.

  • Spencer Haygood says:

    Great piece, Dr. Lawless! I wasn’t a firefighter, but did a career as a law enforcement officer, and have served the last ten years as a police chaplain here in Cobb County, GA and the last four as a military chaplain. I’ve seen these good lessons in action in all these venues many times, and I hope I’ve made some progress applying them myself. Hope you’re well!

  • Joe Wickman says:

    Fantastic. I’m about to share this with some of my firefighting friends!

  • Jason Adams says:

    This is RIGHT ON. I recently joined a local fire department as a volunteer firefighter / chaplain (to meet people where they are instead of waiting for them to “come to church”).

    What I’ve seen exhibited in the chief and many of the leaders are these very characteristics, and I’ve said to my wife and church staff a number of times that, “these guys GET leadership, service, and community… they’re just missing Jesus!!”

  • Megan says:

    My dad was in the fire service for 40 years before he retired. He felt the Lord lead him to write a book that connects Christian spiritual survival to firefighting. This post made me think about that.

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