August 23, 2016
The directions on the website note that the Bristol Federated Church in Vermont is “right across from the Fire Station.”
No doubt that makes it easier for Pastor William “Bill” Elwell to follow both of his callings – to ministry and to the fire service.
On Aug. 13, Elwell was honored by the Vermont State Firefighters’ Association as 2016 Vermont Firefighter of the Year.
The letter announcing Elwell’s award reads, in part:
“You are involved on so many levels … You support the community as chaplain, volunteer your time to the food drive and (fundraising) events for the department. You give your time unconditionally for what you believe in such as the Critical Incident Stress Management Team … for these reasons and more your department has nominated you for the honor of VSFA (Vermont State Firefighters’ Association) Firefighter of the Year.”
He and four other members of the Bristol Fire Department earned five of the eight awards presented by the association.
“The fire service and the ministry are extremely woven together for me,” said Elwell, who also serves Monkton Friends Methodist Church.
He sees the two as having much in common: “It’s about a community of people working together, but there’s a structure,” he said. “I guess one of the biggest connections between the fire service and pastoral ministry is that it is about living in that moment and asking the question: ‘What is God calling us to do right here and right now?’”
Elwell started “hanging around the fire station” in North Bennington when he was 14. His parents were going through a divorce, and “the fire service has been an extended family for me,” he said. He was a fire chief before he was 25.
Though he didn’t attend church growing up, Elwell said he always believed in God. When his daughter expressed an interest in going to church as a young child, he thought “What could it hurt?”
A week after they joined the church, there was a service for the local fire department.
“I could feel God pulling at my heart, but didn’t know that was what was happening,” he said.
Four days after that service honoring firefighters in January 1997, Elwell, who was serving as captain of the Shaftsbury Fire Department, was the first to arrive at a fully involved house fire. One man remained inside. He had been seen at the window of a second-floor room that had not yet “flashed over” or as Elwell described “become completely full of fire.”
Elwell, followed by another firefighter, attempted a rescue. As he was about to enter through the window, his air pack malfunctioned; he was forced to retreat down the ladder – just as the room ignited.
“Had I gone through that window, I would have been on the other side of the windowsill in an unsurvivable place,” Elwell said. “I would not have survived that. There’s really not a whole lot of question about that.”
Facing the post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt was a challenge, Elwell said, but one in which he knew God was with him.
“I came from a place of believing in God to being in a relationship with God,” he said. “I continued working through that healing process and growing in faith and as a disciple and, ultimately, hearing the call to ministry and kept going from there.”
He became a licensed local pastor in 2000.
“Life and death are there and they’re a reality,” he said. “God’s grace came alive in the healing and in the folks that I came to know out of that. The things that I learned about myself, the things I learned about others, the relationship that grew with the church and ultimately my understanding of faith and the call into ministry that all came out of it.”
That incident is one reason Elwell’s work with the Critical Incident Stress Management Team and serving as department chaplain are so important to him. Having served a church in Pittstown, NY, he also continues to be county chaplain for Rensselaer County.
“It takes extreme commitment and dedication (to be a firefighter) in this world today because there’s a lot of expectations by the public – it doesn’t matter whether you’re paid or volunteer,” he said. “Risk management and liability are huge issues, and out of that comes lots of legislation, comes lots of standards, and comes the need for lots of training.”
“That part’s overwhelming,” Elwell said. “That’s why I take seriously the call to be a chaplain and ultimately even to going into equipping chaplains, because I think we need more of them in our local communities.”
And further, he said, this is an area where the church can help.
“Disasters get our attention,” he said. “Ultimately the only difference between a disaster and the local fire that happens in a single family home in the local community is the number of people involved. The end result’s the same: In many cases you lose everything.”
He suggested that churches begin with conversation.
“Perhaps it’s one of those places where curiosity is a real gift to have; just asking the question: What’s it like to be a firefighter in this community? What struggles do you face? What challenges are there?"
The next step is listening to the responses.
“It’s about building partnerships within the community to make a difference,” he said, not necessarily having all the answers.
Elwell said he sees the fire service as a field for evangelism.
“… we’re called to be the good news, to help people find the good news in the midst of a difficult situation, and that’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “I’m not talking about finding it as an opportunity to convert somebody to Christianity, but to help them to find healing and to find hope in the midst of brokenness and hopelessness.”
“I think that is the most rewarding piece – whether it be to someone whose home I respond to, or to a crash that I respond to, or to stepping into the role of chaplain to one of those responders – just seeing the lightbulb come on and to see that there’s a little bit of hope when it just felt like a minute ago that there wasn’t any,” he said. “That’s really rewarding for me.”
Not only is there hope in the midst of crisis, Elwell said, but there is even the opportunity to grow. He recalls the first Scripture he was ever asked to read when he began attending church. It was Isaiah 61:1-3
“It’s out of those ashes that come oaks of righteousness,” he said, “out of the most tragic thing you can grow stronger.”
Elwell and his wife, Carrie, have three children – two of whom are following his path in different ways: Alexandra attends Wesley Seminary and Will serves with him on the Bristol Fire Department; Nic is a high school student.
Of being Firefighter of the Year, Elwell said:
“It was awesome. I’m humbled and honored – I’ve gotten different awards for different things in my life, but this is probably the one that is at the top of the list for me,” he said. “It wasn’t just about being honored as this year’s firefighter of the year, but for many years of service to the association and to the fire service in Vermont, and that’s at the center of my heart and of my life, so to be recognized there was pretty cool.”