Revd Tom Ebbens has just been appointed as full-time chaplain to Her Majesty’s Coastguard. A role so unique, Tom is the first person to take it on in its 200-year history.

Tom volunteered and then worked at an operational level for HM Coastguard since 2010, and this is a vision fulfilled. Having answered the call to ministry in 2017, Tom felt the pull of chaplaincy and set about trying to make it happen.

Pitching to an emergency service that spans the circumference of the UK

“I gave a dragons-den style presentation to the HQ in Southampton to create a multi-faith chaplaincy. Happily, they agreed to a pilot project.” The emergency service spans the full circumference of the UK, from the Isles of Scilly to Shetland, Belfast to Dover. So, with 3500 volunteers and 1500 staff, providing a meaningful chaplaincy service was a big ask.

But as is often said, if God is in the planning, plans will succeed. “I was very keen not to over reach and under deliver. But, over two years, demand grew as people became aware of what a chaplain could offer.” Tom laid down the ground work by reaching out to the Christian community, organising mid-week reflections. Eventually, people dialled into from as far away as Aberdeen and Stornoway. Supported by colleagues from Muslim and other faith communities, a steadily growing base was established.

The value of chaplaincy in for volunteers and staff of HM Coastguard

Living in Cornwall, we can perhaps more easily understand the pressures on everyone who volunteers or works for the Coastguard. But what about the those who are called out to missions on the crossings from France? Most especially today, when so many involve refugees. The situations our coastguards have to face can be harrowing.

“It’s true,” says Tom. “And they are a priority for me. With as many as 1200 refugees crossing in a day, it’s a really important focus for chaplaincy. Everyone needs support. From those taking emergency calls, often from refugees, to volunteers on the beach who deal with whoever and, potentially, whatever comes ashore.”

“With as many as 1200 refugees crossing in a day, it’s a really important focus for chaplaincy. Support is needed for those that take the emergency calls, often from the refugees, to those who volunteer on the beach and deal with whoever and, potentially, whatever comes ashore.”

How working for the service has given Revd Tom a unique skillset

HM Coastguard Revd Tom EbbensTom has a unique skill-set that makes him very well suited to this new role. He’s worked in the Coastguard’s operations room, answered the 999 calls, spoken to ships calling in Maydays and been involved in rescues. He’s also an ordained, self-supporting curate, based in Constantine. It’s easier to have empathy and understanding of what someone is going through if you’ve also walked in their shoes. “I see my role as being a companion, on whatever road someone is travelling,  wherever it takes them. People have fears and concerns, worries and challenges. Sometimes, in those dark moments, they need someone to listen, share the hurt and support them through that difficult time.”

“I see my role as being a companion to someone on whatever road they are currently on, wherever it takes them.

How did it all begin?

So, what drew Tom to faith? “I wasn’t raised with faith, but I secretly had a favourable disposition to it that I wouldn’t admit to my school mates! Bizarrely, it was when at university studying domestic history, realising almost everyone went to church and that centuries of wisdom were being eroded, that I thought there might be something to it.” So much so, that when he moved to Cornwall in 2015, he started to attend church. He became confirmed, married and then was called to ordination. It was listening to the unfolding tragedy of the Manchester bombing on Radio 5Live that the seeds of chaplaincy were planted. “I just wanted to help.”

I’ve met and interviewed quite a few chaplains. From those who minister to farmers, to the police, to patients and staff in hospitals, to a chaplain who went on shouts with the RNLI. Like Tom, all shared a desire to listen, not to fix. To be there in the critical moments, in the chaos, the fear and the silence and loneliness. It’s a very special calling. And it’s a great testament to Revd Tom Ebbens’ determination and willingness to lean into his faith, that HM Coastguard saw the value of the role.

See Revd Tom Ebbens talk about his new role as chaplain to HM Coastguard on BBC iPlayer

“I think it’s a real sign of an organisation that cares about its people that wants to appoint someone that cares about its people.”

Revd Tom’s achievement has caught the attention of the BBC. To find out more about his new role with HM Coastguard, watch Songs of Praise. It aired over the weekend (January 16th, 2022) on BBC iPlayer.

Many congratulations to Tom.  On this 200th anniversary of HM Coastguard, he fully deserves to be appointed as its very first full-time chaplain.

Click on the image above to be taken to Songs of Praise on BBC iPlayer