Our local paper recently published an article by the Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey about the history and role of chaplains serving Congress. It’s the kind of story that is sure to raise questions about how far church and state need to be separated, and whether there is any role for chaplains in public service. So it seemed like a few words from a local chaplain might be in order. I’m retired now, but served for sixteen years as a fire and police chaplain here in Walla Walla, and have some sense about what’s involved.
Local public safety chaplains are unpaid volunteers; except for a few pieces of safety equipment, no tax money supports them. The chaplain’s primary job is to attend to the emotional and spiritual well being of their departments – I worked with the fire department, but served as a backup for the police and sheriff. While it’s true that a chaplain is a symbol of God’s presence, he or she has an obligation to serve spiritual needs according to the practices and beliefs of each person, which may be none, and to refrain from proselytizing on behalf of their own. What a firefighter or police officer says to a chaplain in private is always held in confidence, which makes him or her a safe person to talk to when emotional stress or personal issues have become burdensome. Many are well trained in pastoral counseling, and while not the same thing as psychological therapy, sometimes it’s enough, and an effective chaplain always knows when to make a referral.
Their second job is to respond to incidents to serve the needs of emotionally traumatized victims and witnesses. Answering their many questions, arranging for Red Cross or other support, and giving them the emotional tools needed to get through the next few days doesn’t make bad things go away, but it may help them endure, knowing that others care about them and have stood with them in their darkest moments. Not everyone is well suited to entering as a helpful resource into incidents involving injury, violence and death complicated by fire and police presence. It’s one reason why simply being a pastor is not enough to make one a good chaplain.
Fire and police chaplaincy requires earning the trust of the men and women of the departments they serve. Without it, there is nothing of value to be offered. And that means learning as much as possible about what it takes to be a firefighter, paramedic, or police officer. The only way to do it is to work with them at what they do, and spend time with them in casual conversation about the things that are important to them. Chaplains must be willing to invest the time needed, even as they devote themselves to raising a family and earning a living elsewhere. It has to be a passion of the heart, a calling, but that’s not enough. It also requires the right education, training, personality, and spiritual fortitude.
My years as a fire and police chaplain were among the most rewarding in all the years of my ministry, and I treasure the opportunity to have worked with some of the finest men and women I have ever known. Our community is well served by our public safety professionals, they are the best, and we are fortunate to have them. Other chaplains are working with them now, and they are doing it well.