Chaplains: Different Sort of Backup

As a parish priest and a volunteer police chaplain, I stand with a foot in two worlds, very different from one another. Each gives me a perspective that enriches my understanding of the other, and of life as a whole. One of my worlds is the world of law enforcement - officially I serve a small municipal agency, but in fact I work with cops from a variety of other agencies and settings as well, and have done so for the past nine years.

My other world is a small church, where I have served for over half of my twenty-eight years in ministry. One of the perks of being a clergy person is that people usually trust me. In my denomination, clergy can apply to work wherever they choose, and congregations get to interview and pick which minister they want to hire. When I accept a call to serve a congregation, I go into it knowing that they have picked me, and they know that I have picked them. We begin from a position of trust. Our life together can strengthen that trust. I officiate at their marriages, baptize their kids, visit them in the hospital, listen when they have problems, and bury their dead. I get to see people grow up, discover their calling, and build a life. I am often there when they say goodbye to that life and move on to the next. Since I am with them over the long haul, we get to know each other well. A lot can be accomplished in an atmosphere of trust, because when there are problems you can just lay it all out there without defensiveness and work together to solve them.

Being a chaplain is totally different in that respect, because the world of law enforcement is a world of distrust. Distrust may keep cops safe on the street, but it can wreak havoc in their homes and their hearts. Looking back on it now, I realize how naïve I was in the beginning of my chaplaincy. I had a good track record as an honest and faithful pastor, so I assumed the cops would recognize my trustworthiness. I was volunteering my time as a chaplain and paying for my training out of my own pocket, so I assumed they would recognize my concern for them. I thought they would trust me, but they did not. You have to prove yourself to cops before you gain their trust - and that doesn't happen overnight. They have to deal with each other on the job, so they have the opportunity to decide whether or not they trust each other. Few cops have to deal with a chaplain, though, so a chaplain can be kept at arm's-length indefinitely.

Police chaplaincy is not for those with fragile egos. Call-outs were few and far between. The cops were polite to my face, but quietly resistant to having anything to do with me unless ordered to do so. They were uninterested in getting to know me, and the only questions they asked were meant to ascertain whether or not the chief had me in his pocket. They tested my ability to keep a confidence, even to the extent of feeding me misinformation to see if it would come back to them from somewhere else. Emotionally speaking, they were looking at me from behind walls - thick, high walls with locked doors, topped with barbed wire.

Since I was so used to being trusted, it was hard not to take it personally. At some point I realized I had to decide whether I was in it for my own gratification or for them. If it was for me, I might as well quit, since there was nothing gratifying about being on the wrong side of that wall. If it was for them, I had to accept their judgment about whether or not they needed me. I had to let go of any grandiose visions I had for my chaplaincy and be content with being a resource person who was available if needed, but who (apparently) was mostly not needed. I kept at it. With time - years, in fact - I passed the various tests and made it through the period of scrutiny. I began to find myself inside the walls, at least sometimes. Finally I had the opportunity to make a difference.

As a person who works in two different worlds, one of trust and one of distrust, I realize what a high toll cops pay for their distrust. They struggle alone with problems because they fear being perceived as weak and are afraid they will end up in the chief's office if they tell anyone - even the chaplain. Trying to go it alone is isolating; it makes their burdens all the heavier, and their problems harder to solve. And it is unnecessary.

The fact is chaplaincies are set up to provide privacy for officers, precisely so they can get help with problems without fearing repercussions from the job. For example, one department I served required no record keeping from me whatsoever; another asked only for a monthly record of numbers of contacts (so many phone calls made, so many hours of counseling, etc.), but no names and no details of what was discussed. Cops can meet with chaplains wherever and whenever they feel safe meeting. The whole point of having chaplains is to give cops (and their families) support so the officers can keep working effectively and safely. Moreover, if a cop is not comfortable with the department chaplain, it is well worth approaching a chaplain from outside the agency - most chaplains will gladly respond to any cop who approaches them wanting to talk.

Cops know how important it is to call for backup when they are in a situation on the street. If I could teach them just one thing, it would be to realize how important it is to call for backup in situations in life as well.