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New Horizons

Police Chaplains

Robert B. Needham

In our society, the fields of unsaved, unevangelized people are truly ready for harvest (see John 4:35). Sometimes there are nearby fields that we may not even recognize as such.

One such field is that of providing pastoral (chaplain) ministry to members of police, sheriff, and other law enforcement agencies. Ironically, it is often easier to recruit volunteers for ministry to inmates of jails and prisons than it is for ministry to the men and women who daily risk their lives to protect law-abiding citizens.

Many law enforcement departments in the United States welcome the services of (usually) volunteer and (sometimes) salaried chaplains. This is true in spite of the politically and theologically wayward individuals and organizations that seek to remove every vestige of Christian history, thought, and practice from every aspect of public life.

So what is involved in ministering to members of a local police department or sheriff's department?

First and foremost, one must have a servant's heart. That means a willingness to be seriously inconvenienced on occasion and a willingness to endure boredom, difficulties, discomfort, and sometimes rejection without complaining.

People who serve in law enforcement agencies often (although not always) develop a "we-them" mentality toward "outsiders" (that is, anyone who is not a serving member of their department). Since law enforcement officers often see the uglier, seamier side of life as a regular part of their duties, many fall prey to the temptation to become cynical, sarcastic, pessimistic, and even suspicious of anyone who does not wear a badge.

As a result, it may take much patience and humility to gain their trust, once you have been officially accepted into their midst. In the meantime, such things as riding in patrol cars, learning the names of department personnel, sitting in on duty briefing sessions, and attending training classes are all ways to establish credibility and open lines of communication with individual department members.

The chaplain faces the challenge of combining faithfulness to Christ with forbearance and patience. For example, when he hears foul language, he must maintain a calm demeanor, free of self-righteous disdain or overt condemnation of those using it, while at the same time setting a consistent example of godly speech. He must also be unafraid to graciously address the sin of ungodly speech as the opportunity arises.

By this time, those readers who have served in the military services may well have recognized that the environment in which law enforcement officers serve is remarkably similar to that of the armed services.

Police and sheriffs, not without good reason, are often described as paramilitary. Indeed, this opportunity for ministry is especially viable for retired military chaplains. Less training is required in order to be adequately equipped to serve as a police or sheriff's department chaplain.

Such a ministry is directed primarily toward those who serve "in harm's way." Law enforcement officers have to do such things as deal with a hostage situation, stop a car with occupants who may be drug dealers, assist at a fatal accident, and investigate a grisly murder. These heart-wrenching tragedies sometimes overwhelm them socially, emotionally, and spiritually. Thus, what the world would call crisis intervention, we would call pastoral ministry in tragedy.

I have now served for four years with the Kings County Sheriff's Department in central California. I have been impressed by the regularity with which law officers are insulted, misquoted, disliked, and even hated by some segments of the public they serve. Consequently, supporting their labors in prayer, and with ministerial assistance in difficult circumstances, is a high privilege. If done well, it can bring honor and glory to our Savior, himself the captain of the Lord's hosts.

The author, a retired Navy chaplain, is pastor of New Hope OPC in Hanford, Calif. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2006.

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