Chaplain Role a “Ministry of Presence”
Marshfield, WI (OnFocus) Whether it’s the aftermath of a tragedy or the calm of a quiet shift, police chaplains are there to offer a supportive presence to officers, and in doing so, the public.
“It’s really just a ministry of presence,” said Lt. Darren Larson, who oversees the program at Marshfield Police Department.
Since 1986, Marshfield’s police chaplains have volunteered their unique talents to aid officers in times of stress, whether by simply lending a listening ear or helping them serve the public, such as sitting with a family after a death notification while officers make their way to the next call.
The non-denominational police chaplaincy program isn’t about winning church attendance, but rather making use of a pastor’s natural skillset to provide an additional option for officer wellness in an unpredictable profession.
“It’s a tough culture. When you get into law enforcement, for whatever reason it’s difficult for officers to share some of those traumatic experiences…one being fear of being judged,” Larson said. “Cops are viewed as being thick-skinned and can take a lot, and are resilient. And while they are, it’s also important to recognize that there are moments that you have to reach out and be aware that you have to let go of some of that for your own health and well-being.”
An important benefit to the program is the ability for officers to speak to police chaplains on a completely confidential basis. Under state law, these conversations cannot be subpoenaed.
Since pastors already work with similar situations in their own congregations, they already have the knowledge base to serve as a police chaplain. However, they can take advantage of extra training opportunities, such as through the International Conference of Police Chaplains, to grow in their chaplaincy. They attended a certified course a year ago free of charge thanks to a renewed commitment toward chaplaincy programs by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
Each pastor who volunteers brings something unique to the table.
“They may go to the same training, but the way they can approach things is dramatically different, and that’s encouraged,” said Larson. “Much like law enforcement: We’re not robots. We respond to what we see and having different approaches and resolutions to conflicts that we see, that makes for a better, well-rounded department.”
Though available in times of crisis, police chaplains are a visible part of the police family, attending swearing-in ceremonies, the annual police memorial event, meetings, and celebrations. This way, their presence at the department isn’t seen as unusual and officers are better able to get to know the police chaplains on a personal level.
The work of a police chaplain is completely voluntary and there are no minimum time requirements.
“They come in on their own time. They spend time with our officers in the squads when they could very well be with their own families, so they truly are a dedicated part of our community, much like our auxiliary,” said Larson. “They step in and fill voids that we have as a small agency that we just can’t possibly fill with paid staff.”
Pastor Daryn Bahn of Christ Lutheran Church is the most experienced police chaplain at the department, serving since 2006. Other current chaplains are Tim Houk, Evangelical Free Church; and Jeffrey Peckham, United Pentecostal Church International.
Bahn became interested in serving the department since his father served as a fire chaplain and even had his own radio. He sees the chaplain role primarily as that of a listener.
“I get the impression that there’s moments of excitement and it’s very fast-paced, but then in between those moments there’s a lot of time to sit and think, and it’s good to have somebody there to be with to talk with,” said Bahn.
The confidentiality of those conversations makes the chaplaincy a valuable resource, plus the the simple power of being present.
“We’re there. They can talk to us and know it’s not going to go any further, however they may be feeling, whatever they may be dealing with. So it’s good to have chaplains as a resource for that for that single reason,” he said.
Bahn attends monthly meetings with the other police chaplains and aims to do about one ride-a-along a month. He plans to serve as long as he is able to, and after thirteen years with the department, enjoys watching young people he’s known for years now in action as police officers.
While a police chaplain may perform a diverse range of duties in the course of their time at a department, their most important function is still about being present.
“They do a lot of things that are active, but ironically it’s their presence, just simply being there, being available, is the primary role for our chaplains,” said Larson. “They’re there, they’re available, and there’s some comfort in that.”