Proselytizing isn't in the job description of a police or fire chaplain.
Though they’re driven by their religious faith, police and fire chaplains aren’t supposed to preach to or try to convert people in crisis, chaplains say. Yet it’s not taboo to discuss spirituality if the person wants to talk about it – and people in crisis often do.
“It’s more helping them to think through what they believe,” said Pierce County Sheriff’s Chaplain Rick Bulman. “We don’t want to use that as a time to pounce on them and convince them what we believe is the way they should believe.”
The same philosophy guides chaplains in Thurston County.
“We serve nondenominationally, which means we don’t promote any religion,” said George Albertson, a volunteer chaplain with the Thurston County and Mason County sheriff’s departments. Chaplains might pray at a fire or police scene, but only if they have permission from the person in crisis.
“If someone wants to talk to us about our relationship with the Lord or anything like that, we’d do it outside the purview of our program. If someone asks me about the church I go to, I say here’s where I pastor, I’d be glad to talk with you after we’re done with what we’re doing here,” said Albertson, the English-language pastor at Eungwang Presbyterian Church, a Korean church in Lacey.
Albertson is among five volunteer chaplains with the Thurston sheriff. The informal network of chaplains also is available on an on-call basis to the Lacey Police, Lacey Fire, East Olympia Fire, Yelm Police, Tenino Police and Shelton Police departments.
Like their Pierce County counterparts, the chaplains help emergency responders deal with job-related trauma, lead debriefing sessions after traumatic incidents and assist families who’ve suddenly lost a loved one to suicide, violence or accident.
Bulman is among 40 chaplains from a variety of denominations who assist 30 police and fire departments in Pierce County through the nonprofit Tacoma-Pierce County Chaplaincy. The Christian organization is funded through donations. “We compassionately work to serve the hurting in crisis,” said Chaplaincy executive director Charles Horne. “We provide that emotional and spiritual intervention on site.”
Most of the chaplains are retired or hold other jobs, typically as ministers or church staff members, and volunteer to respond to calls as needed.
But the Chaplaincy pays the salaries of four full-time chaplains assigned individually to Tacoma Police, Tacoma Fire, Central Pierce Fire, and the Pierce County Sheriff departments, and a half-time chaplain for Bonney Lake and Sumner police departments.
The Chaplaincy, for instance, employs Bulman and provides him to the Pierce sheriff at no charge. “Part of the reason for that is it takes care of the problem of the (constitutional) division between church and state,” Bulman said.
The group is working to connect with leaders of other religions so they can refer people in crisis to them. Chaplains ask people they’re assisting if they have a religious affiliation and want them to contact their religious leader.
“We try to work hand in hand with whoever comes,” Bulman said.
Requirements for police and fire chaplains vary across the state. The Tacoma-Pierce County Chaplaincy adopted the same requirements as the International Conference of Police Chaplains.
The organization’s chaplains, even volunteers, must be ordained or licensed as a minister and must have provided pastoral ministry for five years. They must complete the week-long Police & Fire Chaplains Training Academy, a program offered twice a year by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chaplaincy to prospective chaplains throughout the Pacific Northwest. The training ranges from counseling and police ride-along procedures to assisting people in trauma. Many chaplains participate in ongoing training, as well.
The Thurston Sheriff chaplains have similar requirements, Albertson said.
After 21 years as a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy, Joe Boyle knows the value of chaplains’ service.
“Deputies can try to be kind but chaplains have special training that allows them to do a special job for people when they’re grieving at a very sorrowful time,” said Boyle.
That includes assisting deputies undergoing stress from the “things they have to do and see.”
“They help everybody. They may never have helped you yet. But tonight you may need it, or your neighbor may need it.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694