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Elevator Speeches

What Does a Chaplain Do?

Elevator Speeches about Public Safety Chaplaincy

Sometimes it’s hard to explain exactly what chaplains actually do. We use soft skills; we deal with the heart of the people we serve. Sometimes we aren’t even sure what difference we are making. That can be the nature of spiritual care. Even when people do ask, the confidential nature of some encounters may keep us from legally and ethically sharing what we do.

That being said, the following are designed to give a brief, sharable explanation of what chaplains do. Consider them “elevator speeches.” The idea of an elevator speech is if two people are in an elevator and one asks the other a question, the second person could answer the question before either reaches their destination.

Serving the Whole Person

The people first responders serve are more than customers, subjects for investigation, medical patients, or taxpayers who vote and pay for our services. Each one is a special person who experiences hurts and happiness and has a spiritual outlook on the world. For many first responders, it may sometimes be easy, and sometimes necessary, to keep an emotional distance and objective outlook, not addressing these other sides of the person they are serving. But, this is where a professional chaplain can step in.

Chaplains in the Public Sector

Why do we consider spiritual care from a government perspective? Don’t we respect the separation of church and state?

The answer is, “yes.” Our Founding Fathers didn’t want to see the government dictate faith as had happened in England. Three days before the ratification of the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution, the one barring the establishment of faith by the government and protecting the free exercise of faith practices, the signers hired their first chaplain. They saw this as an appropriate function of government. The chaplain provided spiritual support as well as protecting and even encouraging the free exercise of faith. It gives us a model for today’s government-based chaplains.

What Chaplains Provide

A Wholistic Response: People are more than taxpayers, patients, or even customers. The people we serve bring their whole being and worldview to each encounter. To best serve their needs, we must have some awareness of their cultural and religious backgrounds and worldviews and be prepared to show respect. The chaplain can be a point person for this response.

Staff Care: Our employees don’t just check their spiritual life at the door when they come to work. Their spiritual outlook is the lens through which they view the world around them and determine ethical behavior. By understanding and respecting the views of others, we become better leaders and promote a welcoming work environment. Chaplains can provide useful insight.

A Focus on the People Side: Much of what we do in public safety can be mechanical: roll hoses, put out fires, control traffic, investigate crime, provide immediate medical care to save lives, dispatch personnel to people in crises, or work with detainees. Almost everything we do involves people. We are there to serve the public. Yet, while managing the mechanics of mitigating an emergency, we cannot always deal with the human side. A chaplain is uniquely qualified to not only deal with the humanity but also serve as a liaison for the agency.

Care for Family and Bystanders: While on scene of a cardiac arrest or major illness or injury, the chaplain can care for and be present with family and bystanders, relieving other emergency service personnel to attend to the needs of the patient. By caring for and respecting the whole person and community, we encourage and promote a more holistic problem resolution, generating greater satisfaction with our public service agency from the public and staff.

A Faith Community Liaison: Our emergency services personnel and the people we serve may face challenges like death and grave injury, bringing their spiritual worldview to both. While the chaplain may be of another faith than the person he serves, he can be a conduit to the greater faith community and create a connection for healing. A chaplain is also well positioned to encourage the faith community’s involvement in getting the message out through community risk reduction or community policing.

A Mental Health Resource: Research shows public safety officers having mental health problems will seek out a counselor or psychologist less than 10% of the time, but will seek out a person of faith (such as clergy) about 40% of the time. Having a properly trained chaplain who works alongside them regularly allows them to express a need for help, including referrals for mental health treatment. (See Health-Community.)

Trauma Care: In an emergency scene, emotions can run high, in some cases bringing PTSD, moral injury, and compassion fatigue. The chaplain is uniquely trained to address these areas in light of a person’s worldview. After a traumatic event, a chaplain can also provide staff with access to immediate emotional, spiritual, and critical incident stress management support. This can have a direct impact on reducing staff burnout, compassion fatigue, and ultimately promoting staff retention.

An Ethical Sounding Board: In public safety, not every situation is “cut and dried.” The chaplain provides a sounding board for understanding ethical behavior and decisions in light of cultural, religious, organizational, and legal contexts.

A Resource to Ease Suffering: Chaplains help ease suffering by helping staff and/or the public access spiritual, emotional, and community support as well as promote cognitive reframing which brings about a quicker, long-lasting healing.

Context: Everyone has a story. The chaplain is the advocate of the person’s story because it tells us who they are and provides insight into courses of treatment or other action.

Confidentiality: A chaplain provides a safe listening ear to those who need it. Chaplains are protected by confidentiality laws that are well respected in all 50 states. This can allow people to deal with personal moral failings without fear of losing their jobs or status. While chaplains report in the chain of command, this confidentiality cannot be demanded broken by superior officers.

In Him,

Chaplain Chris M. Wade


South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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