How Your Church Can Seek Out the Wandering Sheep

(Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash)

The world of public safety is often quite removed from the faith experience. As a young rookie, I entered law enforcement with the best intentions to live the Christian life that was my core value. At the age of 12, I made a profession of faith and was very involved in the church, both attending services and participating in youth groups. In junior high, I met a Presbyterian pastor's daughter and became quite active at her dad's church as well. We married a few years later.

With that as a backdrop, I entered law enforcement. The life of a rookie meant my attendance at church became sporadic at best. Moreover, working the streets was a far different experience than the church life. Looking back, I experienced a kind of culture shock, as the job led me to witness the darkness of real life replete with drunks, prostitutes, thieves and violence, all things contrary to the values of my upbringing. My moral compass was sent spinning by the things I witnessed and the people I encountered. Many of my peers called me "deacon" because they knew of my faith. After time, this little light of mine did not shine so brightly.

This is an aspect of moral fatigue. Witnessing life choices that conflict with one's moral compass when interacting with criminals and victims of violent crime, substance abuse, and other issues is a direct assault on one's personal values rooted in their faith. The harsh reality introduces a new normal with new expectations resulting in cynicism and callous emotions.

Such experiences contribute to the development of emotional numbing necessary to do the job. Assault and homicide victims are someone's child, parent or loved one—regardless of their possible criminality. To survive in public safety, the professional develops a defense mechanism I call the "cast-iron shield," a means of emotional survival viewing the body as evidence. Just part of the job.

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It is not normal for anyone to witness a violent death, victims of rape and assault, abused children or the multitude of ungodly acts that assault our moral values, and it is exhausting. In fact, symptoms of moral fatigue are similar to post-traumatic stress —emotional wounds that are invisible. Depression, isolation, frustration, anger and such are the product of emotional wounds.

Early on in the war with ISIS, soldiers were engaged in a fierce gun battle. When the shooting stopped, our soldiers found women and children among the dead. ISIS used them as a shield. Their moral compass was far removed from that of our soldiers, who were crushed at the sight. ISIS placed no value on the innocents who were killed, but the U.S. soldiers could not believe any warrior would do such a thing. It was reported that many of those soldiers committed suicide when they returned home, overwhelmed that they killed women and children—not by choice, but the impact was the same.

Moral conflict, whether for someone in public safety or the military, is very real, and it leaves a scar on the emotions.

In today's church, pastors and church leaders must be trauma-informed. We must understand that the world in which some congregants live may be far different than our own, especially those in public safety.

There are a few things church leaders can do to reach this largely distant market:

  • Read up on trauma. Dig deeper and research trauma-informed material to better understand the emotional and psychological challenges first responders face.
  • Join them in the field. Consider contacting local police and fire departments to do a ride-along. This will make the pastor visible and allow him to become familiar with the responders' world.
  • Add services or Bible studies that work with their demanding schedules. For example, Saturday evening services or midweek lunches would offer first responders an opportunity to engage with the church.
  • Show Public Appreciation. Consider a special service to recognize those in the community who keep us safe. Perhaps an award for police and fire to honor a specific action during the previous year.

Those of us in public safety are different—very different—but we need the nurturing of pastors and brothers and sisters in the Lord as a support system to help us through. It is important to remember that many first responders grew up in the church, but through the years, drifted away.

Perhaps one might say they should make a greater effort to reconnect, but the onus is on pastors to seek out the wandering sheep, a teaching Jesus made clear.

Rob Michaels is a chaplain for the FBI and the Tennessee Fraternal Order of Police. He is a former police detective who founded the non-profit Serve & Protect to facilitate trauma services for public safety professionals with PTSD symptoms, addictions or thoughts of suicide. Since its founding in 2011, Serve & Protect has helped more than 4,500 public safety professionals to date in the United States as well as Canada, Norway, Brussels and Ireland. For more information please visit serveprotect.org.

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