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What is the role of religion and spirituality in policing?

Many officers take the stress they experience from their job back to their home lives, which can cause even more turmoil


By Ed Kelley, Executive Pastor of Bay Area Community Church, Chaplain for INLETS

A typical table has four legs. We have all experienced a table that is out of balance, where one leg is “off” and the silly table unsteadily rocks back and forth. I like to think of life like the four legs of a table, each representing the four key areas of our existence: physical, emotional (social), mental and spiritual.

A table needs equal strength from all four legs in order to handle any significant weight placed upon it. If one leg is weak, the table can come crashing down. Life is the same way: The human life needs physical, emotional, mental and spiritual balance so when life’s stresses land in our life—as they always do—we can handle it.

Officers tend to hold their actions and behaviors to very high standards. (Photo/American Military University)
Officers tend to hold their actions and behaviors to very high standards. (Photo/American Military University)

Stress can feel really heavy; law enforcement, as a profession, is extremely stressful. Officers can experience stress from all sorts of sources: responding to calls for service; leadership within the department; society’s expectations; spouses and family members; finances; or even from within, as officers tend to hold their actions and behaviors to very high standards.

Officers often feel they are under constant stress, and this weight can accumulate over time. High levels of stress can also come from a single event, whether it’s responding to a car accident or being involved in a use-of-force incident. Unfortunately, many officers take the stress they experience from their job back to their home lives, which can cause even more turmoil.

I have worked with law enforcement for 30 years. I have counseled officers whose out-of-balance work lives ended up crashing their personal worlds. Quite often, officers crash when their lives are out of balance over an extended period of time. Whether it’s the emotional (social) or mental sides of life that are weak—or if they are ignoring the spiritual aspect—out-of-balance lives create risk. After all, a three-legged table is not very good at handling weight that is thrown on it.

As a Christian pastor, I help officers deal with the emotional and spiritual aspects of their lives. I have found that many officers ignore spirituality. That worries me because I know how valuable faith, be it Christian or otherwise, can be for helping the average person get through life’s stresses, so it’s even more important to officers who experience much greater levels of stress.

Part of the reason officers do not address the spiritual side of life can be attributed to their inconsistent and downright crazy work schedules. Many officers work night shifts, weekends, and are on call, so attending religious services or maintaining relationships at a house of worship can be difficult to manage.

Another reason officers often neglect the spiritual side of life is that they have seen so many bad things. Officers deal with the lowest of the low in society and they’ve also seen horrific things, from gruesome crimes to tragic accidents. This can harden a person’s outlook towards people and life in general. However, this is even more of a reason why officers need to find some element of spirituality in their lives. Spirituality helps people gain perspective on their life’s events and can help bring balance, perspective, and even gratitude for what they have. Finding spirituality also drives many people into a service task such as participating in missions and local charities to help them give back and contribute in a different, and often therapeutic, way.

Throughout my 35 years as a pastor, I have found that almost all the officers who share with me their frustrations, challenges and pain are able to find some sort of solace when they focus on their spiritual life.

Officers come to me with all different backgrounds and experiences in spirituality. Those who start with no spiritual foundation and spend some time investigating faith are usually drawn out of the malaise of their daily life. Officers who have a moderate understanding and practice of faith normally just need to be reminded of what is really important in the grand scheme of life and are able to renew their focus on the spiritual leg of their table. For those who are strong in faith, reiterating together what is true in divinity usually helps strengthen their life’s spiritual journey even further.

My message to every officer I work with, regardless of their faith, is that stress is a killer. It destroys lives and can cause incredible damage to a person’s well-being. Officers need to find ways to cope with and address their stress, so it doesn’t eat them from the inside out. My job is to help people think through what is right, and what is important in life, so that stress doesn’t get a hold of one of their “legs.” For me, as someone who has a Christian worldview, I believe that stress can be lessened when one understands his or her purpose in life. When officers take the time to ensure that the legs of their own table are in balance, they are much better equipped to handle the weight of life.

About the Author: Ed Kelley has been a pastor for 35 years and is currently working as the Executive Pastor of the Bay Area Community Church in Annapolis, Maryland. As part of his ministry, he has been working with law enforcement officers for the last 30 years and is the Chaplain for the last three years with INLETS. If you have questions about life, “legs,” or the Christian worldview,. To contact the author, please send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu.

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