Pastor Ward Doering had never envisioned that his ministry would take him to an Omaha doorstep at 3 a.m.
The first time he found himself in such a spot was six years ago. He had been sent to west Omaha to notify a family that a loved one had been killed in an car crash.
“I prayed on it the whole way there,” Doering recalled. “I wanted to make sure I did it right.”
That visit was the first of many similar ones Doering has made in the middle of the night in his role as an Omaha police chaplain.
“I knew it was going to be a terrible moment in these people’s lives that they were going to remember forever,” Doering said. “And, I knew that I would remember it, too.”
Doering, 53, is one of 13 local clergy who participate in the Omaha Police Department’s chaplain program. A decade ago, close to 30 participated.
Recruiting and keeping chaplains has become increasingly difficult for police departments across the country. Those involved say the pressures and risks associated with the job — which is unpaid — as well as the on-call, late-night hours may keep men and women in the clergy, already stretched thin with their own congregations, from serving.
In addition, a negative view of police by some in the aftermath of officer-involved shootings across the country could be off-putting, the chaplains interviewed said.
“We walk alongside officers, ride with them and are there to support them and help them do what they do,” said Pastor Mark Clements, president of the International Conference of Police Chaplains. “Some ministers may worry that the people in their communities don’t want them to be involved with the police department.”
The Omaha police chaplain program, which started in 1982, is made up of Protestant ministers, Catholic priests and a rabbi.
Even though the word “chaplain” derives from Christianity, the program is nondenominational in that chaplains are not allowed to project their faith or refuse to help someone who believes differently.
Anyone who has been ordained by a religious organization and has a religious education or background can apply to the program. Some applicants have law enforcement connections or experience.
Doering, for instance, was a military police officer in the 1980s. He’s currently a Baptist minister who runs the Underground, a non-traditional church that welcomes “people from all walks of life” such as bikers and addicts, Doering said.
Omaha police have an interview process for potential chaplains to ensure that they’re a good fit. The department does not accept those who have been ordained via the Internet.
Lincoln police have 18 chaplains on hand; the department would like another 10 to 12.
“If you do the math, you’ll find out that 18 chaplains can’t provide 31 days of service over the course of a month,” said Deacon Rich Kelly, a senior chaplain for the Lincoln department.
In Omaha and other cities, each chaplain is required to be on call for one 24-hour period a month. Because the Omaha program is understaffed, chaplains usually are scheduled to cover three or four days a month.
Omaha police chaplains wear uniforms and drive a car that identifies them as a chaplain.
They don’t wear bulletproof vests or carry weapons. They are aware that the job might put them in a potentially dangerous situation, but the say the chaplain uniform is a kind of shield.
“Most people are very nice and realize we are trying to help them,” said Kelly, who serves as a deacon at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Lincoln.
Chaplains handle a lot of death notifications, either alone or accompanied by police officers.
When a shooting, crash or other incident occurs, police dispatchers often will call a chaplain to the scene. Once they arrive, they are there to comfort stunned family members. Even people who don’t consider themselves religious seem to appreciate having a chaplain around amid the chaos, said the Rev. Damon Laaker, who leads Omaha’s program.
“There’s all kinds of stuff swirling around, but to have a chaplain there ... becomes a calming force,” said Laaker, a pastor at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1326 S. 26th St.
“Sometimes, I don’t have to do anything other than be present.”
Being present also means being there for police officers, who often seek counseling from chaplains. Nearly all 13 Omaha chaplains were summoned to the city’s police precincts and other locations in May, when Omaha Police Officer Kerrie Orozco was killed while trying to make an arrest.
“If the chaplains weren’t there when Kerrie died, I would have gotten phone calls,” said Capt. Michele Bang, who oversees the department’s chaplain program. “They were needed, and we were glad they were there.”
In Council Bluffs, police officers routinely seek counseling from the department’s seven chaplains. Helping officers has become the chaplains’ main focus.
“Our chaplains’ primary responsibility is officers first,” said Lt. Dan Flores. “It takes a year or two to earn the trust of police officers. It’s not an easy culture to be accepted to.”
That can be frustrating to some thinking about chaplain work, Bang said.
“You have to be a really patient person,” Bang said. “Chaplains know that police officers need spiritual guidance at times, but officers can be a reluctant group. It can be emotional.”
Despite the stresses, the potential dangers and weird hours, chaplain work is one of the most rewarding ways to serve God and others, those involved say. The members of the Omaha chaplain corps hope more clergy — especially those who speak Spanish — will think about the job.
“When someone is having a hard time and needs to talk, maybe I’m the only safe person they have,” Doering said. “That’s God working through me.”
For more on the Omaha Police Department's chaplain program, including information on how to join, visit omahapolicechaplains.com.
Contact the writer: 402-444-3100, firstname.lastname@example.org