- Associated Press - Sunday, April 30, 2017

HARRISON CITY, Pa. (AP) - The Rev. Roger L. Steiner has taken his ministry from pulpits to police cruisers.

The pastor of Penn-Zion Lutheran Parish this month became Penn Township Police Department’s first chaplain. He will offer nondenominational spiritual guidance to the township’s 21 officers and the people they serve.

Policing is a high-stress job, and officers sometimes try to deal with the pressure on their own, Steiner said.

“Sometimes they keep that stress locked up, and it’s my job to help them work through that so they can maintain a good level of stability when they’re out on the job,” said Steiner, who will continue to minister to his congregation.

A nominal annual salary of $1 technically means he is now part of the police force - able to ride along in police cars, wear a badge and receive workers compensation if something happens on the job.

“He’s one of us. He has the keys to the city, so to speak,” police Chief John Otto said. “Pastor Steiner is a welcome member of our department.”

The township has never had a chaplain, but Otto said it has become increasingly important for officers to have someone to turn to in times of crisis.

“The job that we do has become so much more dynamic in the last few years,” he said.

The rising heroin epidemic has taken a toll on officers’ mental well-being, Otto said.

“There’s very few weeks that go by that we are not dealing with families in crisis because of this opiate epidemic,” he said.

Comforting those families is another important part of Steiner’s job, Otto said.

“The police chaplain is so much better at this than we in law enforcement are,” he said.

A handful of Westmoreland County police forces have their own chaplain, including Greensburg and Murrysville. Departments that don’t turn to the Rev. Harold Mele of Lower Burrell, a chaplain for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 39, which covers Westmoreland, Armstrong and part of Allegheny counties.

“I don’t get involved with the Lodge business, but I’m there for spiritual advice,” said Mele, who has been a police chaplain for 27 years. “They love me, and I love them, and I think they’re growing spiritually.”

Mele is there for the 350 officers in the order, in addition to 200 firefighters in New Kensington and Lower Burrell. Being a police chaplain has a few key differences from pastoring a church congregation - including the salty words that are sometimes used, he said.

“You have to have very, very hard ears, because when you go to these meetings they’re using street language,” he said.

Steiner said he knows the difference between his roles in church and at the station.

“My role is not to proselytize but to be available,” he said.

He plans to attend a training session with the International Conference of Police Chaplains this year to learn more about the nuances of the job.

“It has gotten more complicated because law enforcement has become more complicated,” said conference spokesman John Harth, who is chaplain for eight Missouri police departments.

In his 29 years on the job, Harth has watched as chaplains have been gradually embraced by departments across the country as a vital part of their operation.

“The environment has become more and more open,” he said. “The chaplains divisions are being seen as part of the employee assistance programs.”

A police chaplain is there for everyone, he said, regardless of faith or life situation.

“You meet people where they are,” he said. “When you’re a chaplain, you’re everyone’s chaplain.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2qsop30

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Information from: Tribune-Review, https://triblive.com


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