Lean on Me

Dedicated chaplains show support for Edina’s first responders.
Three of the city’s five faithful fire and police chaplains: Steve Wheeler, Richard Phenow and Daniel Christopulos.

Since 1997, community religious leaders have served as fire and police chaplains to support the enforcement community in Edina. Sgt. Nate Mendel invited Edina Magazine to speak with the chaplains during their monthly meeting in August.

Each of the Edina chaplains is active in their respective faith organization, yet sought and prayed for an opportunity to serve the broader community. And while their desire was and is to serve the community, these pastors have come to realize that their primary role is serving the department.

“Cops need that support, but they don’t always know how to ask for it,” says International Orthodox Christian Charities’ country representative Daniel Christopulos. “They work weird hours, so they don’t necessarily go to church regularly and don’t have the typical support systems that other professions might have.” Plus, police and fire fighters may have more spiritual support needs than others due to the nature of their work.

In the beginning, many in the department seemed wary of the chaplains. Reverend Rich Phenow of Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina recalls, “We kind of had to win a little bit of respect. They thought we were there to win converts.” But Phenow believes that just showing up, showing support and realizing how undervalued and underappreciated these folks can be was important to gaining trust and building relationships.

“People don’t see behind the scenes, the kindness and respect, and love [that the police] show to people. They’re not a bunch of tough guys or gals. They’re courteous,” says Reverend Steve Wheeler of Crossview Lutheran Church. “They are human beings who are protecting our community and really are servants to the community.”

The chaplains have created an opportunity for the police to get to know them by hosting annual barbecues and chili feeds. Along with providing officers support after traumatic calls, these events help solidify the chaplains’ bond with the department.

As part of their role, chaplains are dispatched to crime scenes, hospitals, death notifications and to provide support to an officer after being debriefed about traumatic events. Being trained in the soft skills necessary to support a person in the midst of tragedy, these chaplains provide comfort where it is needed in order to enable officers to do their jobs well. And despite the nearness to tragic happenings, the chaplains agree that it is a blessing to go into a person’s home during a difficult time to offer comfort, care and support.

After nearly two decades of department chaplains recognizing the Edina officers for their hard work, Mendel thought it was time to recognize the chaplains for their volunteer efforts. Mendel worked with the city of Edina to have the chaplains recognized at the 36th annual Volunteer Recognition Reception in April where they received a Community Involvement Commendation. When asked about the award, this jovial group of spiritual leaders cracked jokes because what truly motivates them isn’t awards but serving the officers.

And they put joking aside when discussing important issues. This past summer, one of their main concerns was when an officer had to fire his weapon in self-defense. The chaplains discussed developing new dispatching protocols so that not only are the officers supported during times of high stress, but also the police dispatchers. Dispatchers develop relationships with officers over time and can feel the stress of their colleagues being in harm’s way. The overall theme of the August meeting was how to help officers to walk the fine line between dwelling on an incident and letting it lie. Mendel says of the chaplains, “They are amazing, amazing people.”

After meeting with this group, one realizes “amazing” may be an understatement knowing how these chaplains find genuine joy in supporting the men and women who keep Edina safe.

Currently serving as police chaplains:
Daniel Christopulos, country representative of International Orthodox Christian Charities
Rev. Steve Wheeler of Cross View Lutheran Church
Rev. Kurt Kalland of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church
Rev. Rich Phenow of Christ Presbyterian Church
Rev. Jonathan Good, Director of Faith Partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, serves as fire chaplain.