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Crisis Intervention, Mindfulness, and Spiritual Resilience: Law Enforcement Chaplaincy with Ken Schlenker

Updated: Apr 17

Chaplain Ken Schlenker, MDiv is the Founder and Executive Director of RKM Crisis Team, dba CAREForce, a nonprofit 501(c)3 developing "Resilient Communities Through Collaborative Relationships." He currently serves as a Law Enforcement and District Attorney Chaplain for Montgomery County, TX. Ken is the author of the California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Basic Law Enforcement Chaplain Course. Chaplain Schlenker shares his considerable experience in law enforcement and critical incident chaplaincy as well as his work in training chaplains of all faiths for law enforcement chaplaincy. The significant differences between the work of a congregation minister and law enforcement chaplaincy and the need for specialized training to effectively support first responders. The dangers of suicidality among first responders and the role of spiritual fitness and faith in preventing first responder suicides. The importance of leaders, chiefs, battalion leaders and so on modeling healthy practices for resilience.

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Crisis Intervention, Mindfulness, and Spiritual Resilience: Law Enforcement Chaplaincy with Ken Schlenker Transcript


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

Hello, and welcome to another session on day four of the Global First Responder Resilience  Summit. My name is Dr. Michael Christie. I'm your co-host for today's session. I'm here with Ken  Shlenker. Welcome, Ken. 


Ken Shlenker: 

Thank you. 


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

Ken is the Founder and Executive Director of the RKM Crisis Team. He is also a diplomat with  the American Academy of Traumatic Stress National Center for Crisis Management and is board  certified in Crisis Chaplaincy, Stress Management and Emergency Response.  


Ken is the author of the California Peace Officer Standard and Training in Basic Law  Enforcement Chaplaincy Course, which he created as a part of this Instructional System Design  Masters Instructor Certification Program. Ken is also the creator of a chaplaincy degree program  at Grace School of Theology, a full accredited seminary. He's also a professor and a director at  that said institution. 


Good to have you, Ken. I was really curious, Ken, as to exactly what CAREForce does.

 

Ken Shlenker: 

Well, thank you, Michael. It's exciting to be here for the summit. CAREForce has been around for  a number of decades now, and our focus has been preparing first responders and those that are  serving the first responder community and the community they serve for crisis intervention,  critical incidents, stress management, suicide, domestic violence response, just a host of different  individual issues and stuff.  


Part of what we do is we work with veterans, first responders, education, health care,  and the faith community, and equip people with the secular skill sets of a chaplain that generally  you do not get within a seminary type of education. We're very much focused on the community  and taking care of our first responders so that they can take care of the rest of us.


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

I'm curious, how do you prepare religious institutions to do this kind of work? 


Ken Shlenker: 

If you're specifically talking like priests, sheiks, imams, rabbis, pastors, we will go and work with  them to develop what I call our philosophy of ministry, which is a ministry of purpose, presence,  and peace to provide sacred care because the method of response for a chaplain is very different  from that of the pastoral philosophy of ministry. 


I was both a care and missions pastor at a small church in Southern California. When  9/11 came around, we sent people. We very quickly realized that they weren't really prepared  for that type of environment. So, I started going through training literally from the federal level  on down, from places like the Center for Domestic Preparedness at Fort McClellan in Anniston  and got some federal credentials there, all the way down to city and state.  

I realized that these major crises that happen also occur within these places of worship. Somebody losing their husband or a child on drugs or something. That's just as much of a crisis  as the major events in that person's life. 


We quickly realized that chaplaincy was able to be used inside the church, as well as  outside the church, as well as a bridge between care and missions. That actually gave us four  quadrants. That's how CAREForce started.  


Originally, we were National Center for Chaplain Development for a number of years.  Since that time, there's really not a place that I have found that chaplains cannot serve if they're  properly trained. They're contextualized for the environment of service.  


Chaplaincy is not one-size-fits-all. While there are some core elements that are true,  how I would train somebody, I was a coroner chapel, for example, and right now I'm in the  District Attorney's office, or if I'm in the hospital or hospice or disaster. All those different  environments require different skills. Also, initially on how the issues present. 


So, we would work with faith-based organizations, churches, and so forth and help them  to establish and raise up their own teams within their congregations to be able to serve their  bodies as well as reaching out to serve the communities.


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

Thank you. I'm really appreciating the distinction you're making between the role of a chaplain  versus the role of a pastor in the community and how important it is for pastors to take on some  of this chaplaincy training and roles because so much of what we do today with all of the crisis  that is happening in the world, those kinds of skillset is needed. And it's very different from what  you do as a pastor. So, thank you for sharing that. 

Today's theme is spiritual fitness. I'm curious as to what that means to you as a chaplain and how this is relevant to first responders from your perspective. 


Ken Shlenker: 

When I work with first responders, a lot of times, they do not understand the impact that the job  has upon them. As Dr. Kevin Gilmartin talks about a lot with regard to hypervigilance, they don't  understand the trauma that occurs to them and how it gets buried in their life. And they carry  that back home and the implications that it has within the home because the family does not  understand it, and they're not trained to deal with the issues.  


In addition, it's a holistic perspective on physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and  spiritual. The example that I use is if you knew somebody who was anxious, it was so bad, they  physically got sick to their stomach. They wanted to throw up. You have an emotion that causes  something physical. That same emotion is the stressor that is causing them to be anxious. They  started dwelling on it, so their cognition changed, their cognitive focus. 

And when that happened, how they were behaving changed. So you have an emotion  that caused something physical, that led to something cognitive, that led to something  behavioral. I would say, as a chaplain, the entire thing is spiritual. I need to define spirituality  because there's a misunderstanding in a lot of people between religion, faith, and spirituality.  They're not the same thing. 


Spirituality is that which gives meaning and purpose to somebody's life. That's unique  and different for each individual. It's very different from religion, which is adherence to a set of  doctrines and dogma of a particular religion. Faith is something that you put your trust to.  

From my perspective, I was raised Jewish and then became Catholic and then protestant.  So, I've come through a cycle, if you will. I have very strong faith, but when somebody is in crisis, and they go into what I call the pit of crisis, it's not about us. It's not about what we believe or  what I'm a law enforcement chaplain. I deal with all the criminal investigations. So homicide or  in crimes, crime lab, special victims, organized crime. I'm also in the District Attorney's office. We have 120 personnel. The individuals that go from one call to another that are on patrol, every call they go on is a different degree of lethality. So, having to be in a hypervigilant state, your head is on a swivel. 


Well, as they go, they can't deal with the emotional, psychological, spiritual impact of  what it is that they're witnessing, so they tend to bury it. And then the culture starts to be that  they have to have everybody believe that they can count on everybody. So there's a stigma, and  that stigma really needs to be removed because they carry that back into the home. And then, you start to have marital issues. You start to have potential substance abuse. And eventually, it  could lead to a trigger of potential suicide.  


Suicide grows in isolation and darkness. We need to expose it. We need to be head-on  with it and learn how to deal with it and how to handle it? So even for their families and their kids in the schools and stuff, the last CDC statistic that I saw in 2016, ages 10 to 34 suicide was the second-highest cause of death in the nation. And from 35 to 54, it was the third-highest cause.  

And with all of our veterans that are coming back, I'm a Navy vet, I was a corpsman, a lot of veterans are going back into first responder agencies. So police, fire, EMS, dispatch, all of them. And I'm fearful because we've had, I think last time I checked, 202 line-of-duty deaths nationally. I think we're at close to 90 suicides, just within our law enforcement community. Not to talk about any of the other public safety. So, we really need to discuss it and bring it out into the open. 


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

Thank you for that. And what really resonated with me, what you've shared just now is how we all have to meet, all of us that are citizens of this human race, where we are, regardless of our own beliefs, our own religion, our own ideology, our own dogmas, which can sometimes get in the way, and particularly for first responders and for those that are caring for first responders, that we're willing to meet them.  


I'm also hearing the value of recognizing spirituality. My sense is that it's not recognized  enough. Recently, we're just starting to appreciate in so many psychotherapies the value and importance of bringing in people's spirituality, how much that helps in the healing process, and  how profound that can change situations. 


Ken Shlenker: 

Part of the sadness that I see is when I talk to people of faith. Now, when I do our classes,  literally, I had priests, sheiks, imams, rabbis, and pastors all in the same class. We're all  respectful of one another because it's not about us. It's about the communities that we're serving.  


When somebody has an issue, it's up to us to assess how they process the issue, not  how we want them to process the issue. And what our role is to empower them to be resilient,  to empower them to cope to create an environment that's safe for them and not impose upon  them that which we bring to the table because it's foreign.  


They're already compromised, and they're trying to figure out, 'I don't like how I'm feeling.  I'm in pain. I'm under pressure right now. I want to get back to what I would consider to be  normal.' But the fact is they're never going to get back to that normal because whatever's  causing them to be in, what I call the pit of crisis, they now have to learn to deal with and to  incorporate it into their life.  


So, that's part of the training that's required that you generally don't get at a seminary.  Our seminary, we do, because I've incorporated it in that. But the other component is that we're  working as part of the interdisciplinary team that has behavioral health, peer support, and  chaplains' kind of working, if I was to use Incident Command System, ICS, as a unified command  structure. So that depending upon what the need is of the person, we flex as a team to provide  them what they need. Some of us can cross over all three roles, but generally, when we're doing  our response, it's as a team that we're doing that response. 


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

Thank you, Ken. I'm really curious as to how you would help a first responder to get in touch with this part of themselves, this spirituality, which so many people have pushed aside or is  unaware of. And particularly, for those that are going through so much trauma as first  responders. How do they really cultivate having a sensitivity to that and value it as an important  part of this entire healing process? 


Ken Shlenker: 

I thank you for that question. A lot of it has to do with our philosophy of ministry. I spent 40  hours literally unpacking this, but purpose presence and peace to provide sacred care. Our ministry of purpose is to be a force multiplier for whatever the agency is that we're serving. And  being proactive and seeking out and developing relationships with individuals that we have  credibility and that they trust us. And they also understand that they have confidentiality and  privileged communication with a chaplain.  


A lot of personnel are fearful of opening up because of what may happen, but they need  to, because they're like sitting on top of a volcano and the pressure is building up. If they don't release the pressure somehow, they're going to be sitting on top of a volcano that's about to explode. 


Our chaplains are trained to be proactive in development of relationships, and it's going  to take time, especially with the contexts that I serve in. It takes quite a while for law enforcement  to build trust and stuff. And it makes sense, because they need to protect themselves and their  families. Showing up, being there, spending time with them, being available for them, all of that develops. 


Then once that happens, it's not unusual for me to get a phone call saying, "Hey, can we  go out for a cup of coffee?" My role again, is not to fix people. That's never what our role is. It's  to listen to people and to help people to express the pain and the pressure that they're under.  Sacred stands for our core values - spiritual, available, credible, relational, empathetic, and  diverse or multiculturally competent.  


Care stands for our methodology. How do you connect, assess, respond, and engage  with individuals? Not coming up with the plan of how they need to deal with it, but empowering  them to come up with their own plan that we're going to walk with them through it. 

So, depending on who the individual is, as we're talking with them, as we're listening to  them tell us their story, things will come out. And when people are in the pit, what they need is  hope and they need light. So that's where the spirituality component comes in. Because again,  the definition that we use for spirituality is that which gives you meaning and purpose in life.  


If someone, for example, is suicidal, a lot of times and based upon scope of practice and  stuff of whatever the different professions are, they immediately go to a suicidal value scale and  assessment stuff. We'll do that but there's a process that they need to go through.  

The first thing after we ask based upon what we see, hear, sense, and learn from them,  and we ask the question, "Are you thinking of killing yourself? Are you suicidal?" And they say, "Yes," the next question we need to ask is, "Tell me why you don't want to live? Why do you  want to die?" And that's not an easy question to ask, but the individual has to process from  where they are to move them towards life. 

 

As they're doing that, and we start to tie it back into what we are hearing from them,  then we hear the things that may give them meaning and purpose to life. And we bring that into  the conversation because they raised it because we allowed them to talk. We didn't talk over  them. We asked open-ended questions, active listening, all the things that we're trained to do. 


Everybody's spirituality is different. If we start having a conversation about faith, it's  because they brought it up. If it's somebody of another faith, we would facilitate to get them  somebody of their faith to be able to help them with the particular issue that we're at. 


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

Thank you. I'm really appreciating. Being heard is such a profound gift to someone else. Just to  create the space, particularly when someone is mourning or someone's going through some  trauma, or just not even sure themselves what they're feeling, but to have a space they can just  be authentic and self-expressed without being judged and to be heard, and to have that share  and be heard and cared for with dedication is just a wonderful gift any of us could give someone,  and to ourselves as well. 


For those first responders that are currently listening to us now, what would you  suggest/recommend to them for them to cultivate this sense of spiritual fitness? For those that  are interested, what would you recommend? 


Ken Shlenker: 

Again, each person is different but if you're defining it as we are for that which gives you meaning  and purpose in life, it's to take time to sit down and be somewhat self-aware and self-reflective and really hone in.  


I would ask the question, do people have a personal mission statement for themselves  and for their family? What really is important to you? And generally, we would recommend  something that's transcendent, something that's greater than you that's outside of yourself. That  can have many meanings for many people but you need to have it. 


A lot of times over the years of being in, whatever the first responder profession is that  you're a part of, a lot of times people get very isolated. And what I mean by that is they only  have people in their circles that they work with, that do the same thing. 


We need to have a balance in our life and relationships outside of that, because over  time, what may happen for some, is that it's no longer that their job is what they do. It becomes  that which they are, and there is a fusing. That could be very dangerous. I personally believe  when we're looking at wellness and resiliency programs for departments, there should be three  axis that you look at. 


We have cradle to grave. And what I mean by that, somebody who just wants to get in  to whatever the agency is. They go into the academy. They're in the academy. They graduate. They now have a career. They are about to retire and they are retired. That's one axis.  

If over that time, the only people they ever deal with are those that are within that  community, now, when they get out, they're no longer able to have any access to that  community. And they have now identified that what they are is who they are, that could be very  dangerous.  


I know Karen Solomon with bluehelp.org is tracking suicide statistics for a while now for  law enforcement. And now they're expanding out for fire and EMS and stuff, but there's a lot of  suicides that occur that aren't being tracked after retirement because those people aren't  plugged in. And that's how they identify because they never dealt with the stress. So, that's cradle to grave. And then, you need to have prevention, intervention, and postvention model for all of  that. And then, it also needs to be tiered. So, you have command staff, supervisor, line officer, and family.  


I believe when somebody enters the academy, they should do family academies that are  coinciding to educate the family as to what life looks like as a first responder and what the issues  are that they may be facing, which includes bringing in this holistic, interdisciplinary team and  connecting them with the family, so they know what all the resources are that are available. 


I would encourage all of the first responders that are listening to look at Professor Mark  Schweitzer, one of the CPE supervisors who's doing his doctorate right now. He's working on  something called Pursuing Holistic Health. I've adopted that term with his permission. We need to look at, what are you doing physically, emotionally, cognitively, behaviorally, and spiritually  because they're all interrelated. You can't forsake one over the other. It's like putting jello in your  hand. If you squeeze it, it's going to come out somewhere.  

So, when we're talking about spiritual resiliency, we can't forsake all the other aspects  of who we are. I'm not talking just about first responders. This is part of our human condition.  All of it needs to be addressed. 


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

Wow, that's wonderful. I'm hearing the importance of caring for all the parts and, in particular,  the bio infrastructure of us as human beings. There are so many different parts of all of that, of  our biology and our being. We have to take care how we hold that space and how we spend  time in each of them really healing, maybe even each section by itself.  

I'm also really curious. Mental health currently is a big problem. There's a rise in  awareness, thank God, but there's still a lot of stigma around mental health, particularly for first  responders. You mentioned earlier the unwillingness to really share with supervisors that they're  struggling, whatever that struggle might be. What are your thoughts or vision on organizations  being more trauma-informed? 


Ken Shlenker: 

It has to start at the top. Let's say the sheriff or the battalion chief. It has to be modeled and  started up there that people know that the department cares about them. If you think about it,  they spend three, four, five thousand dollars on equipment and training and everything else.  


A lot of individuals are not trained in how to put the emotional, spiritual, psychological  body armor on. That can have devastating impacts. To me, it's a really cheap insurance policy, if  you will, on the investment that the departments put in. I think you could tie it right back to issues  like absenteeism, presenteeism, and a bunch of other things from a liability risk management  standpoint. 


But modeling it from the top down that it's okay to not be okay, the stigma needs to be  exposed. This is one of the values of having a peer support team that's trained in again, part of  this interdisciplinary component. The peers already have the walls broken down. And if you have  peers that have gone through a department that says, "It's okay to not be okay, we have  programs in place, use the programs. And you have peers that go through it." It's much more  likely that those that are having an issue when they know that a peer has gone through it is able to help them to navigate and see them coming from the other side. That's a wonderful program  to have. But as a person goes through it, there are lanes that people are in.  


So, I know where my lane as a chaplain ends. A peer knows where theirs end. Mental  health and behavioral health professional knows where theirs ends. That's why each person  needs to have the option of who they would like to reach out to, but all the people that they  reach out to are integrated as a team. Again, in confidentiality and privileged communication.  


Here in Montgomery County, when I first got here, people didn't know anything about us  and we've never advertised. We only do things through relationships and referrals for decades  now. I get some community roundtables on suicide. And as a result of that, I had 75 people show  up. We got connected with a number of people. And one of them, Judge Wayne Mack, we ended  up at the convention center and had 450 people show up representing 150 agencies. 


Here in the county, we created the Montgomery County Behavioral Health and Suicide  Prevention Task Force that's focused on the entire county as one. We have 20 workgroups. I  oversee training in the first responder workgroup. All the first responder agencies in the county, we are all coming together countywide to come up with plans to remove the stigma for mental health and issues and suicide that could be shared resources among all the different departments and agencies. 


That's one of the ways that we're doing it and getting the agency heads involved with  us, so it's a countywide effort. I'd love to see something like that modeled countrywide, frankly,  but each community is different. And each agency within that community is different.  

The bottom line is, allowing people to know that it's okay to not be okay. And to remove  the stigma, it needs to be hit square in the head, and light needs to be shone upon it and not  isolated and kept in darkness. 


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

What a gift it would be for institutions and organizations to create the culture to let them know  it's okay not to be okay and that it's safe for you to share your vulnerabilities. It's so layered,  particularly because many of our first responders, particularly law enforcement, are males. We  have this way of sharing vulnerabilities that get in the way of our healing. That'll be a wonderful  gift if we can begin to shift that culture and make it okay to talk about our stuff and our  insecurities, and our fears in a way that will provide more safety for us and more healing for us.  Well, thank you for sharing that.


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

One last question. You're a chaplain and an educator. We're in the midst of a pandemic. How do  you care for yourself and sustain and build resiliency and mental health strength? 


Ken Shlenker: 

Well, the main way is my family. I am blessed. We have a three-generation household. I grew  up in a four-generation household. I have a brand-new grandbaby, April 5th, and they live here  with us.  


My bride and I have been together for 40 years. She is my confidant and a person that I  share a lot with. She's trained also. But I do have chaplains and mental health professionals  there on an international basis that we're always checking in with one another, and we are  readily available. Also, taking time just to get away.  


I'm 61, and my kids are in their 30s. I still date my kids. I have a lot of joy in my life and  gratitude. Part of being resilient is having gratitude. I love it. Thank you for asking. 


Rev. Dr. Michael Christie: 

Ken, you are doing amazing work for first responders and communities. I want to thank you  personally for the space and the ground and for how you're showing up into the world like what  you're doing and your contribution to humanity. Thank you for what you do. Thank you for your  contributions, and thank you for being with us. 


Ken Shlenker: 

Thank you so much for the opportunity and the honor.


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