Community servant retires after 30 years of service | Tacoma-Pierce County Chaplaincy

When traumatic events unfold, police and fire personnel are often the individuals who bring order to a situation. But as the sirens go silent and the lights fade away, victims are left wondering what comes next. Enter the chaplain.

Art Sphar has served community members and first responders of Bonney Lake and Sumner for 30 years. As a chaplain, Sphar provides spiritual and emotional support when critical incidents occur, which nearly always involve a death, he said.

Chaplains may act as on-site counselors, provide helpful resources, assist in handling police investigations, contact family members of the victim and make funeral arrangements when it is difficult for survivors to do so.

The most important and rewarding part of his job, Sphar said, is the opportunity to remind others of God’s presence at a crisis scene and witness the difference it makes. However, the scope is tailored for each situation; chaplains are there to help, regardless of one’s spiritual associations.

“We must be very careful to observe the separation of church and state issues, and to fully respect the religious beliefs, or lack of them, of the people we serve,” Sphar said.

Chaplains are also confidants for emergency responders. They provide emotional and professional support in times of need. It can be as simple as befriending officers or having a cup of coffee with firefighters, Sphar said, but other times, it goes deeper. The chaplains arrive on scene and remain until their services are no longer needed.

“It is hard for an outsider to imagine the emotional burden they carry as they go from call to call every day. They see and experience the grief and extreme emotions of families and friends of the victims, they see the physical trauma of these death scenes, and they usually have no way to deal with these issues before they are off to their next call,” he said.

Sphar was called to chaplaincy while on a ride along with Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department in Gresham, Ore. He witnessed a fatal collision and wanted to assist the surviving victims, he said. He approached the Sheriff’s Department and began the difficult work of developing protocols from the ground up.

In the fall of 1983, he made the move to Bonney Lake and helped found Lake Tapps Christian Church. He approached the Bonney Lake Police Department and was invited to be the city’s first chaplain. Shortly after, Sumner Police and Pierce County Sheriff each inquired if he would serve their departments as well.

As Sphar widened his service berth, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chaplaincy (TPCC) was slowly forming. He gained membership to TPCC and the International Conference of Police Chaplains early on.

Tacoma-Pierce County Chaplaincy

TPCC’s roots go back to 1971, when Lyle Smith, former Tacoma police chief and Pierce county sheriff, recognized a need and sought to fulfill it.

Throughout the years, it has grown from serving the city of Tacoma, to including more than 30 local police and fire agencies. There are currently close to 40 chaplain members, many of which are volunteers. The service area includes an approximate population of 800,000 people and chaplains commit to responding immediately, on a 24-hour basis.

There are a lot of unique considerations when working within a crime scene and other sensitive situations, Sphar said. In the early days of chaplaincy, there weren’t any guidelines regarding how to perform the duties properly.

TPCC provides professional resources to standardize chaplaincy, including a nationally recognized training academy. Many chaplains have traveled internationally to receive training and learn best practices from instructors at the academy. Sphar has served as both the director and an instructor.

Upon his retirement at the end of the month, Sphar’s role is to be replaced by Chaplain Chris Bassett in Bonney Lake and Chaplain Bob Ihler in Sumner.

“In many ways my chaplaincy has been the most rewarding and fulfilling thing I have ever done,” Sphar said. “I will really miss being a part of this great ministry, I am very pleased to be leaving my two departments in very good hands.”

For more information on Tacoma-Pierce County Chaplaincy, please visit their website.