After 30 years, pioneering Pierce County chaplain ends fruitful career

kari.plog@thenewstribune.comApril 7, 2014 

Sumner and Bonney Lake Police chaplain Art Sphar, who retired March 31.

COURTESY OF ART SPHAR

Art Sphar didn’t plan to become a police chaplain when he started studying ministry. A police ride-along and a tragic accident changed that, launching him into a challenging yet rewarding career.

Sphar retired at the end of March after 30 years as a police chaplain in Sumner and Bonney Lake. He was the first chaplain for both police departments, and was one of the first for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.

“Back in the ’70s, nobody had ever heard of a police chaplain,” he said.

After graduating from Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Tennessee, Sphar started serving a church in Gresham, Ore., in 1975.

A member of his congregation invited him to do a police ride-along, during which Sphar witnessed the aftermath of a car crash that killed three of four passengers. The victims’ children watched the accident happen from another vehicle. They were devastated, Sphar said.

“We stayed with them through the night,” he said. “I stayed with them through the funeral.”

Soon after, Sphar became the first chaplain for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. He brought that experience to Sumner in 1983, working for three law enforcement agencies while serving as pastor for Lake Tapps Christian Church, which he started.

Sphar also helped build an academy for chaplaincy training in Pierce County and continues to teach there today.

“It got a little busy for a while,” he said, laughing.

Sphar talked recently with The News Tribune about his life’s work.

Q: Is it true this isn’t the first time you’ve tried to retire?

A: About 10 years ago, in 2003, I retired as pastor of Lake Tapps Christian Church. My wife says I flunked retirement. I see (chaplaincy) as a highly specialized form of ministry. So I felt called to continue doing it.

Q: How did you decide to become a police chaplain? Was it the accident in Oregon that inspired you to do it?

A: It had never occurred to me before that night to become a chaplain. It was the profound grief of the car full of teenagers with nobody to turn to. I was a caring pastor. I thought I had the skills to help in a case like that. It turned out that was only partly true. Because the field was so new, we (Sphar and other chaplains) had to invent the training that went with the job as we discovered what we didn’t know.

That was where Tacoma-Pierce County Chaplaincy played a role. … It is an internationally known academy. We’ve had students as far away as Australia and the Philippines. We’ve graduated over 500 students now. It’s designed to meet national certifications for fire and police. Nobody else can say that.

Q: For those who don’t know, what exactly does a chaplain do?

A: The obvious thing is dealing with families at the time of the greatest crisis in their whole life. A lot of times, we’re the ones to tell them that a loved one has died. We help them through services and try to build a support system for them.

The other half of the job is caring for the first responders. When you fish a body out of the water and it looks like your child, it really does something to you. (Responders) need spiritual support to help them continue to do what they do.

Q: What was the most challenging part about your job?

A: I think it’s coping with the tragic things that we respond to. The hardest thing is always children. Look at what is going on with the Snohomish County mudslide right now. The responders will never forget that. That will be with them for the rest of their life.

Q: What keeps you going?

A: A very strong sense of calling. It’s a very rewarding, fulfilling experience to feel that when I’m there caring for someone going through that tragedy, it’s not just me. The Lord Jesus is there with me.

Q: What makes the departments you work with stand out?

A: Both Bonney Lake and Sumner police departments have been welcoming to me and the chaplains that are following me there now. To take in a civilian and allow us to come into the private parts of the station, to eventually wear their uniform and carry their badge, that is huge.

Q: Where do you go for support when you need it?

A: My fellow chaplains, because we all do the same thing and have the same kind of experiences. Because they are all doing the same thing and experiencing the same thing, they are the best people in the world to put each other back together when it’s all over.

Q: What is the first thing you are going to do in your retirement?

A: We (Sphar and his wife, Sandy) already have airline tickets to fly to Tucson, Ariz. We will visit friends, rent a car and drive back up Highway 101 and see the state parks. Then we plan to take an African safari in a few months.

Q: What memory from your career stands out?

A: A recent situation in which a young man was murdered in California. The medical examiner down there called and asked if we could do the death notification. I knew the parents. They were members of my church. When they got word I was on my way over, they knew right away that there is only one reason a chaplain is called.

When I got there, the first thing the mother said was “I’m so glad it’s you.” It really meant a lot to me that, out of anyone to be with her during that challenging time, she wanted it to be me.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682 kari.plog@thenewstribune.com @KariPlog

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