Introducing cops to a greater brotherhood than the badge

Ben Greene

Pastor & writer

  • Church planting & multiplication

How would you handle a deadly accident and a shooting at work before lunchtime? 

What if, after lunch, you testified in court about someone abusing a young boy?

Imagine this kind of sheer carnage in your job day after day, week after week.

How would you cope?

Who would you become?

Days like this, weeks like that, fill up the years and careers of many officers, firefighters and ambulance crews.

“I don’t think we realize the trauma these individuals are under on a daily basis,” said Glenn Herschberger, a retired Wisconsin police officer of 24 years. “They’re dealing with people, the underbelly of society. They get to see true depravity on a regular basis.”

Chief Tony Paetznick and Herschberger met at a Converge North Central conference in 2018 and began meeting, praying and dreaming for the launch of a church for police officers and emergency personnel. The plan was to plant the church in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, also known as the Twin Cities. The two were set to launch in 2020. However, the launch was delayed due to COVID-19 and the society unrest that originated in Minneapolis in May of 2020. Then God began connecting his people to support and serve in this new work.

James Olsen retired in 2020 after 22 years in law enforcement. The same year, Olsen, Herschberger, and another retired officer, Police Chief Dan Vergin, became a ministry team with about two dozen other first responders.

Over the past 12 months, the team made many plans and decisions. Now, they are doing what many churches wish they could: give first responders time, space and community for worship and discipleship. The ministry in the Twin Cities that became Cities Cop Church worshiped for the first time on October 3.

“We’re a different animal, cops and first responders,” Olsen said. “When you’re constantly exposed to sin, it gives you trust issues. You build up walls. You look for someone like you who understands you.”

Cities Cop Church can be that place of understanding

The rarity of churches designed for first responders isn’t because Christians don’t care. For many years, Herschberger, Olsen and others on the team have heard from churches who want to help. That’s been even more true in the last few years as the mission for Cities Cop Church ― helping police officers and their families find full life ― came together.

“We live in an age where people want to support local law enforcement,” said Dan Vergin, who’s on the core team. “But they have no idea how to do that.”

As an officer in Fond du Lac, Herschberger oversaw a chaplaincy program that started in 1992. Ultimately, about 30 pastors and church leaders connected to the department.

Even so, Olsen explained, officers are usually a closed culture, meaning they rely on themselves or their fellow officers. So, cops aren’t exactly reaching out to civilians for help.

“There’s a level of trust we have to develop with people before we open up and talk,” Olsen said. “If you don’t understand us, we’re not going to open up. We’re just a very closed off group.”

Making the trauma worse is how officers connect to others when they are off duty. Herschberger said everybody wants a cop for a friend. But nobody wants a cop behind them in traffic. He, Olsen and Vergin noted the tension in the community has become more strained in the last year.

Related: Who is my neighbor?

Also, people with good intentions complicate relationships for cops, the two explained. For example, people trying to connect with officers at church services often bring up speeding tickets, talk about shooting guns or come off like a wannabe cop. However, the men and women who work as first responders want to go to church, not talk about their jobs.

How are first responders struggling?

Many in the emergency management careers struggle with alcoholism, drugs, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and very high divorce rates.

Olsen added they could experience disassociation, meaning they check out on life and relationships. Or the men and women experience high levels of anxiety and have trouble sleeping.

Related: Act of God – cop gets clean in more ways than one

Olsen knew two officers – both men he highly respected – who were diagnosed with PTSD. Instead of letting the stigma surrounding mental health silence them, they opened up to each other. The three men would get together and talk about their symptoms and experiences.

“We went through this journey together. It was so important to go through it together,” Olsen said. “That’s what the church is, people who have been through something similar so we get it, and we can help those that are struggling and point them to Jesus. That’s the key.”

What type of community helps first responders?

Empathy may be the first key when ministering to police officers, Vergin said. He and Olsen both explained officers don’t let down their walls to civilians.

They often struggle to feel understood because of different experiences at work compared to civilians. For example, so few people have notified a family after a murder. Moreover, first responders may have difficulty opening up to people who’ve never worn blood-stained shoes at a crime scene.

But, for those people in those situations, Cities Cop Church meets two Sunday nights a month. The launch team wants emergency personnel in the Twin Cities to meet people who can empathize.

“There are people here who really will understand because they’ve walked in my shoes,” Vergin said.

Related: Trauma is coming to your church

A second distinguishment of Cities Cop Church is a community that doesn’t judge first responders for how they live and talk. A simple example of this, the team explained, is matching humor in the worship service to humor in the departments and dispatch centers.

“We decompress with our dark humor,” Olsen explained.

In that spirit, Herschberger recently quipped during a sermon, ‘Let’s just be honest. I don’t love everybody.’ He was teaching on loving others. But, at the same time, this culture needs a show of authenticity, he said.

“We’re not a churchy church,” he said.

A third aspect helping first responders find Christ and follow him develops through Cities Cop Church gathering on Sunday nights.

The launch team didn’t want any man or woman to leave their church to join Cities Cop Church. Instead, they wanted an alternative, especially for officers, when their shifts are over. Plus, a Sunday night helps people bring a friend who might not be available to attend Sunday mornings.

How is Cities Cop Church different from Cowboy Church?

The primary difference is between Cities Cop Church and the many Cowboy Churches across the U.S., is why first responders go in the first place. While cowboys or western enthusiasts may prefer a cowboy church to feel comfortable, there’s more to cop church than compatibility.

First responders go to a church like Cities Cop Church because of needs in their life, not clothes or hobbies. They have strong temptations to destructive behaviors as well as uncommonly severe pains and stressors that seem inescapable.

Related: 6 gauges for your soul in a time of crisis

Olsen started his law enforcement career as a Christian. He thought his faith and Biblical beliefs would protect and guide him through the world’s savage brokenness and endless dysfunction. To a great extent, his faith did. But the darkness of shift after shift, week after week, year after year never relented.

“No one ever calls us because they’re having a good day,” Olsen, who retired from law enforcement last year, said. “They call us because they’re having a bad day and they expect us to fix it and we can’t always do that.”

But now, he can talk to officers and ask them how they’re sleeping or what they’re going through.

How Christ forms a team to reach that tough group

Christ has been preparing team members for decades. To begin with, each of the officers on the core team followed Christ for years and years while working as first responders.

In Herschberger’s case, while still an officer, he went to a 1996 conference in California for police officers and chaplains. That’s where he heard a police officer share how he was now in full-time ministry.

“That was the first time I ever heard something like that. I was like, ‘What?’” Herschberger said. “I remember getting emotional and just going, ‘What’s God doing?’”

Related: Couple starts church to reach specific group of people with the gospel

A year later, he went to a Promise Keepers rally in Washington D.C. That’s where he heard God call him into ministry.

At that point, Herschberger’s entrepreneurial bent came out. The young boy who created a business ― “I was selling pickles to a canning factory” ― had his dad’s DNA for starting new ventures.

But Herschberger fully appreciates the power of new churches because of his personal experience. When he and his wife, Susan, were newly married, they joined a new church in Fond du Lac.

“We were greeted and cared for like I had never been,” he said.

A few years later, they joined another church plant in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to serve there. Their faith and leadership skills grew during that time.

“That was instrumental in understanding how a church launches,” he added.

After helping those two churches, the Herschbergers planted a church in Wisconsin. Then, after 11 years of ministry there, they formed a church in Panama for English speakers working in the Central American country.

Is the new church helping first responders find healing?

Even with an empty grave and a resurrected Christ, even with the truth of Christ that the grave has lost its victory and death its sting, the next shift for first responders won’t be easy. Neither will the next day or the day after that. There will be more industrial accidents, deadly arsons and side-street shootouts.

But the Good Shepherd is meeting first responders where they are. Through Cities Cop Church, he’s inviting them into hope and transformation. On the new church’s first Sunday, four people wanted to learn more about following Jesus.

Therefore, the stress, pain and isolation within many first responders haven’t won yet. Instead, emergency personnel are finding a community of grace and hope where they can be themselves.

Olsen said he hopes people who use profanity or dark humor and avoid church discover Jesus is a friend to everyone.

“We can be ourselves and that’s okay. No one’s going to look at us weird,” Olsen said. “I want to watch cops grow closer to Jesus and watch Jesus change them.”

Olsen is trusting Christ for that transformation of individuals and their deepening fellowship. He experienced it firsthand with officers who opened up about PTSD and worked through that trauma together. He believes other first responders are going to discover the same grace as well.

“There’s a greater brotherhood than the badge,” he said. “When we see people come to church and turn to Christ, it’s going to be awesome.”

Cities Cop Church asks for your prayers for true heart reform in first responders, for courageous men and women to stand up for truth and compassion and for all to love their neighbors as themselves.

Cities Cop Church is one of 312 churches Converge’s 10 districts committed to plant before 2026. Read more inspiring church planting stories and learn more about the goal to plant 312 churches in five years.

Ben Greene, Pastor & writer

Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.

Additional articles by Ben Greene