Police chaplain Bianca van der Heyden
Police chaplaincy as a vocation
"The most important person is always the person sitting opposite you."
Editorial office "Streife"

Bianca van der Heyden is a police chaplain. She talks to people who have experienced terrible things. She listens when police officers talk about their problems, their fears and their pain. In 2010, she was on duty at the Love Parade and in 2015 after the crash of the Germanwings plane. After 13 years, van der Heyden has now left the police chaplaincy: since December, the 47-year-old theologian has been the new state pastor for emergency chaplaincy of the Protestant Church in the Rhineland. Time for a personal summary. In this interview, she talks about her passion for her job, the wonderful moments, but also the difficult assignments.


Streife: Why did you become a police chaplain in the first place? 

I would never have come up with the idea myself. I don't have any police officers in my family, nor have I had any dealings with them before. I was puzzled as to why police officers needed their own police chaplaincy. "Can't police officers go to "normal" chaplains?" was my first thought. During an internship, I then realized what a huge challenge this field of work is. I understood why police officers need their own chaplains. You have to know your way around incredibly well. You have to speak their language. You have to look closely at what the police officers are experiencing and you have to understand the system. It can take a few years for a pastor to gain a foothold in the police force. Gaining trust is something very valuable, especially in the police force. After the internship, it was clear to me that I wanted to take on this role. At the time, I would never have thought that it would turn into a total of 13 years and such a great love.


Streife: What is involved in this exciting field of work?

van der Heyden: Pastoral care for professional or private problems is always my top priority. This includes one-to-one conversations as well as group discussions, for example during aftercare. Talking about worries in our private lives is also a big part of our work. These can be our own illnesses or those of relatives, or crises in the family such as separation or divorce. Problems at work with colleagues or superiors or after assignments are often addressed. It is very important for police officers to confide in someone who is definitely not allowed to tell anyone else. We also offer further training, for example on the topic of "Delivering death messages" and are involved in training at universities and at the State Office for Training, Further Education and Personnel Affairs (LAFP). We police chaplains also act as moderators, e.g. for leadership feedback or team conflicts, and offer supervision.

We also organize church services specifically for the "police" target group, such as memorial services for deceased colleagues, as well as weddings, baptisms and funerals.


Streife: How do you manage to gain trust?

van der Heyden: We get good contacts, for example, through mission accompaniment. In the beginning, you mainly travel with your colleagues to acquire "field skills". This enables us to learn what, for example, an officer from a police unit means when he talks about a soccer operation. We chaplains are the only external people. And then we're also from the church - that inevitably arouses reservations. For some people, we're just a strange church figure that they don't know what to do with. That's why we want to be present on site, so that the police realize that we are people who can listen. Accompanying the police is a confidence-building measure for the police officers and me. You learn the most about each other once you've spent a night shift in the patrol car together.


Streife: Is there an operation that has been particularly emotional for you?

van der Heyden: Over the years, many operations have been very emotional for me. After all, I'm sitting there as a human being too. I particularly remember the Love Parade and the Germanwings crash. At the Love Parade, I happened to be on duty with the Moers highway police station. What was planned as a completely normal deployment ended up being the most intense deployment of my professional life to date. I can still see myself climbing down the embankment on the A59 because an arriving emergency doctor told me that pastoral care was urgently needed down there in the tunnel area because someone had died. Neither he nor I were aware of what had actually happened. I only realized the full extent of the catastrophe when I got down there. And I was relieved when my colleagues from the emergency services arrived and I was able to look after the police officers. They did their job in the chaos, even though their own lives were also at risk. The police officers saved people, carried out resuscitation measures and called on what they had learned. Nevertheless, people died. Many of them were no older than themselves. The shock of what they experienced usually comes afterwards, but on this day it was immediate. And then a thousand questions are raised that can weigh on you for a very long time.

After the Germanwings crash, I remember the horror of the investigating officers at the police station when it turned out that it was not an accident, but intentional. I will never forget that. The colleagues also had to take DNA samples from the bereaved to compare with the victims. That was hard for many people.

The death of the policewoman on the A61 last year was also very emotional for me. I am still in contact with the service group there. I am touched by how sensitively my colleagues treat each other and especially Yvonne's family. And the support from the authorities for the affected colleagues and their families was also impressive.


Streife: How do you look after yourself?

van der Heyden: It's always important to be well yourself in order to support other people. Of course, I regularly hold my own supervision sessions and exchange ideas with my colleagues. I have a really great team and I know that I can call any of them at any time if I need to talk. In my private life, I have lovely people around me. I pray. And when I've been through something really tough, I go into the woods with my dog and spend time in nature. I enjoy spending time with my three cats, I like to cook and eat. I make sure I get a good night's sleep. I realize that every day is valuable and important. Every day is its own little life.


Streife: What do you love about your job?

van der Heyden: It's a gift when I have accompanied people over a certain period of time and realize that their lives are taking a positive turn again. These people always stay with you in some way.


Streife: How much faith do I need to bring to a conversation with you?

van der Heyden: You just need to trust that I'm the right person to keep your worries to myself and that I'm a good person to talk to. Counselors don't ask about church affiliation or faith. I recently attended a seminar for grieving police officers. The topic of "faith" also comes up. You might also ask whether the participants have any hope of what might come after death. Because it simply helps to have hope.

Our mission as a church, however, is to support people in a special profession with special burdens. Regardless of whether they are Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Muslim or of another faith.


Streife: What has changed in 13 years of police chaplaincy?

van der Heyden: The police have become more open to chaplaincy and offers of help over the years. There is a study that shows that 98 percent of all police officers know that police chaplaincy exists. That was different 13 years ago. And we have been working very well with the police psychosocial support team (PSU team) for several years now. When I started in police chaplaincy, the support team at the time and police chaplaincy were still two completely different support systems. In the meantime, a wonderful form of collegial cooperation has developed, which is particularly useful for those affected.


Streife: Is there anything new that you have introduced?

van der Heyden: In Düsseldorf, for example, we have initiated a network for the care and support of police officers, which includes the police social services, the police medical service, the social contact persons and the police chaplains. This network now also exists at state level.

We have introduced memorial services for deceased colleagues. There is also a regular event for colleagues who have been injured on duty, which has now spread to many authorities. My Catholic colleague and I are also a little proud to have developed concepts that have been well received by the authorities.


Streife: What will you be doing in the future?

van der Heyden: I have been the new state pastor for emergency pastoral care in the Rhineland since December. For example, I am now working conceptually to ensure that the emergency pastoral care systems run well. The police officers continue to benefit indirectly from my work, as the emergency chaplains work a lot with the police.


Bianca van der Heyden: "I hope that my colleagues retain their courage, their idealism and their ability to see the good in people, despite the often difficult conditions under which they work. I also hope that they receive the recognition they deserve. Above all, however, I hope that they come out of their service unscathed in body and soul, regardless of where and in what capacity they perform this service."

Bianca van der Heyden studied theology in Bonn and Hamburg. She is a marriage, parenting and life counselor, supervisor and psychotraumatology consultant. Van der Heyden worked as a police and hospital chaplain in the Gladbach-Neuss church district before becoming a police chaplain in July 2009. Here she was responsible for the Düsseldorf police headquarters, the Wuppertal police headquarters, the Mönchengladbach police headquarters and the district police authorities in Mettmann, Viersen and Neuss. Since December, the 47-year-old theologian has been the new state pastor for emergency pastoral care for the Protestant Church in the Rhineland. This includes 50 emergency pastoral care systems between Emmerich and Saarland.


The 54-year-old pastor Volker Hülsdonk will succeed Bianca van der Heyden. The experienced pastor and supervisor is currently still a parish pastor in Krefeld and will take up his post as state police chaplain for the Section 4 area of Düsseldorf in May 2019.

Translated with DeepL.com (API Version)
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