Warren Hiebert’s 30 years of helping those in crisis
Warren Hiebert admits with a wry smile that there are days when he buttons-up his collared shirt and wonders to himself, “Is this the day I am going to die?” He also notes that this is a pretty morbid thought.
Considering his profession, it is not a shocking consideration. As a chaplain for Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO) for the past 30 years, he has been the guy – the pillar of faith and strength for over 1,000 families on the worst days of their lives. Accidents, suicides, family notifications for people from every age group and from myriad circumstances.
“It was very emotional [in the beginning]. I think it took me 50- 100 deaths before I finally got over the trauma of those myself. It’s not as intense, I guess you could say, after the first 50-100 deaths you go to,” he says.
His map of Gallatin County is slightly different than most. Although his aim was always to assist and forget – to not carry the pain with him, his memory is dotted with the devastated parents at this house, an accident at this intersection, a suicide there. He prays for them when he drives by – the families and those who left this world.
“You get to enter in with these people that are in crisis and are in trauma – very few people get to enter that spiritual domain where they are hurting so bad and they are in such shock,” he says. “For me as a Chaplain, to be able to be there with them – I have always considered that a privilege.”
The goal has never been to force any religion on anyone, but rather to serve people; to love people.
Love is one of the things he emphasizes as a job requirement. His words of wisdom for anyone considering his profession: “Have a servant’s heart and a learner’s spirit and have humbleness when you go into a situation that you go in to serve – no matter how hard the situation may be. It doesn’t matter what the house looks like. It doesn’t matter what the language is. It doesn’t matter if they want you there or if they don’t want you there – it’s [about] just caring and loving.”
Nobody should be alone when they go through staggering losses. He has seen every kind of reaction – fury and curses, quiet shock and everything in between. The goal is to arrive, be a support and find peoples’ faith communities or their friends. He often sits with families as the pain overwhelms them.
“A lot of times it is not the words. I sat with a family for almost an hour. It was another suicide – and we didn’t say five words. What do you say? Your heart is broken. Your heart has just been ripped out. What do you say? Words are pretty cheap at that point. Sometimes just sitting there hurting with people, but with tears in your eyes, makes a big difference,” he says.
The clock in the hallway of one family home struck 4 a.m. just after one death notification. The parents found him years later and thanked him for being there for them – and they all remembered the clock.
“Four chimes in stillness in the morning – and that has just penetrated my heart and my soul,” he says.
Those times, despite his best efforts, he absorbed some of the pain into himself. Years later, he reflects on the pivotal moments that further defined him as a chaplain and as a human.
Looking back, he can say that seeing people experience those losses, being aware of the transience of the human form made him more expressive of his affection to his own family. In ways, despite the darkness, his job made him a better man.
While he will still be assisting the sheriff’s office, he will be taking a backseat to responding to calls.
Now, he wants more heart-toheart conversations with officers over coffee and slices of pie. Public relations, mentoring and growing the program that he helped start await in his future as blaring sirens down the highway fade to his past. He will miss the adrenaline rush from the hurry, but needs a break from the sadness “after all these years of hurting with people.”
Retired GCSO captain Jason “JJ” Jarrett said those employed in emergency services have challenges well beyond a normal 9-5 – the job can get incredibly harsh. Law enforcement officers have to do things that most people would find incomprehensible.
“We see so much darkness... having somebody in our family that can marry us, bury us and counsel us is really the only way to make it work,” he says.
Jarrett describes Hiebert as the GCSO’s “booster shot” – instrumental in helping them maintain a “stout heart and remember why we are in it – to take care of people.”
This 30-year journey officially began on July 19, 1990 at 11:35 a.m. in Sheriff Cutting’s office. He remembers because the sheriff asked him when he wanted to start. Hiebert looked at his watch and replied, “How about five minutes ago?”
“They hired me for zero dollars to start the program,” he says. “I don’t get paid by the county – I am basically a volunteer.”
The Chaplaincy program still functions through Bozeman Prison Ministries, which helped him set the effort in motion after a sergeant at the jail suggested they get a chaplain like Coeur d’Alene – a chaplain for the cops. His pay started-off at $5 an hour for 20 hours per week.
“When I went full-time I sent out letters to churches, organizations and individuals and asked if they wanted to support this ministry,” he says. “I just lived on support, whatever came in.”
He has since become the state chairman for the Montana Law Enforcement Chaplains, which is part of the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association as well as the Montana representative for the International Conference of Police Chaplains.
He now feels it is his responsibility to bring the program to underserved areas of the state – with a primary goal of having a Chaplain every tri-county. It is a bold quest when “from Central Montana east there are very few chaplains.” So he will be meeting with sheriffs in that part of the state and attempting to track people from the faith community who might be interested in what he started.
The last 30 years have been an interesting ride as he quietly made a difference in peoples’ lives – and those people enhanced his journey.
“It makes me appreciate the day. It makes me appreciate life. It reassures my faith and my hope. I have nothing to fear, so the hope I have is great,” he says. “You process all of that and you just go through life and enjoy every day and enjoy every moment you’ve got.”