Pittsburgh Chaplains Fired

Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper last week fired the head of the bureau’s chaplaincy program.” Apparently, chaplains Lara Zinda and Keith Smith were nice people but somewhat underqualified for the job: they hadn’t been officially ordained.

This issue raises two main questions for the skeptical community–or maybe more (you tell me). Here’s what I’m asking:

  1. What really qualifies a person for ministry? I have been legally ordained online; it was fast, free, and now I can officiate at weddings, funerals, etc….But it’s just a piece of paper. If we define theology as “the study of God” (and I think we have to), it’s inherently the study of something we know nothing about. (Parenthetically, studying the holy books of a religion, which we do know something about, is “anthropology,” “sociology,” or “mythology.”) What I mean here is that it’s hard to pin down exactly what would qualify someone as a theologian. If the chaplaincy program in Pittsburgh is requiring certain religious credentials (beyond objective counseling experience, which Lara Zinda and Keith Smith seemed to have), on what basis are they assessing the qualifications? Studying “God” is empirically equivalent to, oh, studying the family structures of Bigfoot social groups.
  2. What should the role of religious affiliation or ordination be in government-sponsored chaplaincy programs? I’d like to say “none,” but this is obviously a major national debate. We’ve drifted too far from Jefferson and Madison’s ideal of church/state separation (Madison, in fact, was adamantly opposed to military chaplains in any sense). If you have counseling experience and can be there to comfort people in need, I don’t see any reason for the government to require further religion-specific credentials. According to the current interpretation of the law, federal military chaplains have to remain roughly neutral when providing services to the army, regardless of their personal affiliation. This is a standard that, as far as I can tell, is generally assumed for police chaplains as well. It’s a step in the right direction, but it seems to indicate that personal religious beliefs and religion-specific credentials are (and probably should be) irrelevant.

So: does anyone have an opinion about what happened here in Pittsburgh with the police chaplains, or the requirements for chaplaincy positions in general? Do you think the chaplains were fired for dishonesty (which is probably valid) or simply lacking the proper religious “credentials”?

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27 Responses to Pittsburgh Chaplains Fired

  1. Frank says:

    Watching this continue to unfold and evolve, I am feeling stronger and stronger that legitimate (recognized and governed) religious credentials and background checks should be a requirement for any public serving chaplain…

    “We needed $87 for the electric bill,” Barber’s mother, Kim Wade, said. “I saw (Smith) in the street one day and asked him about the donations. He said that he had asked around, but times were tough and people’s pockets were tight.”


  2. steven says:

    I have to say from what I know of Smith I was shocked to read this news, but not entirely surprised. Aside from his radical cynicism, I knew something else was not right, but could never put my finger on it. Glad that they caught him. I wonder how long he’d been up to his tricks and how many people he’s really deceived.

    • Thomas says:

      Here is a shocker. Mr. Smith is up to his old tricks again. He is soliciting money on behalf of Myrtle Beach Christian College and lining his pockets with the donations. He had a staff that was completely unaware of his background and worked for him building this College from the ground up. The employees have not been paid in two months for their work. Mr. Smith continues to solicit money for this school, but not only has he not paid his employees, he refused to even answer their calls. This is now a legal matter, and Mr. Smith will soon find himself charged with some serious crimes. He is a despicable human being. Please do your homework before donating your hard earned money to this person or any organizations that he is associated with

  3. Brandon says:

    lb0823452@yahoo.com pick a name and stick to it. Nobody wants to hear you agreeing with yourself.

  4. louiseb says:

    Repeat offense and committing a crime under the guise of the police name… this is heavy. A lot more serious than a first time lunch money thief.

  5. kevin says:

    I guess time will tell whether Zinda had anything to do with Smith’s embezzling. Either way, she looks like a complete fool with her letter to editor of the Post-Gazette last month publicly defending Smith’s reputation. In hindsight, Smith’s silence on the firing issue seems to be telling of him wanting to keep a lower profile. He probably already knew that they were on to him.

  6. suzanne says:

    i’m not surprised either. given what I have seen of the two of them… that they are pretty much inseparable in their so-called ministry, i suspect it may be only a matter of time before we hear more about zinda being linked to smith’s criminal activity.

  7. Bob says:

    Yeah, I kind of predicted this in my previous post. Not shocked at all. He is a con artist and she is simply nuts. I’m sure the police are investigating her as well for possible aiding and abetting. Using others misery for personal gain…how pathetic.

  8. Rich says:

    hmm… maybe Zinda should start a collection for Smith’s legal fees. He’ll need them.

  9. LB says:

    I’ve seen both Smith and Zinda in action. Simply put, their inexperience, ignorance and arrogance disqualify them from any such positions.

  10. Jane says:

    i too have met both of them and can tell you that this is a case of people that couldn’t cut it in traditional churches and so they went out and shopped around for a place to hang their credentials. they have no physical church they are tied to. no congregation. the address of blessed redeemer is tied to a residential house. they were renting space from a church on the north side but even that church denies any affiliation with them.
    remember, it was the religious community in the city that complained loud enough for these events to unfold. you too could be a pastor like them if you are willing to do some shopping around. no degree, education or training required! learning that they were doing counseling is just outright scary.

  11. JT says:

    I can echo Bob’s comments. These are self-professed ministers with no formal affiliation and no formal training. Their next endeavor is online education: http://www.newgatecollege.org/ Again, they have no credentials or academic expertise to back this up. These folks make this stuff up as they go.

  12. Bob says:

    Errr…not sure what some are referring to as the “real reasons” behind the firing of the “Reverends.” I have had ample opportunity to interact with both “Reverends.” Let’s put it this way…neither one is trained in counseling, Ms. Zinda doesn’t hold any degree from any institution…not one. They have no affiliation with the Methodist chruch. The affiliation they claim is with a very loose organization of independent christian churches that have next to no governing body. Mr. Smith has a dubious criminal record…one that would raise serious questions as to honesty. In short, they are con artists. I was shocked that either one held any sort of position let alone counseling victim’s families. Victim counseling isn’t simply being there..it requires training in a number of areas, neither of which the “Reverends” possess.

  13. Tim says:

    If you’re over 18, even a “victimless” crime precludes you from joining the police force. It baffles me that one could still hypothetically be in a crime scene with a record. Reformed or not.

  14. Eliza says:

    I think a reasonable “working with police in a position that has access to crime victims” litmus would be if they could pass the security clearances that social workers and teachers must in order to work with children. So if their criminal background would prohibit them from being able to work or volunteer in a school, then you’d better keep them away from my hypothetical family.

  15. BillK says:

    If someone has committed a crime, and then been punished for the crime, shouldn’t that close the book on the incident? If a person at the age of 16, an age noted for poor judgment and decision making skills, robs a convenience store and is subsequently tried as an adult and punished as an adult, should that preclude that he be denied many of the rights of citizenship for the rest of his life? What about a “victimless” crime such as drug possession or something like that? Once the crime has been adjudicated and the person who committed the crime punished, and deemed to be rehabilitated, then his rights as a citizen should be restored.

    Granted, when applying for a position involving public safety he/she should be scrutinized closely, but that person should not be denied into perpetuity to be considered for that position. Of course, considering the pervasive christian influence in our society and their penchant for malicious vindictiveness, I guess such harsh treatment should be expected.

    And yes, the reality is that he should expect to be thrown under the bus when the facts are made public. As the discussion in the thread “Secular Morality” points out, when a life or death situation (and this incident was a career life or death situation) arises, empathy and compassion go out the window.

  16. Tim says:

    How can anyone with a criminal record, pastor or not, be allowed to cross police tape? I don’t get it.

  17. John says:

    Any public position comes with a great deal of public scrutiny… and unfortunately as a result, there are few true friendships in public roles. In other words, the underlying politics can turn on you in the moment there is something perceived as politically incorrect. Whether Harper knew or did not know about Smith’s criminal record, did anyone including Zinda believe that the moment that this would come to light in the public and the subject of public scrutiny, that Harper would put his reputation and career on the line to defend Smith?

    Just think of the media field day if Harper would have tried to defend Smith’s record. Whether it is irrelevant or not does not matter. It’s a sexy media headline and they would eat it up. In the end, Harper would have stepped down. It’s inevitable.

    I’m not saying that this is right, but this is just how things work. You’re in one minute, and then the out the next rather than having someone go to bat for you. It happens time and time again, history is full of these examples. Anyone entering a public role should always evaluate who they run with and what dirty laundry may come back to bite them.

    In my opinion, ignorance on political risk my have permanently damaged the spiritual career of a good soul.

  18. Julia says:

    I happen to know Rev. Zinda personally, and may be bisased a little. But In my oppinion she got screwed over big time, the police were perfectly aware of her crednitals, which are perfectly legit.She got fired her entirely different reasons which they won’t disclose. It really is an outrage, to do such a thing and smear the name of a wonderful caring person who volunteered for a very demanding position. It’s not easy to get out of bed at 4 am to go console the mother of a murder victim, especally if you don’t even get paid! And why did they have to make such a big deal about this and have it all over the news? Why not just quietly dismiss her? Instead they start this big smear campaign and totally ruin this woman’s name. I think theres lots of dirt here and it’s not Rev. Zinda’s dirt either!

  19. John says:

    It appears that the former Chief Chaplain got seriously screwed by the Pittsburgh Police Department. Anybody else smell a rat here? From today’s PPG Letters to the Editor section:

    I’m proud of our work as police chaplains

    I write in response to the stories “Chief Dismisses Police Chaplains” (Aug. 26) and “Didn’t Know Chaplains’ Credentials Were Suspect, Police Say” (Aug. 27) and the Aug. 28 editorial “Holy Role: The City Should Do More to Police Its Chaplains.” I am disappointed by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s decision to dismiss me as chief chaplain. I stand behind my decisions in this volunteer position and am proud of the work of my team to provide spiritual guidance and comfort to our city’s police officers, as well as to victims of crime and their families.

    The articles and editorial included criticisms of my ordination. I am an ordained minister in the Congregational church, as Chief Nathan Harper knew because he received copies of the documents twice. Records of my ordination in 2001 are on file with the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, a proper and recognized body.

    The articles also repeated attacks on Rev. Keith Smith, one of the chaplains. I stand by my recommendation of Rev. Smith as a candidate and also by the work he did for the bureau. Rev. Smith is also a properly licensed minister, and his background was provided to the chief and the bureau prior to appointment. In fact, the chief and bureau specifically knew that Rev. Smith had a criminal record and viewed it as a positive given the community we served.

    I was dismissed from this position, but certainly not for the purported reasons in the articles above.


  20. Brandon says:

    Chaplains are a necessary part of America’s social services.

    Some people of faith can find more solace from a religious theologian than they can from a secular counselor. So if the government can provide more relief by employing chaplains, I say more power to them. Who am I to say what is the best way to help the millions of cops, firemen and soldiers who are dealing with grief and stress. If chaplains work for some people, it shouldn’t matter that their credentials are bullshit.

    Plus, if chaplains are volunteers, I think they’re a pretty good bang for my tax buck.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’d find much solace in a chaplain. But there is no shortage of secular social workers (probably the vast major), so I don’t think we need to worry about our nations irreligious not having access to counseling.

    The nation doesn’t have a shortage of people wanting to help. It has a surplus of horrific experiences and catastrophes that make people inconsolable.

  21. mikhailovich says:

    Yes, I’m with you on that. :) The ordination/credentials thing is ridiculous.

  22. Eliza says:

    Mikhail, the whole “credentials” thing sounds like Christian in-fighting to me; catty high school clique behavior that has no place in the public sphere.

  23. mikhailovich says:

    I agree with what you’re saying about the importance of religiously neutral government employees, especially in these kind of positions, but it’s unfortunately nowhere close to becoming reality. Hardly a month goes by when I don’t hear about some controversy regarding government counselors or military chaplains or medicare employees holding christian services for seniors, etc.

    Church and state should be separated by a, um, wall. When you’re on public time, regardless of your personal beliefs, you can’t be discriminating or proselytizing. It should be that simple.

    In that sense, of course I’m in favor of firing the chaplains, if it can be demonstrated that they were in fact spreading religion (though it seems to be just as big a problem with Chief Harper, in that case).

    Nevertheless, if it was purely a case of religious credentials (not dishonesty, which is may have been)….I think they’ve picked the wrong issue on which to fire the chaplains. What exactly would those “ordinations” prove?

  24. Laura says:

    Liz thats the part of the article that stood out to me too. It does seem like kind of a cop-out (no pun intended – really) when there are obviously systems in place where victims could be referred to social services for regular grief counseling.

    I think it’s interesting that they also point out the the police chief regularly goes to church and that 65% of the cities police officers are Catholic. Good for them. What about the other 35% that probably include a number of non-believers? Oh I guess they don’t get counseling.

  25. Eliza says:

    It would seem to me that regardless of religious “credentials” one should have to pass a criminal background check to be in any sort of position on the police department.

    The article reads: “Chief Harper, a regular church-goer who became head of the police bureau in 2006, wanted to expand the duties of the senior chaplain to include outreach for crime victims and their families, and he also sought to increase connections with the city’s religious leaders. The chaplain position is unpaid.

    I want to know what this outreach involves. If I’m a crime victim, is someone from the police department going to show up on scene to tell me that my circumstance is part of some divine plan? And that I should be thankful that nothing worse happened, and that God will serve final judgment and justice so everything is ok? Talk about adding insult to injury.

    Why have these unpaid positions at all? Is our city too cheap to pay proper grief/trauma counselors, and so our citizens must submit to proselytizing during their most vulnerable moments?

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