By Chris Moon
It is not every day someone retires from 50 years as a law enforcement officer, including 20 as the local sheriff . . . and decides to devote his retirement to lay ministry in the church.
But that’s exactly what Dave Phalen has planned.
“Wherever the Lord leads me. He kind of can surprise us sometime,” said Phalen, who just retired as sheriff in Fairfield County, Ohio, and serves as an elder with Fairfield Christian Church in the city of Lancaster.
Phalen set aside his badge after 50 years in law enforcement and he did so with the intention of devoting more of his time to church ministry. He and his wife have been members of FCC for 30 years.
Dean Woodward, lead pastor of Fairfield Christian Church, said his own “eyebrows are still growing back” from an impassioned devotional Phalen recently gave about one’s service to Christ.
“If he ever wanted to serve Christ more, it is now,” Woodward said of Phalen. “He’s still got a lot left in the tank.”
Serving Christ is nothing new to Phalen.
FROM D.C. TO COLUMBUS TO LANCASTER
A Columbus, Ohio, native, Phalen e HeH took his first law enforcement job in 1970 as a member of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. He said it was a good place to learn how to be a police officer. The crime rate in the city was high, and he was assigned to an inner-city precinct.
But he grew homesick and took a job with the Columbus police department, where he served for 28 years, rising to the rank of lieutenant in the narcotics bureau.
At that time, he was recruited to run for sheriff in Fairfield County, which is just southeast of Columbus. Phalen ran for the office in 2000 and won. He was re-elected four times.
He lived his faith on his sleeve throughout his time as sheriff.
“It really gave me opportunities that I would have never had in terms of ministry because it gave me quite a platform, and it was all God. He led the way, and I tried to be obedient,” Phalen said.
For instance, Phalen started a jail ministry in the county that involved 12 churches. He started other programming in the jail as well.
Out of that, his wife, Loretta, began going to the jail on a regular basis to minister to the women there. She discovered many of those ladies would have nowhere to go upon leaving jail—except back “to their drug-dealing boyfriends,” Phalen said.
His wife then started a home for women who were released from jail.
“God just opened that door,” Phalen said. “I had enough connections to get that off the ground and get some sponsorship and get some churches involved.”
FAITH WITHOUT FEAR
Phalen said he rarely encountered difficulties in blending his faith into his political and professional life. Everyone in the county knew Phalen was a strong Christian.
“Overwhelmingly, it was supported,” Phalen said. “I tried to kind of go out of my way to share the gospel in a way that was appropriate.”
In the process, Phalen was invited at times to preach at area churches whenever local pastors needed a break or were out of town.
Phalen said he found it possible to live as a person of faith in a secular environment. Living one’s faith without fear is important, he said.
“I think by and large people have a certain fear where, for the most part, nothing (negative) materializes,” he said.
Phalen said the phrase, “With God, all things are possible” is inscribed on the business cards at the sheriff’s office. (That phrase is also Ohio’s state motto.)
“No one said too much about it,” he said. “If it’s for God, it’s going to be OK no matter what happens.”
Phalen added, “Prayer is the biggest time-saver. I just tried to pray those things up.”
And Phalen said he frequently prayed with people while on the job. No one ever refused a prayer.
“And I’ve had some pretty hardened deputies in my office who were going through battles. And they’ve always been very receptive,” he said.
TURNING ATTENTION TO CHURCH LIFE
Now that he’s free from his day job, Phalen plans to turn his attention to church life. He and his wife will be taking over the church’s mission team. He already has served in numerous capacities in the church, from security to the greeting team.
And, of course, he’s an elder in the church.
Woodward, the church’s pastor, said Phalen always has stood behind him as he’s led the church. Phalen, he said, brings with him a lot of wisdom in leading strong men. Fairfield has a staff of 20, as well as a Christian school with 500 students and 100 faculty members.
“He’s so helpful to me,” Woodward said. “God is lighting his pilot again. We’re so thrilled about that, that he’s not done. We always say if you’re not dead, you’re not done.”
In that sense, Phalen embodies a lesson for Christians entering into retirement and wondering how to spend their time. Phalen said he is pleased he’ll now have more time to spend with people than he was able to while serving as sheriff.
“You always get more out of it than you put in,” he said. “Retirement is a wonderful opportunity to do those things you couldn’t do before, and to slow down a little bit to take more time with people. . . . This gives me an opportunity to do more one-on-one ministry.”