by Sarah Mummert, Student Public Relations Writer
Not all biblical studies students become pastors. Some become police officers.
Derek Zelenka, a 2005 graduate of Cedarville University, works as a detective for the City of Brunswick Police in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and as a hostage negotiator for the Southwest Enforcement Bureau SWAT team in greater Cleveland. Zelenka has worked as a school resource officer for the last eight years, and he also works in youth ministry at his local church.
“In our community of about 40,000 people, everybody knows me,” Zelenka said.
Eighteen years after college graduation, God led him back to the school that changed his life. This time he was pursuing a master’s degree in biblical leadership.
As a young person studying at Baldwin-Wallace University in Ohio, Zelenka lived his life on the party scene. He experienced its emptiness firsthand, having suffered a complete collapse, both mentally and spiritually. One year later, he transferred to Cedarville University, where he committed his life to Christ in 2002.
“Faith should be the foundation of law enforcement, and it is for me,” he said. “It’s everything.”
Zelenka oversees the chaplain program in his police department, and this role inspired him to pursue his online biblical leadership program, which he completed in August 2023.
As part of his master’s degree, Zelenka completed a research project on officer wellness, which turned into a Christian mentorship program for new and current law enforcement officers — a program that he is implementing in Brunswick.
Zelenka found research supporting that officers operate at a high level of awareness for the entirety of their shifts, and the associated stress affects their bodies in a variety of ways, leading to unhealthy coping, struggles with home life and impairment on the job.
“Standard secular solutions to these problems, like going for walks and limiting alcohol use, are not as beneficial as they should be,” Zelenka said. “They never consider the spiritual aspect in life. Law enforcement has roots in a Judeo-Christian ethic, so our wellness programs need to have a spiritual component.”
Departments around the country incorporate some form of an officer wellness program as a means to encourage physical and mental well-being. This includes allowing officers to use a fitness center during work hours.
Zelenka’s volunteer mentorship program is offered in the same way.
“Even some secular communities are going for some form of spiritual wellness program, so I am striking while the iron is hot,” he said.
He is driven by the needs that he sees around him, wondering if some of the issues he sees daily in his department could have been curbed had there been training in spiritual well-being, rather than just physical and mental.
Zelenka acknowledged the fact that when negotiating with people in crisis hostage situations, the officers often end up discussing spiritual things, a skill that Zelenka said many officers are lacking.
Mental health is a common issue in today’s society. You hear about it immediately after a shooting takes place. The concerns are the same in law enforcement offices, which is why Zelenka’s mentorship program could bring healing and well-being to police officers in his community, as well as throughout Ohio.
“If officers come to Christ, we will find that we are treating the community way better when we are committed to Christ,” Zelenka said.