STARTING A JAIL OR PRISON MINISTRY
By Albert Dillon
The prison population of the United States and Canada grows dramatically every year, producing a hopelessly overcrowded situation. Within the United States, federal courts have ordered over thirty states to provide more prisons to meet constitutional conditions of confinement. Jail and prison construction provides only four new cells for every ten prisoners being admitted.
Accurate statistics are difficult to find, but the American Correctional Association estimates that approximately six thousand or more correctional facilities of all types exist in America, from minimum-security work camps to high-walled prisons. Prison population has reached an all-time high, and some prisons and most jails provide no chaplaincy or religious services at all. Most of the jails that conduct religious services depend upon outside religious groups to provide these services. Multitudes of hurting people who are lost and searching reside behind the bars, walls, and steel doors of jails and prisons in North America.
The answer to their needs is found in the hope offered through Jesus Christ. Jesus gave the commission to His church: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). The harvest is ripe and plenteous, but where are the laborers? Prisoners cannot come to us; we must go to them. Where are the men and women with the message of hope for a lost and dying world? Has our message stopped within the four walls of our church sanctuaries? No! Reports of prison revival flourish among the Christian Prisoner Fellowship chaplains.
In prisons all over North America, people who have been torn apart by sin are gathering the pieces and bringing them to Jesus. The power of the gospel is putting these lives back together again.
Committed Christian volunteers have a vital role to play in today’s correctional system. Jesus specifically included the prisoners when He said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it into one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
No longer should we say that we don’t know what to do about crime. The Lord revealed the solution centuries ago: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isaiah 61:1). Jesus Christ ordained our involvement in prison ministry.
To be effective as a chaplain you should possess the right reasons for being involved in prison ministry. First, you should deeply and genuinely love God and possess a deep conviction and calling that God is sending you for service. You should go in obedience to the call of God and believe that God will open all the necessary doors.
To be involved in prison ministry, you must also love souls. With love as the motivation, your purpose will be to lead souls to Jesus Christ. In short, rather than ministering behind bars to justify yourself or your church, or to perform your civic duty, your involvement in prison ministry should be the result of Jesus’ commands.
As we will discuss in the next section, to be effective you must also
1. Be a good listener.
2. Have a mature, well-grounded faith.
3. Be consistent and dependable.
4. Be spiritual.
The person who becomes involved in prison ministry can effectively touch hungry souls. Behind bars, the tremendous needs and great opportunities for service thrust the devoted laborer into productive ministry.
On the practical side, several elements emerge as necessary ingredients for a successful prison ministry program: competent leadership, thorough planning, preparation, training, and adequate church and community support. The person who desires to become involved will need to make adequate spiritual and administrative preparation to do an effective job.
Prayer provides the base for prison ministry preparation. Through prayer God gives a burden and vision.
Next, you should discuss with your pastor your desire to work behind bars. This step will provide the necessary support of a pastor and local church.
After deciding where you would like to start jail or prison services, you should communicate with Christian Prisoner Fellowship for information on how to become a prison chaplain. Obtaining chaplain credentials with Christian Prisoner Fellowship will strengthen and assist you in ministering effectively to prisoners.
At least two approaches exist for opening a prison ministry: the institutional approach and the inmate approach.
The Institutional Approach
Study the institution; be informed regarding the institution’s religious program. If the institution has a staff chaplain, schedule an appointment, offer your services to strengthen his efforts, and find out the level of involvement of any other volunteer groups. If a local ministerial association exists, contact it to discuss the programs that may already be in progress. Decide if needs exist that are not being met.
By this point, you should have already made yourself familiar with the Christian Prisoner Fellowship guidelines for getting started (in the application manual) and received your chaplain’s credentials.
You should then make contact by a visit or a phone call to the authority of the religious activities at the prison. Whether he is a full- time prison chaplain, county sheriff, judge, district attorney, or someone in control of the prison system, try to arrange an appointment with him.
Once you have introduced yourself, tell the person that you possess license with Christian Prisoner Fellowship, You may inform him that you represent both Christian Prisoner Fellowship and your local church, emphasizing whichever would seem to carry the most influence. Briefly explain that Christian Prisoner Fellowship services prisons and jails all across North America. Share your desire and burden with him. Explain in concise terms your desire to render service to the institution. Ask what you may do to strengthen the current chaplaincy programs. Assure him that you will cooperate fully with him, and ask for any written statements of policies relative to your endeavor.
Solicit the official’s suggestions and determine what programs are needed and how those programs might be best carried out inside the facilities. Present Bible study materials as tangible evidence of organization and purpose. After your meeting, follow up your visit with a brief letter documenting your conversation and thanking this person for his time.
You may not receive immediate approval to begin your ministry. You must understand that major issues may hinder, such as schedule changes and security considerations that must be worked out within the institution prior to its allowing ministry to proceed. If the prison official seems hesitant, then be very careful not to force the situation.
Always keep a right spirit and be supportive of the authority of the institution. Every few weeks contact him and express your desire to minister under his leadership. Be kind and sincere, and eventually, with the help of God, doors will open.
The Inmate Approach
If you have unsuccessfully attempted to start a prison ministry through the institutional approach, then you should try the inmate approach. Remember to weigh the costs, and understand that you may have already marked yourself negatively in the institution’s eyes, which would make it difficult for some of your future requests; however, you may also win a victory that will make your future efforts easier. In prayer, following God’s leading; seek the best approaches to take.
You must first possess a strong relationship with an inmate. Develop and groom your relationship through letters, personal visits, and ministering to the inmate’s family. Often, to use the inmate approach, the inmate must embrace the UPCI as his denominational preference; otherwise, if the institution allowed you to conduct services, it would indirectly promote proselytizing, which is a violation of most institution’s rules. Through the inmate approach, the inmate unlocks the closed prison door.
Using the inmate’s constitutional rights as leverage, ask the inmate to place a formal request for you to conduct a regular religious service for him. He should register the request with the chaplain’s office or appropriate authorities and provide you and institutional authorities (sheriff, superintendent, etc.) with copies of the request.
Constitutionally, the inmate’s request cannot be denied or ignored. Denial would violate the First Amendment constitutional rights of the inmate, the right for freedom of religion.
Should the institution refuse the inmate’s request, then you may marshal forces from the outside by discussing the matter with the appropriate authorities, judges, or politicians. You may also use the supportive documents available from CPF that have resulted from similar court struggles. If an inmate requests a religious service, the institution must allow it even for a single inmate. Often an institution will try to “ecumenize the inmate and say that the inmate may attend the “regular Protestant” service. However, to the Oneness Pentecostal, the standard trinitarian service is unsatisfactory in meeting worship and teaching needs. You may use the unique Oneness doctrine to emphasize this valuable point.
THE METHODS OF MINISTRY
Ministry involves more than preaching and teaching Bible studies; do not limit yourself or God to these two areas. If you sincerely have a burden to be used of God, God will open doors in the area where you can be most effective. Remember, where God calls, God provides. As we will discuss in the next section, opportunities for ministry include
1. Personal visits
2. Writing a prisoner
3. Bibles and religious literature
4. Special music program
5. In-prison seminar
6. Cassette tape ministry
7. Starting a literacy class
8. Starting a character development and discipleship class
Other important areas of ministry include
1. Ministry to families of prisoners
2. Ministry to prisoners and their families after release
3. One-on-one spiritual admonition and guidance
4. Fellowship and recreation
5. Christian films
As with all ministries in correctional facilities, all of the above must be done within the bounds of jail policies and security considerations. Many of the above methods may be used to open a door for ministry in institutions where an adequate number of worship services and regular Bible studies are presently being held.
In many cases, your faithfulness to one of the above areas of ministry will prove your sincerity and devotion to institutional officials. Usually, when they see your dedication in the “small things,” they will open the doors to you for more effective ministry.
Always thankfully accept any opportunity that is granted and work faithfully in that capacity, proving yourself to both the inmates and staff.
Many people are aware of the needs that exist in prisons and jails. They read books and periodicals about the challenge and opportunity. They may even attend seminars and have conferences with those who are actively involved. However, many never get around to actually going and doing. Jesus desires that we “know” but Jesus also commands that we “go”!
1. Holy Bible, King James Version, Thompson Chain Reference Edition. Indianapolis: B. B. Kirkbride Bible Co.
2. Duane Pederson, How to Establish a Jail and Prison Ministry. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979.
3. Prison People. Arlington, Va.: Prison Fellowship, 1981.
4. Tom Adams, The Jail: Mission Field for Churches. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”