Is your church involved in some form of prison ministry? Or maybe your church is not involved but you would like to be. We will be soon forming a task force on prison ministry to offer greater coordination, more resources, and more opportunities for churches to be part of this important type of ministry. If you are already involved, you can offer your wisdom to other churches that would like to learn from you.
Contact Frank Clem at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us what your church is already doing or if you want to become more involved. Read Frank's powerful testimony below, why we should be involved, and what his ideas are for how churches can be in cooperation with others to be more effective in reaching out to prisoners.
Did You Visit Me?
By Frank A. Clem
I was Guilty of the Crimes. Shortly after I was arrested, God revealed Himself to me. During that encounter I cried out for mercy and surrendered the remainder of my life to Him. In that moment, my conscience was cleansed from guilt and shame and I knew I had been forgiven and accepted into the family of God. Still, although I had been released from the spiritual consequences of my sin, I knew that I still had to endure the earthly consequences of my actions. I served 10 years in the Alabama Department of Corrections, from July 1982 through July 1992.
God Granted Clemency. Because all have sinned, I am a sinner, and since the wages of sin is death, I was under the death penalty. But, God is merciful and gracious, and through His Son, the Great Judge commuted my death penalty to a life-sentence serving Christ. I can never live down all the things I’ve done, but I can live above them by the power of God’s Son.
Prison was like a Chrysalis. God transformed me from an undisciplined social renegade into a Christian disciple and lay-servant. Now, decades after my crimes and convictions, I am a correctional educator, a lay minister and a lay-counsellor. My wife and I lead weekly worship in our church’s early service, lead our Sunday school class, and participate in our parish nursing home ministry. I have filled in for worship leaders, preachers and teachers; conducted fundraisers, homecomings and revivals; and published a musical CD and an inspirational book. Yes, there have been ups and downs, but when God endows gifts and callings, He never changes His mind – even with someone like me.
Prison Ministry – Why Bother?
God Wants It. Justice requires consequences for everyone, but God also desires reconciliation with everyone, and He tells us to be compassionate and empathetic. Christ commissioned prison ministry in the same context as ministries to the sick, destitute, and strangers - prison ministry should be integral to Christian culture. Christ takes prison ministry personal… - if we do it …, ye have done it unto me, and if not … ye did it not to me.
People Need It. Most offenders sincerely desire not to re-offend, but in many cases their good intentions suffer under environmental influences, while in prison, and after release. We can introduce prisoners to Christ who will work within them both to choose and to do his good pleasure. Beyond their spiritual salvation, we can continue to help them be transformed by the renewing of their minds by teaching spiritual practices and personal skills for them to cope with negative influences encountered inside the prisons, and to also use later in their lives when released. Prisoners need Christian skills. Prison environments need inmates possessing these skills. Neighborhoods need returning former offenders to possess these skills.
We Deserve It. The “wages of sin is death”, and wages are earned; they are deserved. Criminals deserve justice. The majority of incarcerated offenders will eventually be released - they will live among us. What kind of persons will they be? They were removed from society because of anti-social behaviors, and society deserves a better person returning than who was sent away.
Freedom of Religion. In the Garden, God planted both trees and allowed freedom of speech to the serpent, and freedom of choice to humans. Further in history, Christ was born into a melting pot of religious factions and social ideologies, yet He taught Truth in the free-marketplace of ideas. Today, Alabama prisons are hotbeds of religious recruiting and ideological competition. The church is the pillar of Truth and Christians must continue the ministry of Christ. In the battle of the ages, we don’t need to regulate, mitigate or annihilate other religions – we can live beside them in peace, while proclaiming the Truth.
A House Divided Shall Fall. Alabama prison ministries are abundant, redundant, and competitive. Some preach baptism is required for salvation, others preach it is a subsequent act of obedience. Some preach baptism by immersion, others preach sprinkling. Some preach baptism “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost”, while others preach baptism only “In the name of Jesus”. Some preach “the Holy Ghost is given at salvation“, but others preach “the baptism of the Spirit is a second work of grace”. Some preach “speaking in tongues is the evidence of the Holy Ghost” while others preach the Holy Spirit is given at the time of salvation. Some preach “the law is still in effect” and others preach “the law is done away”. Some preach “The Sabbath was changed to Sunday”, but others teach “Saturday is the Lord’s Sabbath”. Sadly, most prison ministries don’t realize that sectarian differences often lead to demagogic competition among inmates. Freedom of religion is abundant among Alabama prison ministries, but freedom of denomination is rampant causing fragmentation among the inmate congregations - there is little evidence of unity among Christian prison ministries.
We’ve Seen This Before. Except for a few ministries and programs, the overall condition of Christian prison ministry in Alabama is similar to that of the first century church at Corinth with its sectarian cliques. Paul’s first letter to Corinth began with the call to unity among teachers and preachers and a reprimand to those participating in the competing groups. Paul taught that divisions proved the Corinthian Christians were “babes”, and said they needed milk rather than meat - Paul was glad he hadn’t even baptized most of them. Like the Corinthians, there is an over-abundant representation of the branches of Christianity among Alabama prison ministries, but an under-representation of the trunk of our Christian family tree. Paul’s example was to stick to the foundational teaching of Christ and Him crucified, and illustrates that healing of divisions within the church must begin with agreement at the foundational level.
Suggestions for Prison Ministry Volunteers
Volunteer as a Team-Player: 1) Learn about prison ministry activities and opportunities – ask your pastor. 2) Be aware that not all prison ministry volunteers work inside the prisons; many volunteers perform support roles on the outside.
Respect the Chaplaincy Program: Establish and maintain dialogue with chaplains in the respective institutions – through an established prison ministry. Attend DOC prison ministry training and then adhere to the rules, policies, and practices taught. Seek to coordinate with other ministries toward developing character among inmate Christians and to cultivate unity among Alabama inmates and their congregations.
Be Ecumenical: Most larger prison ministries such as Kairos and Prison Fellowship have ecumenical policies encouraging volunteers to only practice beliefs common to all Christians during prison ministry activities, but to practice their individual denominational beliefs to the fullest of their abilities in their personal lives and home church activities. Most teams consist of volunteers from various denominations who willingly sacrifice their denominational differences in order to unify on the common ground issues of Christianity.
Suggestions for Prison Ministries
Minimize Preaching for Salvation. Shepherds don’t beget sheep; sheep beget sheep. Many inmates are already Christians, and many have matured in their faith for years, and even decades – these are the in-house missionaries Christ uses to increase the flock, and through their efforts other inmates have numerous opportunities to receive Christ. Shepherds, hirelings and sheep-dogs provide protection, guidance and nourishment for growth.
Maximize Teaching for Growth. Prison ministry needs a continuum of growth services and opportunities: Supply the milk of the word to babes by teaching real-world ethics and character development from the commandments, beatitudes and fruit of the Spirit. Provide mid-level Bible teaching such as study, prayer, corporate worship and conflict resolution. Refrain from churchianity and religiosity, but focus on Christianity – 1) justice, compassion and humility; 2) judgment, mercy and faith; and 3) charity, conscience and authenticity.
Many are Called but Few are Chosen. Denominational teaching is profitable for mature Christian inmates. There are unofficial hierarchies among inmates, and many inmates adapt to the leadership of un-official inmate-pastors. Some of those stir more confusion than unity, while others genuinely re-present Christ among the masses. Denominational studies should be reserved for seasoned Christians within the prisons – those who respectfully and peacefully contend for the Christian faith among other religions, but who refrain from contending for denominational supremacy. Sectarian teaching should be guided, in-depth Bible Studies, such as courses on the historic Creeds, the Disciple series, and other foundations that bind all Christians together as one Body and cultivate respect for other’s freedom of religion.