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One of the more challenging areas of compassion ministry is directed to prisoners and their families. Certainly there are great national ministries like Prison Fellowship engaged in many places, but some of the most life-changing work is done at the grassroots church level. This can involve anything from several people going to a local prison to do Bible studies to fully developed ministries involving re-entry into the community and chaplaincy.

We went to two New England chaplains --  Pastor Bud Westbrook of Huntington Street Baptist Church in New London, Conn., who also serves as a prison chaplain, as well as Tom Wright, a full-time chaplain at Northern and Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institutes in Connecticut -- to get insights about how churches can be engaged in this ministry and how to overcome the challenges.

What are a couple challenges that prison chaplaincy or ministry present to growing a local church? How can local churches be more proactive in developing prison ministry? 

Westbrook: It’s usually very hard to get your foot in the door at the prison,  but not in the way you might think. Schedules and meeting spaces inside prison are very tightly managed, and you may find that there are already other groups, including multiple evangelical groups, serving at any particular facility. You’re probably better off using social media and ministry networks to find people who are already coming in and gently and respectfully joining their efforts.

Wright: One thought has to do with the families the prisoners leave behind. Without the prisoner's income and leadership, many families struggle to make ends meet. I would like to see church members become active in organizations that support families of inmates and consider starting faith-based programs to help these families. Prison Fellowship does a lot in this area. Their Angel Tree program does a great job providing Christmas presents for the children of prisoners. Angel Tree might be a great place for the local churches to start. This might give them a window into the needs of the families in their area.

Westbrook: Know that just as volunteers sometimes cancel on short notice (which is very demoralizing for the inmates), prison administrators often have to lock down facilities with no notice whatsoever to deal with everything from assaults to equipment malfunctions. Understand that there is simply no way to foresee these or even get word to the volunteers. I train my volunteers to understand it’s a little like coaching a Little League team, but not knowing if you’ll actually be able to have the game until you get to the field. It’s an unavoidable frustration, and you’ll have to learn to face that with a smile.

Wright: Families continue to need help after inmates return home. According to Prison Fellowship, “only 15% of marriages survive a period of incarceration of one spouse. The readjustment after release also takes its toll on marriage. Of this 15%, only 3% to 5% of the couples are still together one year after the spouse’s release from prison. In general, families experience social stigma and loss of emotional and financial support.” (Corrections Today, 1997)

Westbrook: In addition to prison ministry, consider halfway houses and rehab facilities. Halfway houses usually have fewer volunteers and perhaps more time and space to hold Bible studies, but halfway houses can be very hard to connect with. They are tremendously cautious, and it is hard to find organizations that are willing to have outsiders come in.  There is a great need for faith-based groups to wisely, advisedly and prayerfully consider operating their own halfway houses.  At any given time, there are hundreds of inmates in a state (usually at least 50 at the prison where I serve), for example, who are eligible for halfway houses, but remain in prison due to lack of bed space in the limited number of halfway houses that exist.

Wright: When people think about prison ministry, I think the first thing that comes to mind is leading a worship service or Bible study in a prison. Ministering to currently incarcerated people inside the prison is probably not the greatest need (in Connecticut). Formerly incarcerated people need a lot of help when they get out.  A lot of inmates stop attending church after they are discharged. They work long hours, perhaps out of guilt for not being there for their families when they were inside. Some people also tell me they didn't feel like they fit in when they attended church and that people were not very welcoming. Many formerly incarcerated people need help finding jobs.  A 2001 U.S. Dept. of Justice study found that a large number of formerly incarcerated people had few vocational skills. Many of these people were unemployed or only partially employed before being arrested, or held a position paying less than $1000 a month. I have observed that myself. Many formerly incarcerated folks don’t have a driver’s license or can’t afford to buy a car. If there is no public transportation available to them, their options can be extremely limited. Formerly incarcerated people may need help with transportation to jobs. Some need help getting a driver's license. Many just need a friend to talk to after they are released from prison. Inmates soar to great heights spiritually in prison and tend to flounder during the transition.

What would you encourage churches do about getting involved or supporting prison ministry or the prison workers?

Westbrook:  Aside of Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program, consider getting in touch with Kairos Prison Ministry to see if you can help with a “Kairos Outside” retreat for families of inmates. Also contact local community service agencies to find out about reentry networks that help inmates make the transition from incarceration back to the community.

Wright: A helpful step for churches might be to invite prison chaplains to report on their ministries at their annual meetings on a regular basis. Include spotlight-type articles about prison ministry in newsletters or on websites at least once a year would also be a positive thing. This could include comments from a chaplain or sharing the experiences of church members who are involved in some type of ministry to prisoners, e.g. Angel Tree, Bible studies, etc. Doing these types of things places prison ministry on the radar of local churches and church members. Unless someone has a loved one in prison or is active in prison ministry already, they might not give much thought to prison ministry.

Westbrook:  And if you do find yourself able to lead studies or worship services in prison, work hard to be respectful and deferential to uniform staff. Their job is difficult and rarely understood by the outside community.  The danger, negative influences, stress and work schedules are hard on their family life. They are often described as the “forgotten law enforcement officers.” For more info on that, go to desertwaters.com.

SBC & BCNE Support

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary provides support of Tom Wright’s extension college at the prison. By supporting seminaries through the Cooperative Program, local churches in New England are actually partnering with this little college at Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institute. The BCNE also assists these ministries by providing Bibles, which are a treasure to prisoners who have become Christians. Prisoners are eager to read the Bible when they are behind bars.

Interested in finding out more? Contact Tim Buehner at the BCNE if your church would like:

  •        A prison chaplain to visit and share insights.
  •        A list of Prisoner Re-Entry programs in your state.
  •        More information on how to start a prison ministry. 

Tim Buehner is the mobilization and ministry evangelism coordinator at the Baptist Convention of New England.