Many Christians and churches feel some kind of call to ‘prison ministry’. The gospel says I was in prison and you visited me. So that’s OK, I suppose.
‘Prison ministry’ may take several forms: perhaps volunteering with an organisation like Prison Fellowship; perhaps attending regular worship in the chaplaincy, or helping with programmes like Alpha. Some intrepid individuals may offer their services as voluntary or assistant chaplains — a deeper level of commitment.
All this work is vitally important both to the morale and spiritual wellbeing of the prisoners and also to the capability of the prison chaplaincy. Staff chaplains are restricted in what they are allowed to do and say, whereas volunteers or community chaplains often have freer rein.
And prison chaplaincies can be great places to preach the gospel. Many prisoners are eager to respond to the call of Christ.
But, for a visiting speaker, two problems stem from this.
1. Pastoral follow-up within the prison is very difficult.
Jesus told us to make disciples, not to notch up responses.
Let’s say you take your team into a prison on Sunday morning to lead the service and ten people respond. They put their hands up and maybe come and chat with you afterwards over coffee. That’s great. It’s encouraging for you and a buzz for them.
Some want to accept Christ, others to reaffirm an earlier commitment, or to ask for prayer for some pressing problem. You pray with them and offer encouraging words. Then you faithfully pass this information on to the chaplain. You are escorted to the gate, pick up your keys and your phone and drive away.
The chaplain may only be employed part-time in this particular prison, and may or may not share your theology of salvation. His or her job entails various ‘statutory duties’, which take up a lot of their time, in addition to which they will be part of a small multi-faith team providing pastoral support to the entire prison.
The likelihood that he or she will be able to spend any quality time with your responders is small. Those responders will be able to come back to the chapel next week, of course, but there might be a different speaker and a different style of service. Possibly they can access a midweek study-group, but it might be several weeks or months before you return. If you return.
What happens to those guys that you just left in a vulnerable state?
Prisoners serving sentences of many years see chaplaincy visitors come and go. While they always appreciate your presence, they probably won’t take you seriously until they know you are in fact serious. Like any ministry, you will have to sow and plough into it with wisdom patience over much time before you see fruit.
People putting their hands up in a prison chaplaincy service means very little. Good as it is, it doesn’t address a more pressing issue.
What happens when these men and women are released?
2. Through-the-gate follow-up is close to impossible.
Prison employees or volunteers may be prevented from having any contact with prisoners for a number of years after they are released. This will be a condition of employment and is a security consideration. Those who work professionally with convicted offenders do so in the context of managing the risk that they will offend again, cause harm to further victims, or try to compromise the integrity of the prison. This risk is real and these things happen.
Basically, if you’re working with prisoners inside, you can’t work with ex-prisoners outside. And the chances are high that ex-prisoners will become prisoners again fairly soon.
The prison chaplaincy is unable to provide pastoral follow-up post-release, so they will try to link released prisoners up with churches on the outside. This sounds great, but as we shall discuss in another post, it is problematic.
Too often, we see those men and women returning to prison in short order.
Supporting serving prisoners is vital work for the people of God. If you feel a pull from the Holy Spirit to get involved in some way, a great way to do it is through an organisation like Prison Fellowship, or contact the chaplain at your local prison.
In forthcoming posts I want to explore why linking ex-prisoners up with churches is so difficult, and why working with them after their release might be a good thing to do.
Check out my book, Working with Released Prisoners, published by Instant Apostle and available wherever books are sold.
Also, check out my channel on YouTube.