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The Keys to an Effective, Impactful Prison Ministry

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My sister shared a moving testimony last week concerning what she witnessed at a recent funeral service.

The deceased was an elderly woman who had committed her adult life to prison ministry.

Sister Eva’s pastor shared, “I noticed that Sister Eva was only at worship service a few times a month. When I asked her about this, Sister Eva informed me that she was at the prison on Sundays, ministering to the inmates through prayer, song and Bible study.”

My sister then shared that in one section of the church sat 40 prisoners, who were allowed to attend her service.

Upon hearing the pastor’s story about Sister Eva, the inmates, filled with emotion, stood to their feet and gave her a long, standing ovation.

Although they were still prisoners, Sister Eva’s ministry affirmed their humanity and worth.

She not only provided prayer, song and teaching, but also grace, mercy and intentional hope.

As a young minister, I was invited to participate in my home church prison visitation ministry. We went to the local women’s prison.

I was asked to preach and give an altar call (a special time for individuals to come forward and receive prayer).

I was instructed not to allow the inmates to touch me, nor was I to touch them.

However, once I was done preaching and praying, several women came forward, reaching out to me for a hug. Many were literally sobbing.

I thought they were sad about being imprisoned and were wanting prayer for a shortened sentence.

To my surprise, the women were saying, “Please pray for us. We are about to be released and don’t know what we are going to do or where we are going to go.”

Guards came and pulled the women back. The scene was forever impressed upon my heart.

A colleague in ministry, who was incarcerated previously, shares his testimony of the number of churches that came to minister at the prison during his sentence. Each Sunday, a different church came from various denominations.

There was one Sunday, however, when many of the inmates didn’t want to go. It was the Sunday when the “dry church” led service.

The music wasn’t all that good, the preaching was boring, and the choir could not sing.

One day, Darren’s turn came to set up the chapel during the dry church service. He really didn’t want to stay but didn’t want to be rude.

Following the service, the pastor took time to speak with him and asked if he knew when he would be released.

The pastor gave Darren his contact information and said, “Call me when you are released, and we will help you.”

In time, he was indeed scheduled to be released.

Darren said, “As I shared my release date with the other churches, they basically said, ‘Oh, that’s great; praise the Lord!’ and kept walking. But when I shared my release date with the so-called ‘boring church’ leaders, the pastor got my information and scheduled to pick me up on the day I was let go.”

Darren continued, “Just as promised, the day I got out, he and some members met me at the door, brought me some clothes, took me to get something to eat, helped me to get a place to live and assisted me with finding employment. They continued to provide encouragement and support to me for years to come.”

Each of these stories has inspired and informed my view of effective, impactful prison ministry. Here are a few things I’ve gleaned from the experiences just shared:

1. Ministry to the incarcerated must be personable, treating them as human beings created in God’s image.

People are imprisoned for various reasons. It can be challenging to view individuals who have committed serious crimes as “human.”

Jesus, however, exemplifies his mercy toward criminals as he counts them among the “least of these,” combining their identity with his when he declared, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” (Matthew 25:40).

Jesus also shows grace toward criminals as he was crucified between two thieves, welcoming the one who asked for mercy into paradise (Luke 23:39-43).

God’s people – through compassion, teaching and discipleship – can teach and restore the incarcerated to an understanding of their true identity in Christ.

2. Prison ministry must expand beyond prison walls.

Just as important as rebuilding character, teaching godly principles and nurturing the human spirit is cultivating hope through providing practical help.

Those preparing to be released would be greatly benefited by a connection to the faith community.

God’s people can assist with reducing the numbers of individuals returning to prison by networking to expand opportunities.

By working with community leaders, employers and housing officials, churches can develop programs (often right in their churches) that identify ex-offenders who are serious about making a life change and helping them to get re-established.

Building a network of community partners willing to give returning citizens a chance to start over can go a long way toward helping them to develop stable, healthy and bright futures.

3. Faith without works is dead. Do more than pray.

Exciting and charismatic worship services are wonderful. Prayer and Bible study are inspiring. But the best Christian witness involves practical support.

James 2:16-17 declares, “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

Our Christian witness is harmed if we ignore providing tangible support to those looking for a new start.

While each ministry is different, and resources to provide support may be limited, there are a number of ways churches, ministries and individuals can provide practical support.

Some examples include:

  • Purchasing gift cards for food, clothing and personal hygiene supplies for returning citizens.
  • Identifying, training and assigning volunteers who will “walk with” a returning citizen through their first six months home.
  • Serving as “accountability partners,” encouragers and “connectors” to resources in the community.
  • Developing relationships with community employers, connecting selected returning citizens with job opportunities.
  • Offering “soft skill” classes that can help prepare a returning citizen to prepare for job interviews.

While the amount and the kind of help we offer to people who are returning home after incarceration may vary, the people of God can be intentional about giving compassionate, prayerful and practical support to assist them on the road toward a new life.

If you or your church or ministry are interested in ministering to the incarcerated or returning citizens, contact your local social service agencies, community colleges and the prisons themselves to see what programs already exist.

You may find an opportunity to “plug in” and become a partner in the new life process. There is much work to be done.

Chris Smith is the senior pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Euclid, Ohio. She is the author of “Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors.” Her writings also appear on her blog, Shepastor, and you can follow her on Twitter @Revcsmith1.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on criminal justice. Previous articles are:

3 Things Your Church Needs to Know About Prison Ministry by Travis Collins

A Different Lens: Seeking Biblical Ethic on Incarceration by Colin Harris