Training, funding top barriers to productive prison ministry

Training, funding top barriers to productive prison ministry

While most Protestant pastors visit correctional facilities and want to help prisoners and their families, their churches often lack the training or finances for effective prison ministry.

Those are among the findings of a recent LifeWay Research phone survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors.

Researchers found widespread support among pastors for the idea of prison ministry. Eighty-three percent of pastors have visited a correctional facility and nearly all believe churches should help families of those incarcerated (97 percent) and provide care for those getting out of jail (95 percent).

However, many pastors have little contact with those who have been incarcerated. Half of pastors say no one from their congregation has been jailed in the past three years. But nearly half also say one or more people from their church have been jailed.

Record levels

Overall few pastors have contact with inmates or former inmates as a normal part of ministry, said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research. So prison ministry isn’t “on their ministry radar,” McConnell said.

The report comes at a time when incarceration rates in the United States remain at record levels. More than 2.2 million Americans are held in state and federal prisons or local jails, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. That’s more than in any other nation in the world.

More than a third (36 percent) of inmates in state and federal prisons are African-American, according to the Department of Justice. Those statistics have led to concerns about the high number of inmates and charges of racial disparity.

LifeWay Research found pastors are split on those two questions.

Five in 10 pastors say the racial disparity among inmates is unjust. Four in 10 disagree. One in 10 is not sure. Just under half say the rapid growth of the inmate population is unjust. A similar number disagree. Ten percent are not sure.

African-American pastors (78 percent) are most likely to say the rapid growth in the overall number of inmates is unjust. Most Methodist (67 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed pastors (72 percent) agree. Fewer Baptist (31 percent), Pentecostal (34 percent), Christian/Church of Christ (39 percent) and Lutheran (45 percent) pastors hold that view.

African-American pastors (88 percent) are also most likely to see racial disparities among inmates as unjust. Most Methodist (73 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed (75 percent) pastors agree. Fewer Baptist (34 percent), Pentecostal (43 percent), Church of Christ/Christian (40 percent) and Lutheran (56 percent) pastors agree.

Karen Swanson, director of the Institute for Prison Ministries at Wheaton College, said pastors often don’t know how to start ministering to inmates.

Ministering to inmates and their families is difficult, she said, requiring special training and often long-term commitments from volunteers.

About two-thirds of pastors cite a lack of training or volunteers as barriers to their church helping inmates and their families. Forty percent say they do not know where to start. About 20 percent don’t see a need for such ministry.
Money is an issue as well. Half of pastors say a lack of finances is a barrier to ministry.

Swanson hopes more pastors will consider getting their churches involved in prison ministry. They may be surprised, she noted, to find the ministry hits close to home.

“The missions field is in your backyard,” she said. “Almost every county has a jail. And almost all prisoners are going to return home.”

McConnell said churches will be challenged by prison ministries.

Biblical faithfulness

“These are messy, long-term ministries,” he said. “You really have to demonstrate biblical faithfulness to be involved with them. It’s a lot easier to pick a ministry where there are quick rewards, but you would miss out on the opportunity to impact families and communities.”

The study was sponsored by the Institute for Prison Ministries, Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, Wheaton College; Correctional Ministries and Chaplains Association, Assemblies of God; and the Crossroad Bible Institute. (BP)