Advice about Prison Ministry?

Starting on Monday I'm going to be participating in a weekly bible study at a local prison. It has taken me forever to get the paperwork, clearance and training done, but it looks like I'm ready to go.

I'll be leading the class with two other men from my church who have way more experience than I do. They will do most of the teaching. But each week I'm to offer my own thoughts on a topic of my choice. There are about 30 men who attend the class.

So I've been thinking a lot about what I might say. Not just for this Monday but for the long haul. So I thought I'd ask for some help. If you have any experience with prison ministry what might be some good topics or themes to dwell on in a bible study? What messages have seemed most meaningful and impactful in your experience?

Here's a more specific question. In my first and only visit to the class I spoke about the lament psalms. Assuming that prison was a pretty horrible place and that a person could feel pretty god-forsaken, I wanted to recognize that god-forsakenness and suggest that if you put words to that feeling of god-forsakenness and directed it to God you'd be praying, even worshipping God. These thoughts seemed well received that night but I worried about if I might dwell too much on those topics. That is, might these men need more encouragement than permission to lament? Pushing the lament psalms in my church seems to be a healthy corrective to the praise-dominated triumphalism of American Christianity. But I don't know if prisoners need that corrective. They might need more praise psalms!

And yet, they still might need some honesty, the recognition that their lives are hard, violent, lonely, and monotonous. To give voice to the feelings of god-forsakenness. Because for many of these guys, there isn't going to be a happy ending.

So does that mean I start talking about heaven? Again, in my church I try to push against the escapism and other-worldliness that creeps into discussions about heaven. But is heaven more relevant to life-term prisoners?

And yet, I don't want them to avoid taking responsibility for their world. Even though they have very little control over it. So how do I help them pray into "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"?

In short, it seems, as I think about all this, that my theological tendencies outside of the prison might get flipped around once I'm on the inside. Things I de-emphasize on the outside I should emphasize on the inside. Would that be right? Or is there more consistency across those worlds than what I'm imagining?

Anyway, I'm thinking all this through. Any thoughts you might have would be appreciated. And if you can't help, no worries. Maybe say a prayer. I use this prayer from The Book of Common Prayer:

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal:
Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment.
Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance
and amendment of life according to your will, and give them
hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them
release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice.
Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them
humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming
brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison,
O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All
this we ask for your mercy's sake. Amen.

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18 thoughts on “Advice about Prison Ministry?”

  1. I'm sorry that I have little experience beyond playing the piano for Sunday services in my nearest prison and working a little with young offenders. And I suspect you know rather more psychology than me, but for what it's worth...

    I think if I were in prison:

    Chances are...
    I would've felt like a reject since I was about four.
    I'd feel judged by and isolated from mainstream society.
    I'd be wondering how I got to be one of the bad guys.
    I be desperate to belong, to have some sense of agency and to feel OK about myself - just like everyone on the outside, if I did but know it.
    I'd have learning difficulties and/or mental health issues.
    I'd want you to know my story, but I'd be too frightened to tell it to you.
    I'd want to be treated with respect - as an individual, not a type.

    I wonder whether your thoughts on 'free will' would be of interest to the group. If I was able to separate out the cards I'd been dealt from the choices I'd made, I might be able to start considering the future more realistically...?

    One more thought: A central tenet of Personal Construct Psychology is that if you don't know what the issues are, you could try asking the person themselves. You could share your uncertainty and your best-guess theories and ask the group to help you make sense of it all.

    Whatever you do, you'll be there - maybe that's the most powerful message of all.

    With prayers for your first meeting and blessings


  2. I would keep it simple, direct, assessible, relevant and deliver it from the heart and with integrity.
    I know that these seem like rather patronising observations but believe me, after a GREAT deal of experience in prison nothing stinks so much as pious 'spirituality' and the men you're dealing with will, I am sure, be more impacted by your character and honesty and directness than the particular Biblical passage you choose.
    I remember in a prison setting of someone speaking about the good and the bad fruit that a life can bear and of this having a HUGE impact.
    I hope that it goes well and that you make some satisfying and worthwhile engagements with these men.

  3. Dr. Beck: This may get long, so I apologize in advance.

    My dad worked in prisons as an "officer" for as long as I can remember (until he retired). He was surprisingly open about his day-to-day dealings with the men, good and bad. So, as I grew up, I got a taste of life there.

    Further, the church I grew up in had a full-time prison minister that worked in the same prison my dad did--our families were close--so my dad ended up being a de-facto advisor to the PM, even though he could not actively "participate" in the work.

    What struck me was the attitude my dad had toward his charges. He saw them as men, human, not monsters or "cons" or "inmates". He spoke of them by name and, if he knew, spoke of their families who came to visit. I remember him being sad when certain ones would be released, like a father watching his son leave home. He was always very glad to receive a letter or phone call with news of their doings. But his deeper sadness was for the ones who were lifers or very long-termers. He knew that he'd watch them grow older, and he'd retire before they would be free men, again, if ever. That was always his lesson to my brother and I.

    What I took away from all of that was to have a compassion for these... men. It's easy to wag your finger at their choices and rub the consequences of their sins in their faces. But it takes a bit of effort to look past their past and... well... love them where they are at.

    It's kind of a reminder that the only real difference between them and I is only a few inches of concrete and steel. "But by the grace of God go we."

    After all that, I guess my advice is this: if you treat them as men, worthy of kindness, respect, and honesty, I really don't think the subject matters all that much.

    A bit anti-climactic, I know.

  4. I don't have time right now to make sure this has not been covered already.
    I think showing them how frustrated David got with his situation, how he felt free to throw all that frustration at God and how by the time he was done venting he was thanking God for being there and taking care of him is powerful. David didn't just complain or lament. He recognized God's control over him and praised him for that.

    There is great value in acknowledging the situation we are in then acknowledging that God is still in control. Remember too that David was not writing sermons to a complacent American church. He was crying out in his 'bad' situation.

  5. Don't have any real advice but I do have to recommend a book to you that might actually shed some light on prison life - Running the Books. A young naive jewish guy (with defunct dreams of becoming a rabbi) graduates harvard with an english degree and becomes a prison librarian. Funny and full of really moving stories about the power of words. It's a great read in general but i think it would be helpful for you.

  6. Not sure if this will help as its maybe a different culture and situation - but have been doing a study on the Lord's Prayer (3 verses in Luke, 11:2-4, one verse a week) over the past few weeks with some men - not in jail, but including some from pretty tough backgrounds who won't set foot in church. They actually know it from childhood (by rote) they seem to be really interested exploring what it actually might means for the first time, and it has generated some good discussion and opening up .... in unexpected ways.... them ministering to me, as much as me to them! Next week is a bit scary...forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone who sins against us.... the first bit is fine - its the "as" and "everyone" bit after the comma...

  7. This post reminded me of a fantastic recent NPR piece that led me to watch the 2008 documentary, the Dhamma Brothers. It tells the story of Vipassna meditation/10 day silent retreat being introduced to the inmates which was highly successful but also controversial in the Bible Belt near Bham AL where I live. I'm sure you could glean some insights. It's on Netflix... If only evangelicals in Bama were tapped into the wealth of monasticism and Eastern Xianity's spiritual formation practices and silence/solitude, Vipassna wouldn't have seemed so foreign.

  8. I think you might already be on the right track with your first visit. I'm not sure how long ago you talked about the lament songs, but if it has been a while, I'd reinforce the lament psalms as something healthy (we all are in the "winter" at times (to reflect back on some of your posts).

    From there I think you can slowly move from winter to summer, maybe through the concept of God's grace and eventually move to a place of praise. Not the "happy gushy all the time" stuff you're trying to avoid (and rightfully so) but maybe something to the effect of Paul when he indicates that he was content no matter what the circumstance.

    Regardless of your path, you have my prayers. That sounds like a very intimidating and humbling undertaking.

  9. So I have absolutely no experience with prison ministries and am thus completely unqualified to comment. I did read Charles' Colson's book "How Now Shall We Live" earlier this year, and he talked a good deal about his service in prisons. He has another book, which I haven't read, called "Life Sentence" that is more specifically about his work in founding a Prison Fellowship. Again, I haven't read the book so I can't say whether it's good or bad, but his other book was great and at least "Life Sentence" seems topical?

  10. Thanks everyone for all the advice, encouragement, and recommendations. I've found it all very helpful. One of the things that struck me reading through your comments is that I think I was succumbing to a professorial error, thinking that the lesson would be the most important thing. But I think presence is the greater sermon.

  11. I work in a prison occasionally as well, although the context is worlds away: I facilitate reproductive health education for women prisoners in Battambang, Cambodia. Most of the women are in for petty theft or sex work (and because their families are too poor to pay off the appropriate people).

    Most of my team's work is in villages, but the prison is one of our favorite spots to teach, because we have so much fun there. The women there are among the most open, humble, and enthusiastic participants that we serve. Obviously the context is about as different as possible, but I hope that you don't underestimate the value of laughter in your course. Thanks for serving in this way!

  12. Listen to them. Ask them what they need, what interests them. You know your Bible well enough to respond. And what they really need, I would guess, is relationship with people who give a damn. i.e., you.

  13. I worked with juvenile offenders for years. They can spot pious posing in a heartbeat. Be yourself, not what you think they want to see. (I'm sure you're probably there already...) In Orthodoxy we focus on living in the reality of the present moment, not in fantasies of the future or the what-if's of the past. Most people are in prison or trouble because they lived in something other than the present moment and were trying to manipulate an outcome. You have "present moments" even in prison no matter if they are depressing, violent, frightening, unfair, dreary etc. No matter what the moment, God is present in it and we can find Him there.

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