How can you start a prison or jail ministry from scratch? What steps are involved? Is it possible for you to have your own prison or jail ministry?
Jesus in Prison?
One of the most significant Scriptures in the entire Bible is Matthew 25:36 where Jesus said “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When Jesus comes again in His glory (Matt 25:31) “the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’” (Matt 25:37-40). Now of course, the opposite of this is also true for others “will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Jesus is saying that when we visit this sick, when we clothe the poor, when we feed the hungry, when we visit those behind bars “you did it to Me.” When we don’t do this to them we are not doing it to Jesus! I had to think about that long and hard. As a pastor, I frequently visit the sick, those in Hospice, those in the nursing home, our church has a clothing ministry and we help the poor that we are able to. When I or the church does this, we literally do it to Jesus. He was never in imprisoned, except for the short time of His arrest prior to Calvary, but by reaching those who have no access to the gospel, we are reaching them for Christ and that includes those who are behind bars.
The Starting Point
I believe that there are fewer things that are more rewarding that I have ever done in my life than having a prison ministry. Let me tell you about the first step to beginning a prison ministry. Do these three things first: Pray, then pray, and finally pray some more. Bathe the idea in prayer before you do anything. Prayer is quintessential to any ministry that a person or church does. Talking with former prisoners is also a great resource. Speak with the local sheriff to see if such a ministry is already in place. There is no reason to duplicate what is already being done. If there is one in place already, maybe you could join them in some way that they might identify that they need help in or you could write letters to prisoners using the church’s address and use a pen name if you like. Make an appointment to meet the local authorities by phone. Use the same procedure with the city; speak in to the local Chief of Police in person to see what steps are needed. A personal visit is always more successful than a phone call or a letter. You will find local and county officials more open to the idea if you have a plan in place, which will be discussed later. I spoke with the local Chief of Police and the county Sheriff and they were extremely happy with the idea of Bible studies, providing study resources, and visiting the inmates. They warmly embraced the idea and I had no problems in my initial contacts and with establishing a ministry for the inmates.
Once I had a city jail and a county jail that were willing to open up times for me to be a servant of Christ, I should have already had materials ready, including extra Bibles. Incidentally, the women already had their own ministry in place with three services and a Sunday morning worship service but this might not be the case where you live. These local officials I spoke with see the possibilities of reforming these men and women from the inside. Of course, the Holy Spirit is doing that “inside” work but we may have to supply materials to be the hands and feet for Christ in the physical sense. I had some old Bibles donated to me. Many churches have older Bibles that they replaced with new ones and the same goes for old hymnal books.
Sometimes county and city authorities like the Chief of Police (for cities) or Sheriff (for counties) are reluctant at first. You may not be able to schedule a face to face meeting. State and Federal prison systems are more stringent. Sometime these facilities have prisoners that are quarantined and are only allowed visits by family and the visitation may only be possible behind a glass partition. And they may have limited visitation times as well. State and Federal systems are usually located at greater distances and are less accessible than those of a city or county so gaining access to them is strategically more difficult but not impossible.
Some cities have a Ministerial Alliance which is an organization where the churches cooperate to work together for a common purpose for a city or county. Getting in touch with any Ministerial Alliance, if there is one, is a good beginning to see if they already have a prison ministry. These organizations are also valuable volunteer resources with a broad base of experience that you may want to tap. Try to schedule an in-person visit with the local head of a Ministerial Alliance or attend one of their meetings. By the way, you don’t have to be an ordained minister, elder, deacon or have attended seminary to have a prison ministry. In a sense, we are all ministers of God. All you need is time.
Two are better than one and so having two men or women work together makes it easier and there is someone who can fill in for you if you get sick or have to be gone for a time. You have to count the cost of doing this before you begin because it is so disappointing to the prisoners if you start one and then don’t follow through or aren’t consistent. By not showing up when you are supposed to you can easily disenfranchise these men and women and show them that you really didn’t care in the first place.
Before you make contact with any authorities, have a specific plan in place. You want to make sure that you have the city and counties best interests at heart. Prisoners will often shy away from pure Bible teaching or preaching. Your first visits will always be a getting acquainted type of meeting. What are their interests? Do they plan on developing a trade or have an interest in a particular occupation if they are to be released? Even if you are unable to gain access to prisoners, you can at least minister to them through biblical literature; provide them with trade journals or magazines. Make sure you are clear with your intentions.
Some local and county jails may require a background check which includes any past criminal records. They might run a check on you to see if you have any outstanding bench warrants or unpaid fines or tickets. If you have a criminal history, be upfront about it and tell them. This may not prevent you from serving, and in fact it may actually be a plus since the inmates can relate to you better if you have spent time in jail as I have, but if you hide this fact and the authorities find out, you may have lost your opportunity to serve them permanently so be open, honest, and transparent to both the officials and the inmates about your past.
By the way, some institutions do not have a regular Sunday service. Even fewer have a Wednesday night Bible Study. A Church service in the prisons or jails is run somewhat like any local church. However, check with the chaplain or religious activities coordinator (if there is one) before your first service to make sure that you understand the customs of the group. Contrary to what you might think, the members of the Christian community in most prisons get along with each other, sometimes better than those on the outside and many consider the service to be “their” church. If you cannot be there Sunday mornings since you may be attending your own church, then perhaps you can offer them a Sunday evening service but if you tell them you will be there, make sure that you will be.
Unity in Diversity
Because of the interdenominational nature of the group you will be dealing with, and the mixed group of preachers who might conduct services already being held, it is important that you not go in emphasizing the doctrinal distinctive of your denomination. There is a wealth of material in the Bible that you can use without having to go into the small number of areas that we do not agree on. Keep in mind that some prisoners will be either babies in Christ or they will be unsaved and so keep it simple. You do not want to divide the inmates over non-essential doctrinal differences. This is not seminary. No preaching, but just teaching. Let them have input. Don’t dominate or cut off other prisoners if they have something to offer.
Bible studies and Bible study lessons, free Bibles, a Bible Lesson series, or devotionals can be dispensed at the local or county facility to stimulate their appetites. I save old Guideposts and Table Talk magazines from Ligonier Ministries. Even if there is a ministry in place, a supplemental ministry can enhance any present ministry in the local county jail, the city jail, or in a federal or state prison.
Play by the Rules
Always follow the directives and orders of the prison or jail staff. Never deviate or talk down these officials in front of the prisoners. And be consistent. If the Bible study is at 6 p.m. then be there at 6 p.m.! Again, make certain that you count the cost before you are willing to do any ministry. You can be a huge source of disappointment to these men and women if you don’t show up when you say you will or don’t do what you said you would do and bring what you said you would bring.
Helping the Poor
J-pay is an awesome resource for giving commissary money or stamps to prisoners because few prisoners have any source of income or any outside source for money. They will not allow you to mail or send money directly to prisoners because it is considered contraband so I suggest that you use J-pay (jpay.com), which is a website where you can enter the inmate’s number and/or name to add money to their account. This gives them funds to write letters to family and friends, to buy things at a commissary, or to purchase things that they normally wouldn’t have the funds to buy them with.
Never get into an argument with them about the Bible. They may try to persuade you about something that is not essential to salvation, like speaking in tongues, so don’t go there. Let the controversy stay with the TV talk shows but if you make a mistake and they catch you on it, admit you were wrong and move on. They would appreciate honesty and humility more than being dogmatic about some non-essential issue. Be upfront with them about your own background. Relate any mistakes that you have made in the past. Transparency breaks down barriers and crumbles the walls of partition between you and the prisoners. I often make admissions of my own sins, mistakes, and faults to my congregation and this increases the likelihood of their opening up and revealing their own faults. You can be the hands and feet of Christ to those who are in a hard place. Who among us hasn’t made bad choices that we don’t regret? And remember Jesus’ words, “when…I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt: 25:36). If you do it for them, Jesus says, “you did it to Me” but if “you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”
Another Reading on Patheos to Check Out: What Did Jesus Really Look Like: A Look at the Bible Facts
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Blind Chance or Intelligent Design available on Amazon