Does your church have an active ministry focused on prisoners and their families? For most congregations in the United States, the answer to that question is “no.”
A new study by LifeWay Research reveals that while more than four out of five pastors have visited a correctional facility at some time, and virtually all believe it is the Church’s responsibility to help returning prisoners and care for their families, few have contact with current or former prisoners as a regular part of their ministry.
“When half the pastors haven’t had someone from their church sent to jail, then prison ministry isn’t on their ministry radar,” says Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research.
Churches responding to the survey were evenly split on if there were no former prisoners in their congregations (31 percent), 1-2 former prisoners (36 percent), or three or more ex-prisoners (33 percent). Those with less direct connection to men and women behind bars were less likely to have a dedicated ministry to prisoners and their families.
When asked what factors were the biggest hindrances to starting a prison ministry, the most cited reason was a lack of volunteer leaders (65 percent). Other reasons included a lack of specific training for prison ministry (62 percent), lack of finances (48 percent), not knowing where to start (40 percent), and having too many other outreach ministries already in place (29 percent). One in five does not see a need for such a ministry.
Karen Swanson, the director of the Institute for Prison Ministries at Wheaton College, suggests that those pastors who do not think prison ministry is something that affects their community or congregation might need to look more closely. “The mission field is in your backyard,” she says. “Almost every county has a jail. And almost all prisoners are going to return home.”
For 40 years, Prison Fellowship has been working alongside churches and individuals, taking the Good News of Jesus Christ to men and women behind bars and serving their families while they are incarcerated. Prison Fellowship provides resources to those interested in prison ministry, as well as opportunities to get involved in in-prison evangelism, mentoring and training, and family ministry. To learn more about how you or your church can get involved, visit www.prisonfellowship.org/action.