Friday, April 04, 2008

Question of the Day

Pastors, have you ever provided pastoral care to a person facing trial and/or incarceration? How should such an ordeal be handled by a pastor?


Andrew C. Thompson said...

John, thanks for posing this question. My primary connection with those who are imprisoned is as follows.

I came to the conviction during my time as a divinity student that capital punishment is not commensurate with Christian discipleship. In some ways, that's not too radical. Our doctrinal stance in the UMC is anti-death penalty, after all, and there is that troublesome passage from John's gospel about Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery. Still, because I grew up in a very pro-death penalty part of the country and because I was once a supporter of it myself, the faith conviction I came to was significant.

I stood against state-sponsored capital punishment in Tennessee to the extent that it got me into quite a bit of trouble. But after that trouble was over, I realized that a long-term commitment to fighting against the death penalty would require a stronger personal connection with those who languish on death row.

So in the year 2000, through the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK), I began visiting with a man on death row at Riverbend Prison who has since become a friend of mine and brother in Christ. I have moved three times in those last 8 years, and it is not always easy for us to see one another. But we keep in touch by mail when we can't see one another, and I think about him and pray for him often.

In Wesley's sermon "On visiting the sick," John Wesley makes the point that the rich often have little sympathy for the poor because they spend so little time with them. My advice is to spend time with those in prison. They are amongst the poorest among us. And it will change your attitude toward those who are incarcerated. And after all, it is one of those things that Jesus specifically commands (Matthew 25).

David said...

My experiences have come through a few different avenues. During one appointment I served the county as a Juvenile Justice/Deliquency Prevention Councilman, and had the opportunity to work with boys and girls in "boot camp" settings as well as juvenile hall, and developing programs for the county to use in the schools to present Juvenile Justice Issues.
During my time there, I also had several students from the church ministry who wound up in Juvenile Hall. I had the opportunity to go and visit with the students in incarceration, as well as do some counseling with the parents in developing behavior patterns. As a result of those interactions I was invited to participate as a mentor with the California State Corrections through their Grizzly Academy.
In my latest appointment I have been to court with both Juvenile and Adult offenders and done some visitation as well, paired with ongoing letter writing to the inmates.
I have not done a whole lot with persons who were not connected to the local church, though I have gotten involved with persons who came to the church and continued in their participation because of run-ins with the law, and in need of visitation.
I have found it valuable to my ministry experience and a reminder of who the lost of our society are.

Earl said...

Over the years I have had a number of instances in which I have provided pastoral care to church members who had violated the law. Regrettably only in one instance could I persuade myself that the person was not guilty as charged. Thankfully in all but a few cases the violation was not serious enough to result in a long prison term.

There is no step by step methodology that one can use when ministering to someone who is swept up in the criminal justice system. At a minimum I have always gone immediately to wherever the person is being held and as soon as permitted sought to at least be physically present. In some cases I have been there when the parent(s) arrived. It is a difficult thing to see the heart breaking results of thoughtlessness and carelessness. When someone is having to face the consequences of such actions, they do not need to be alone. They need our genuine honesty. They need us to offer hope for recovery. They need us to listen to them and they need us to reserve judgment. They need us to stand by them because, at least in my experience, they are very frightened and in most cases overwhelmed by guilt.

I have not dealt with a person one might consider "hardened." In the case of church members, I have maintained contact with them throughout the process of trial and sentencing. When that has resulted in incarceration, I have continued to maintain contact and as much as possible encourage the person and their family. In some cases the difficulty of maintaining contact by visitation has been the distance required for travel since the location of imprisonment is seldom nearby.

It is extremely wise to get to know your local law enforcement personnel as well as those who administer the local courts. Sometimes it is up to the judgment of the investigating officer as to how a matter will be described and what charges will be made. If by prior relationship you are known and trusted, you can not surprisingly find you will have opportunities to help before a situation spins out of control.

Allow me to offer the following example. Four years ago at 2 AM Sunday morning a deputy sheriff summoned my at the request of some of my young people to the local law enforcement center. I arrived before the parents. When they arrived none were in any state to handle the situation in anything approaching a helpful manner. I knew the officer who was in charge. Most of the young people involved were attending my church. What they had done was wrong. They could have faced misdemeanor and felony charges. None of the young people would say anything to the officer. By the grace of God one young lady listened to appeals to tell what she knew instead of keeping silent so as not to get the whole group in trouble. She and the others involved were held accountable to the property owner, but only the two young men who sought to evade the police faced criminal charges. They obstinately denied any wrong doing and demonstrated absolutely no remorse. For them there was nothing that could be done.

One of the members of my prayer group spent 10 years in a state prison for a felony conviction. He was then released on parole. We have not occupied ourselves with the circumstances and nature of his crime. Given the length of his sentence and subsequent parole, it is not likely he was convicted for jay walking. What is of consequence is not what crime he committed or sentence he served. He is a Christian. We are trying to help him grow in Christ. By the grace of God he is making progress.

I hope the above comments are not out of place. Sincerely. Earl.

Gregory said...


I have ministered primarily to state prison inmates through the Kairos Ministry, but did have one occasion where the son of a church member was arrested for a felony. It took me almost a week just to get permission to visit him because our local sheriff's office does not have a good relationship with the clergy or local churches. And, to make things worse, they only allowed me to see him through plate glass and the phone didn't work. It's kind of hard to have a spiritual heart-to-heart talk with someone when you are having to yell at each other through the glass.

The most important thing I learned through this process, though, is that you have to make sure and minister to the family as well as the person in jail/prison. The family feels arrested, too. They feel judged by the church, and they sometimes quit associating with other members. They need to know that God is not judging them, that they are not responsible for their family member's choices, and that the church will be there to support them and care for them during this difficult trial.

In many cases, the family has to approach this as a form of grieving. It's a lot like losing a member of the family to death, except in this case, the member is incarcerated.

Thanks for starting this discussion. I am interested in hearing other's opinions/recommendations on this issue.

truevyne said...

Ya know I'm not a pastor, but this came up many times in my inner city work. It's really simple- be a friend. Ask how you can help and follow through.
One of my friends who served lots of time in isolation said that pictures sent from the outside world were a total blessing to him.

John said...

A couple of suggestions:

1. Presume innocence unless the person confesses to you.

2. Remember that others in your church may not do so, and shield the person from judgment.

3. As TrueVyne said, be a friend.

4. Do not diminish the magnitude of the stress and grief that the person is experiencing.