NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Most Protestant pastors go to jail, at least for a visit, and want to help prisoners and their families.
But their churches often lack the training or finances to run an effective prison ministry.
Those are among the findings of a new phone survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors from Nashville-based LifeWay Research.
Researchers found widespread support among pastors for the idea of prison ministry. Eighty-three percent of pastors have visited a correctional facility. And almost 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. A third have seen one or two people from their church go to jail. One in 6 (17 percent) says three or more attendees have been jailed in that time.
About a third of pastors (31 percent) say no former inmates attend their church. Another third (36 percent) have one or two former inmates in their congregation. A third (33 percent) have three or more former inmates in their church.
Overall, few pastors have contact with many inmates or former inmates as a normal part of their ministry, said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research. So prison ministry isn’t a priority.
“When half the pastors haven’t had someone from their church sent to jail, then 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.
Half of pastors say the racial disparity among inmates is unjust. Four in 10 (39 percent) disagree. One in 10 (11 percent) is not sure.
Just under half (46 percent) say the rapid growth of the inmate population is unjust. A similar number (44 percent) 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.
Faithful volunteers are key
Karen Swanson, director of the Institute for Prison Ministries at Wheaton College, said pastors often don’t know how to start ministering to inmates.
Other ministries, like distributing school supplies to kids or volunteering at a food pantry, are relatively easy to start.
Ministering to inmates and their families is more difficult, she said, requiring special training and often a long-term commitment from volunteers.
About two-thirds of pastors cite a lack of training (62 percent) or volunteers (65 percent) as barriers to their church helping inmates and their families. Forty percent say they do not know where to start. Three in 10 (29 percent) say their church has too many other ministries. One in 5 (21 percent) doesn’t see a need for such ministry.
Money is an issue as well. Half of pastors (48 percent) say a lack of finances is a barrier to ministry. A recent report from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability found donations to prison ministries declined 6 percent from 2011 to 2014.
When churches do have a prison ministry, it is often run on an informal basis.
Sixty-one percent of pastors say individual church members minister to families of inmates. Forty-five percent say church members minister in correctional facilities. Fifty-eight percent say church members help those leaving correctional facilities.
Swanson hopes more pastors will consider getting their churches involved in prison ministry. They may be surprised to find the ministry hits close to home.
“The mission 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 face an uphill challenge to grow their prison ministries.
“These are messy, long-term ministries,” he says. “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.”