The phone call was unexpected, asking if I could report to a location we don’t usually serve. A husband was lost to suicide.
The wife, to whom I was sent, was deeply distressed by the news. In fact, she began to cry out, “No, no, it’s not true!” and she attacked the officer who informed her.
The idea of bringing someone with a criminal record into congregational life can cause pushback. That’s understandable: we want to be safe, and we don’t want to trust anybody who’s untrustworthy. Saul/Paul had it happen to him: “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). It took a special friend, Barnabas, to take an interest in him and help him and the Jerusalem disciples to get to know and trust each other. Be patient, be understanding, and be a friend to both the ex-offender and the congregation!
we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” – Luke 15:31-32
I went through the Bible and made a list of all the prophets, patriarchs, apostles, and evangelists who did prison time. I count at least a dozen, including Joseph, Jeremiah, Peter, and Paul. God frequently works the experience of incarceration into the training and development of people he has big plans for. Are some of God’s people with this special training experience going to find a place in your congregation? Does your congregation need the special gifts they bring along with them?
Insight into this Ministry
When I was facing felony charges as a teenager, my family and my congregation had to make some decisions about me. I’d betrayed their trust and brought some real ugliness into their midst – what now?
I’m forever grateful that their decision was to keep on loving me as one of their own. They gave me some consequences, but they never let me doubt that I was loved and welcome. My pastor even came to speak at my sentencing, and later invited me to teach Sunday School. I experienced what everybody with a criminal record needs from God’s people: the “kindness of God that leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4).
We congregation members need our sisters and brothers with criminal records, as much as they need us.
We’re looking for congregations who have had some success in welcoming ex-offenders into congregational life. Churches that haven’t yet had this happen could benefit from the experience – we hope to provide them with some answers to questions like: How do we prepare ourselves? How do we make first contact? How do we acclimate these new people? We would also like to set up a kind of mentoring relationship between churches that have experienced success and churches that would like to see that happen. What about your church?