By Joe Isenhower Jr.
ST. LOUIS – Participants in the second LCMS prison- and jail-ministry conference here Sept. 29-30 say they are grateful for the opportunities it provided them for networking, gathering information and inspiration.
From 25 LCMS districts, the 111 registrants’ experience in prison ministry ranged from those with an interest in starting such ministries to others who represent congregations and districts with experienced prison ministries.
This year’s LCMS Prison and Jail Ministry Training and Equipping Conference — like the first national conference in 2005 — was made possible by a generous grant (of $27,500 for 2012) from the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League and was co-hosted by the Synod and the LCMS Southern Illinois District (SID). In that district, 14 professional church workers and 14 lay volunteers are at work in 21 active prison ministries.
The 2010 LCMS convention called for the conference in Resolution 6-05, titled “To Encourage Continued Emphasis on Prison and Jail Ministry.” That action – adopted by a vote of 1,075-7 – also resolved that the Synod provide more resources for prison ministry and that it suggest ways for seeking more grants to encourage and support such ministries. It thanked the LWML for supporting prison ministry and called on districts to have prison-ministry coordinators for “networking, supporting and encouraging prison ministry.”
The Rev. Jeff Bloom, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Lincoln, Neb., was a delegate to that Synod convention who also attended the conference this year.
He told Reporter via phone that not long after the convention, he began sending email messages to Nebraska District President Rev. Dr. Russell Sommerfeld, reminding him of the resolution’s encouragement to name district coordinators, suggesting “I thought this or that person would be good at it.”
Sommerfeld eventually asked Bloom to fill the post for Nebraska.
“I willingly took it on,” Bloom said.
‘Need to be involved’
Bloom, who is a circuit counselor, added, “What got me going is that there are four correctional facilities in our circuit. It’s a ministry we need to be involved in.”
As the Nebraska District’s Prison and Jail Ministry coordinator and at Sommerfeld’s request, Bloom came to the conference, where he said he found networking to be the most valuable resource offered.
“The speakers were great and people’s willingness to share their experiences and resources were fantastic — all making it a great conference. I think it’s going to save a lot of time, energy and effort on the part of those who came.”
Bloom said he would like the district to establish its own network of prison-visitation volunteers.
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey B. Stephens, director of Ministry Resources for the LCMS Ohio District, wrote by email that the district has “identified 10 people representing eight congregations in Ohio and West Virginia who are already involved in some aspect of prison ministry.” He said he has invited them to gather Nov. 3 at the district’s Mission Support Center in Olmstead Falls, Ohio, “to be encouraged, share their stories and best practices and, hopefully, a district prison-ministry task force will be the result of that gathering.”
Stephens was not at the prison-ministry conference, but three of those he invited to the Nov. 3 gathering were – the Rev. Dave Timm, from Royal Redeemer Lutheran Church, North Royalton, Ohio; the Rev. Kevin Jud, who is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hamilton, Ohio; and Dail Duncan, a member of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Solon, Ohio.
At a conference sectional that he led, Jud shared information about his congregation’s prison ministry. It includes weekly Bible study (since 2003) with residents of a local juvenile detention center; regular mailings from the church to some dozen inmates; as well as sending Christmas cards to inmates and providing soft-cover Bibles and other books to them, on request.
Duncan, who is finishing work on a certificate in correctional ministry from Wheaton College, told Reporter that she is “interested in being available to congregations in the district to support family members impacted by incarceration with one-to-one listening.”
She said she also might provide “links to other resources” such as congregation members providing “confidential financial advice” and “other resources to families impacted by incarceration.”
Duncan said that for her, networking with others in prison ministry was the highlight of the conference.
She added that her “most valuable” experiences there were “meeting individuals from the Southern Illinois District in person” and learning more about that district’s prison ministry, as well as “networking with Rev. Timm and others in prison ministry.”
The Rev. Mike Bonner, a member of St. James Lutheran Church, Imperial Beach, Calif., is the full-time Yard “D” pastor at California Donovan Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in San Diego — a volunteer position. He leads worship services and Bible study there, makes cell visits and is involved in other pastoral and general duties assigned by the state Protestant chaplain.
Bonner said the conference provided him with ideas to discuss with Pacific Southwest District President Rev. Dr. Larry Stoterau, including a possible “learning and equippingconference for those working with prisoners” in the district. He said he also would like to contact congregation and district LWML leaders to seek the LWML’s support for such a conference in the district.
‘Something for everybody’
The Rev. John Fale, the Synod’s associate executive director, Mercy Operations, and a member of the conference planning committee, informed Reporter by email that its “attendance exceeded expectations” and that it “had something for everybody.”
He noted that participants ranged “from first-time attendees who were there to learn how to set up a prison/jail ministry, to those who are very experienced and are looking to add to their skill sets as they learn from others.”
Fale mentioned “one [conference participant] from the Kansas District who contacted the district’s staff chaplain immediately after the conference and secured a display area for the upcoming district pastors conference, to see who might be interested in establishing prison/jail ministry throughout the district.
“This is exactly what it takes for these kinds of grass-roots efforts to take hold: someone who is willing to take a leadership role in their respective district,” he wrote.
The Rev. David Kollmeyer, the SID’s coordinator of prison ministry and a member of the planning committee for the conference, told Reporter that several participants talked with him “about how they were just getting started in this ministry and how the conference was just what they needed for training and insights. Many others were experienced workers who came away refreshed to see so many others involved in the same work.” He added that two attendees “asked me why it took seven years to have our second conference, hoping we could do it again in a shorter time frame.”
Deaconess Sandra Bowers of Hamel, Ill., who also works with prison ministry for the SID and was on the planning committee, said that 2012 conference participants consistently gave conference components ratings of between 4 and 5 (the highest) in written evaluations they filled out as the conference ended.
Conference speakers here (including worship and devotional leaders) often mentioned the scriptural bases for prison ministry. They made numerous references to Christ’s words in Matt. 25 about “visiting” Him in prison when visits are made to those imprisoned, and several speakers quoted Psalm 126:7 (“The Lord sets the prisoners free … .” ).
Conference plenary presenters were:
- Fale, who greeted participants and led a devotion;
- the Rev. Dr. Ken Klaus, speaker emeritus of “The Lutheran Hour” radio program, keynoter;
- the Rev. Dr. James Keurulainen, president emeritus of the LCMS New England District, who shared his own experiences and insights about prison ministry;
- the Rev. Eric Schillo, a retired pastor from West Des Plaines, Iowa, with a master’s degree in both counseling and corrections, who discussed the criminal personality;
- the Rev. E. James Rivett of Marion, Ill., former SID coordinator of Prison Ministry and a member of the conference committee, who also led devotions;
- Brian Becker, vice-president for Ministry Programs with Wheat Ridge Ministries, Itasca, Ill., whose topic was “Sustaining Ministry and Securing Funding”;
- SID prison-ministry leaders, who formed a panel to explain the district’s prison ministry and how other districts might organize and conduct prison ministires; and
- SID President Rev. Timothy Scharr, speaker for Sunday’s worship.
LCMS First Vice-President Rev. Dr. Herbert C. Mueller brought greetings on behalf of the Synod and thanked the SID for its leadership in prison ministry. He was that district’s president when elected to his current office in 2010.
In addition, representatives of several organizations involved in prison ministry told the assembly about resources they offer.
On Saturday, a plaque was presented to the Rev. Dr. Maurice Alms of Pinehurst, Texas, inscribed with words of recognition for “your faithful and loving service to prison and jail ministry” and thanking God “for His guidance and direction as you spearheaded the first LCMS prison- and jail- ministry conference in 2005.”
Alms was the SID’s first prison-ministry coordinator.
Thanks to LWML
“We gather together to thank God for this opportunity,” Fale told the assembly as he opened the conference with devotions. “To thank Him for the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League … comprised of mighty women of God who love Christ, who love His Church and have deep, deep compassion for those who do not yet know that Jesus Christ is the only Savior that God has given to us.”
He also expressed thanks “for the leadership of the Southern Illinois District who have coordinated this conference” and “to all of you … who came to teach, … learn, … encourage one another, to support one another, to collaborate and to minister.”
Fale reminded attendees that those in prisons and jails are “no more in bondage to sin than each of us.”
“And so, we don’t stand in judgment, ever, of anyone,” he said. “But rather, we confess that we have to stand in solidarity with all, because all have sinned, including ourselves, and fall short of the glory of God. Absolutely every last one of us is in need of the very same forgiveness that people who are in prison need to hear.”
Fale noted that recent statistics indicate that “on any given day,” about 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States.
Later, he presented Lori May of St. Louis, contracts administrator for the LWML, with copies of two new LWML-funded devotion booklets for prisoners. The two volumes — one with devotions for women (by Janis Fricke) and the other for use during Lent and the Easter season (by the Rev. E. James Rivett) — are the first in a planned “Journeys with Jesus” series of devotions from the Synod for those who are imprisoned.
Congregations may order up to 10 copies of each devotion booklet and individuals may order single copies — free, except for the cost of postage and handling — by going to the LCMS store at store.lcms.org and typing “prison” in the search bar.
In his keynote address, Klaus reminded conference participants that, given His words in Matt. 25, “Jesus is in jail [and] He wants us to be there with Him.”
Klaus also spoke of those in the Bible who were imprisoned unfairly and who most Lutherans might have liked to visit in jail. They included Joseph, Samson, Jeremiah, Daniel, the three men in the fiery furnace in the Old Testament; John the Baptist, Peter, John and Paul in the New Testament.
Klaus said that these were the kinds of prisoners that most Lutherans might feel comfortable visiting in jail.
“But I don’t think Jesus told us just to visit the good prisoners or the unfairly confined prisoners, or the Christian prisoners,” he added.
‘Joining Jesus in jail’
“So, you see,” Klaus said, “that joining Jesus in jail is not an easy thing to do. It ought to be.”
Klaus addressed the conference theme, “The Lord Sets the Prisoners Free,” from Psalm 146:7.
“In Jesus,” he said, that “is not just freedom from bars and routine. It’s freedom to leave the past behind and receive forgiveness and salvation and the peace of God which we say passes all human understanding.”
“This is what God does,” he said. “And He has honored us when He has asked us to be His representatives in the lives of those who are in need of His touch, who need to hear that wonderful message.”
Klaus also encouraged those who conduct prison ministry “to offer … the complete Jesus” of the Scriptures, not the Jesus as shaped by “history and Hollywood.”
“If you do, it’ll change much. It’ll change you and your presentation. Jesus can move souls in jail out to freedom in heaven. Remember, this is not your cause; it’s the Holy Spirit’s.”
Keurulainen told conference attendees that he has served as Protestant chaplain since 1977 at the Norfolk County House of Correction in Massachusetts – a position that came along with his call that year to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Dedham.
“I was absolutely scared to death,” he said of his initial thoughts of going into that prison. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
But he said that “after a few weeks it was very obvious to me that God did not just call me to S