By Roger Drinnon
BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Broken … hurting … hopeless … looked down upon … locked away. Yet in the darkness of places, someone offers Christ’s forgiveness, and a prisoner is set free despite imprisonment.
It is for such moments that 32 prison-ministry representatives from districts across the LCMS took part in the 2016 Synod Prison Ministry Conference held at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows here April 29-30. With a theme of “Remember those who are in prison” (Heb. 13:3), the Synod’s Office of National Mission — Specialized Pastoral Ministry and the LCMS Southern Illinois District (SID) Prison Ministry Task Force co-hosted this year’s conference.
A privilege, not an option
“Prison ministry is not an option for those of us who are called by God’s grace to take seriously our Lord’s counsel: ‘I was in prison and you came to me,’ ” said the Rev. Joel Hempel, interim director of the Synod’s Specialized Pastoral Ministry (SPM).
Prison ministry is one part of SPM’s overall institutional ministry.
“These words from Matthew 25 are Jesus’ counsel for those who have ears to hear and a heart that has been convicted by the Gospel,” Hempel continued. “Jesus is appealing to us not with the demands of the Law, but rather by the persuasion of the Gospel. He is reminding us what it means to live the privileged, Christian life in service to Him.”
Hempel and others at the conference agreed that the Synod’s Law-and-Gospel preaching, along with its reliable reputation among corrections officials in Illinois and elsewhere, make the LCMS well-suited for ministering to the incarcerated.
“Trust and relationships with state corrections officials are key to maintaining access,” said Synod First Vice-President Rev. Dr. Herbert C. Mueller Jr. “[The officials] know us, they know what we bring, and we bring it consistently. Our [Lutheran] theology is uniquely suited to bring comfort to penitent sinners.”
“In the USA we have more than 2 million men and women in state and federal prisons with nine out of 10 of them returning to the community. The Gospel invitation to visit those in prison and the mercy work of the LCMS is our opportunity to assist them in preparing to return to your neighborhood with the love of Jesus as their focus of being positive, productive citizens of the left and right hand of the Kingdom of God,” said the Rev. E. James Rivett, SID senior Prison Ministry coordinator. “As the Lord equips our laity and professional church workers to go into jails and prisons, He promises to be with us, giving His Spirit to speak His Word offering the true freedom from the prisons of sin, death and the devil.”
Conference participants acknowledged that this ministry of mercy and healing is one about which many in Synod are under-informed. Due to the inherent restrictions imposed by correctional facilities intended for safety, security, privacy and other considerations, obtaining access to these facilities can be challenging at best, and restrictions can hinder publicizing photos and stories about the ministry and the prisoners whose lives are changed by it.
“Behind the barbed wire and watch towers languishes someone’s son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister who desperately long to hear that Jesus loves them and died so that they can be set free on the inside,” said the Rev. Jeff Bloom, Nebraska District Jail and Prison Ministry coordinator. “The time is now and the need is great — we simply need to open our eyes to harvest just beyond the prison fence.”
‘Freed in Christ’
Among the educational resources at the conference was “Freed in Christ,” an extensive program for helping prisoners prepare to re-enter society, created by Deaconess Sandra Bowers, LCMS Worship coordinator at the Synod’s International Center in St. Louis. Bowers previously served as a deaconess in prison ministry and was one of three prison-ministry coordinators for the SID. In that position, she conducted weekly Bible studies at federal and state prisons, during which time she implemented Freed in Christ.
“When trying to figure out what to write in a Bible study for ex-offenders, I realized that I really didn’t have to do anything different for them than I would do for anyone else,” said Bowers. “They, too, are sinners in need of a Savior. When it comes to the Law of God, they have blown it — so has everyone else. We are all guilty offenders. Transformed by Christ’s forgiveness and grace, we are all ‘Freed in Christ.’ As we live in Christ, we are freed to share His forgiveness and mercy with others. Transformation in Christ is really the aim of this study.”
Passion and enthusiasm
Plenary sessions at the conference included guest speakers Rev. Paul Weber, East Moline (Ill.) Correctional Center chaplain; Rev. Russell Helbig, supervisory chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Prisons Administrative United States Penitentiary, Thomson, Ill.; Chaplain Vince Stanley, County of St. Louis Jail chaplain; and Mueller. Throughout the conference, prison-ministry representatives from across the Synod expressed a commitment to ensuring compassionate spiritual care for society’s outcast.
“It is encouraging and uplifting to sit among other like-minded people, developing a game plan for reaching those who are incarcerated with the Gospel. The passion and enthusiasm for jail and prison ministry among the participants of the conference was infectious,” said Bloom. “Having so many districts represented at the conference reflected the passion our Synod has for reaching the lost behind bars with Christ crucified.”
“Because Jesus is there — including behind bars — we get to minister to Him by caring for those who have been broken by sin and are in need of the saving Gospel of Christ,” said Hempel. “We are privileged to be faithful people sent and empowered by the Spirit to reach out to the fringes of society with the Gospel as Christ bids us to do.”
For information and resources on prison ministry, visit lcms.org/spm.
Roger Drinnon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of Editorial Services and Media Relations for LCMS Communications.
Posted May 26, 2016