Stories from Prison Ministry
Prison Ministry is . . .
Prison ministry has many facets. We share Jesus with those impacted by incarceration, but that impact can come in many different forms. Some of the ministry is performed directly by WELS Prison Ministry volunteers. Other aspects of the ministry are performed by both called workers and laypeople all around the country with training and support from WELS Prison Ministry as needed. The ministry serves inmates in many types of facilities. The two main types are:
- Jails. Much of our efforts are directed at local or county jails or similar facilities. Inmates in these facilities typically are awaiting trial, sentencing, transfer to a state facility after sentencing, or serving a relatively short sentence. The average stay in a county jail is about 1 month. The total jail population in the United States varies but is about 750,000. Jails release about 9 million inmates per year.
- Prisons. While we use the title Prison Ministry, only a portion of our work is directed to inmates in that type of facility. Inmates in state or federal correctional facilities, as most are now named, have an average stay of two years, though some serve much longer. The total US prison population is about 1.5 million with about 700,000 inmates released per year. The average stay is a little over two years.
We seek to share Jesus not just with inmates, but with their friends and family. We do this using three main avenues.
- Ministry by mail. Our publication ministry has been the heart and soul of our work for the first quarter century. Through a central office in New Ulm, Minn., a small staff and hundreds of volunteers (both in New Ulm and around the country) conduct a ministry-by-mail program. We estimate over 100,000 inmates have been reached with over 1,000,000 copies of God’s Word either as Bibles, Bible studies, or other publications. Volunteers prepare all the mail, correct Bible study tests returned by inmates, and serve as pen pals.
- Visitation. WELS Prison Ministry offers training to individuals and congregations that want to learn to bring the gospel to inmates personally, usually via facilitating Bible studies in a jail or correctional facility. We also seek to help identify potential facilities to minister to and assist with gaining access to the facilities. Finally, we foster a network of congregations, laypeople, and called workers who can support and encourage each other with new ideas, prayer, and sharing experiences.
- Mentoring. Recognizing that the release of an inmate is an extremely critical time spiritually, emotionally, and physically, WELS Prison Ministry also provides training in helping called workers and laypeople become mentors for returning citizens. We also provide a network for mutual support and encouragement of the mentors.
Because society often wants to keep people serving time out-of-sight and out-of-mind, there can be a temptation to think of ministry to people impacted by incarceration as a small effort of Jesus’ church that is off to the side. But Jesus would have us think differently.
- Jesus himself tells us that visiting those in prison is evidence that we are his redeemed followers. The story he tells about Judgment Day in Matthew 25 makes it clear that showing love to the “least of these”, including visiting prisoners, reflects the love that Jesus first showed us by dying to release us from the guilt of our own failures to keep God’s law.
- Jesus invites us to serve as he served us, with sacrificial love for people who can’t pay him back. In Luke 6:32-36 Jesus reminds us that our efforts to serve while expecting nothing in return is what separates service in His name from the “good” that even non-Christians do.
- Compassion ministry can open ears to the gospel. The old saying goes: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Both inmates and those who observe our efforts to help inmates are moved to investigate our motives and the reasons for the hope that we have. Individuals and congregations that focus on meeting the needs of others rather than on meeting their own often are given many more opportunities to share their gospel motivation.
- The mission field is ripe. C.S. Lewis once characterized pain as “God’s megaphone.” God uses it to get our attention. Compared to the rest of society, a much higher percentage of people behind bars are willing to admit they need help and listen. We get to show them that though they have earthly problems and trouble, they are already free of their biggest problem, guilt before God. Having been declared “not guilty” in His eternal court gives current and former inmates strength to carry on each day in the face of their earthly challenges.
God has been gracious to us and significantly blessed our efforts. We pray he continues to bless these efforts going forward.
- Bible study booklets bring pure living water to thousands of thirsty souls. The comments we receive back from inmates show that God’s Word is powerful. Consider just these two out of the hundreds of grateful comments we get every year.I am going to use this booklet, along with the Bible, to bring the Gospel to those who do not know the saving power of Christ Jesus. I thought this was an excellent study, and it proves how all of us need a Savior. God’s Word shows us how time and again God’s people need a Savior and how we still need a Savior today. Thanks be to your ministry and to God Our Father for putting together this treasure trove of truth about God’ plan for the world! – BrianThe WELS studies are absolutely amazing. Full of valuable practical information to help me grow in Christ. Thank-you so much! – Mattie
Refer an inmate to receive an initial Bible study booklet and invitation to be blessed by the encouragement of God’s Word.
- Inmate visitors see the Holy Spirit working real time. Those who personally take the gospel to inmates tell time and again how they see the Spirit working on the hearts of those who hear the Word. Inmates that come into the visit with skepticism, hostility, or hopelessness leave with trust, peace, and hope.
- Mentoring released inmates and their families changes lives. As one mentor has stated: “Inmates are often brought closer to their Savior behind bars and are enthusiastic to continue their journey upon release. With the spiritual guidance we offer and the love of Jesus we show them, they can become valuable assets to our congregations and to their communities. Working one-on-one, my experience has been the stigma of being an “ex-con” goes away and a close Christian friendship takes its place. It can be a very rewarding experience.”
- Our efforts reach thousands per year with the gospel at a relatively low cost. Our ministry is heavily volunteer staffed and driven. Our booklets are printed at a very reasonable cost. Congregations and called workers around the synod carry out the ministry in their local communities. As a result, we can interact either directly or indirectly with thousands of receptive blood-bought souls each year, sharing Jesus with many who didn’t know him previously. All this we do for the annual cost of about one or two new mission congregations.
- Seventy percent of our budget is individual donations. Though we gratefully carry out our ministry as a segment of WELS Congregational Services, we typically receive less than 10 percent of our funding from our church body’s budget. Grants make up another 20 to 25 percent. But if we are to carry out all the activities in our plans, we need a significant number of donations from individuals, congregations, schools, and other organizations. You can help support Prison Ministry by donating online.
One of the surprising aspects of participating in prison ministry is the tremendous amount of joy this activity generates. While incarceration is anything but joyful in most cases, God uses every situation to bring some good to his children. Here are just a few sources of that joy:
- There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents… The joy begins in heaven among the angels. Every time the Holy Spirit uses the Word we have brought to an inmate to produce repentance and create trust in Jesus’ forgiveness, there is a party in heaven, and we get a tiny foretaste of that joy.
- Volunteers know they are making an eternal difference. God doesn’t have to show us the good he is doing, be he often does. Those who serve inmates and their families find great joy in sharing God’s underserved love, especially with people who have not known it before. The sincere thanks that volunteers receive in pen pal letters, in test comments, and during in-person visits are reminders of the great privilege serving Jesus is. Time after time volunteers comment that fulfilling their prison ministry tasks are some of their most satisfying hours of the week.
- Donors give and receive thanks. Many people recognize the connection between gratefulness and a joyful life. People who gratefully give to help others are reminded of the undeserved love God has for them. The apostle Paul says it well:
Your gifts meet the needs of the Lord’s people. And that’s not all. Your gifts also cause many people to thank God. You have shown yourselves to be worthy by what you have given. So other people will praise God because you obey him. That proves that you really believe the good news about Christ. They will also praise God because you share freely with them and with everyone else. Their hearts will be filled with love for you when they pray for you. God has given you grace that is better than anything. Let us give thanks to God for his gift. It is so great that no one can tell how wonderful it really is! (2 Corinthians 9:12-15, NIRV)
Congregations that welcome repentant sinners experience joy. Jesus regularly associated with sinners and tells us to do the same. His encouragement is that those who are forgiven much, love much. While appropriate precautions are needed, repentant inmates should expect to find merciful support when they are released among fellow redeemed sinners in God’s family. Then they too can show their love for their Savior by living for him.
History of Prison Ministry
Ministry to those in prison has always been part of church work (Hebrews 13:3). Our prison ministry became organized during the twentieth century when churches began to find ways to share the ‘love of Jesus’ with those confined to institutions. In Wisconsin, this cooperative effort grew into Wisconsin Lutheran Institutional Ministries (WLIM).
What started as a ministry to church members who were in prison quickly came to include outreach with the gospel to other prisoners as well. In 1993 our efforts to minister to prisoners took a great step forward when the Organization of WELS Lutheran Seniors (OWLS) assisted WELS Special Ministries in launching a nationwide ministry in providing religious material to prison chaplains and inmates. This effort was carried out by hundreds of volunteers. Bible correspondence courses and Bibles were distributed, and a pen pal program was started. Due to rapid expansion of the program, the WELS voted at its 1999 convention to call a full-time administrator. WELS Prison Ministry has produced and distributed materials to over 1,300 facilities throughout the United States.
WELS Prison Ministry now also prepares mentors for released offenders and trains church teams to conduct ministries for inmates of local jails. We continue to share Jesus with these troubled people through our Bible study correspondence courses, our pen pal program, face-to-face ministry, and mentoring. Today the WELS Prison Ministry and WLIM work together in providing material, training, and support in reaching souls serving time in prisons and jails throughout the United States.