By Bob Smietana
Robert and Pat Vinroot sometimes skip church on Sundays, but they almost never miss services at Transformation Church on Friday and Saturday. Especially since they get to go to jail.
For the last five years, the Vinroots have worshiped almost weekly with inmates at Kershaw Correctional Institution in South Carolina, about an hour outside Columbia.
About 300 inmates, known as the “Mighty Men of Kershaw,” attend the services, and many are now official members of the church. Inmates help lead worship for the services and facilitate small groups, which study the Scriptures and points from that week’s sermon.
Transformation Church has developed ministries at four other prisons in South Carolina.
And it all started with a simple step of faith by the Vinroots.
A retired missionary friend asked them to hand out gift bags at Kershaw prison at Christmastime, and on a whim, they decided to go along.
Robert, a retired airline pilot, and Pat, a former teacher and counselor, had never been inside a jail before. But they thought highly of their friend, says Robert, so they decided to go with her.
“I didn’t think we had a calling for [prison ministry],” he says. “But God works in mysterious ways.”
Obstacles to prison ministry
Christians have been no stranger to ministry in jails. Jesus said He had come to proclaim freedom to captives and promised blessing to those who visited people in prison. Paul and Silas sang hymns and prayed with their fellow prisoners and shared the gospel with their jailer in Philippi.
And most Protestant pastors visit jails and want to help prisoners and their families, according to a 2016 LifeWay Research survey. But their churches often lack the training or finances to run an effective prison ministry.
Eighty-three percent of Protestant senior pastors have visited a correctional facility, according to LifeWay Research. Almost all believe churches should help families of those incarcerated (97 percent) and provide care for those getting out of jail (95 percent).
The need is great. About 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the nation’s 1,800 prisons, 900 juvenile correctional facilities, and 3,200 local jails, according to PrisonPolicy.org.
Americans are jailed more than 11 million times a year, while 641,000 people are released from prisons.
Still, few churches have an organized jail ministry.
Two-thirds (65 percent) of pastors say their churches lack the volunteer leaders needed to lead a prison ministry. A similar number (62 percent) lack the training, while half (48 percent) lack the finances and more than a few (40 percent) don’t know where to start.
Three in 10 (29 percent) say their church has too many other ministries, while 21 percent say they don’t see a need for such ministry.
Karen Swanson, director of the Institute for Prison Ministries at Wheaton College, says she knows many churches are overwhelmed by the idea of starting a prison or jail ministry.
Other projects, such as 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, Swanson says, requiring special training and often a long-term commitment from volunteers.
Still, she hopes more churches will get involved in jail or prison ministry. They may be surprised to find the ministry hits close to home.
“The mission field is in your backyard,” Swanson says. “Almost every county has a jail. And almost all prisoners are going to return home.”
A little help from their friends
When they are in church—which is still most Sundays—the Vinroots often run into former inmates who were once part of Transformation Church’s prison ministry and now attend at the main campus near Charlotte, North Carolina. A captain of the guards at Kershaw also attends, and he, along with several former inmates, recently spoke at a training event for church volunteers.
Ironically, the Vinroots hadn’t ever heard of Transformation Church or its pastor, Derwin Gray, when they first started volunteering at the prison.
After that first visit with their missionary friend back in 2012, they’d started mentoring inmates through a Prison to Society program on Tuesdays. Pat would often bring books to share with the men at the prison.
One week she came across Gray’s book Hero at a local secondhand store. It looked interesting, so Pat got a copy.
While reading it, the Vinroots found Gray’s background is similar to those of many of the inmates.
He’d come from a broken home and his dad was mostly absent. Some of his childhood friends had ended up in jail.
A football scholarship and the love of his grandmother had kept him on the right path in life.
Pat wondered if Gray might be willing to speak to the inmates. A friend of a friend put them in touch with the pastor’s wife.
“It took us about a month to get it all arranged. He came down and it was a huge success,” says Robert Vinroot.
Not long afterward, the inmates asked if the volunteers could show videos of Gray’s sermons. That request eventually led to regular services—and later group Bible studies—at Kershaw prison, which now is considered one of Transformation’s campuses.
These days, Gray begins sermons with a shout out to the inmates, including the “Mighty Men” of Kershaw and Lee prisons and the “Beautiful Women” of Camille Griffin Graham women’s prison in Columbia.
“We believe in you,” Gray said during a recent sermon.
The church hadn’t been looking to get involved in prison ministry when the Vinroots first contacted him, Gray says. But he had been praying that God would expand the church’s ministry. Talking with Pat convinced him to go and speak at the prison.
“She called and began to share her heart,” he says. “For me, it resonated.”
Gray goes back to the prison a few times a year, mainly when there is a baptism service. About 300 inmates have been baptized since 2012.
The church now has services at five prisons. At two, dozens of inmates have gone through leadership development classes—the same program that church members outside the prison go through. The church’s approach is to treat everyone—prisoners and guards alike—as men and women made in God’s image.
But the volunteers don’t go only to serve, says Gray.
“When we go into the prison, we go in as learners,” he says. “We don’t go in as rescuers.”
Most of the ministry is done by a combination of volunteers from the church and leaders among the inmates. Vinroot says having a consistent presence at the prison has been a huge help.
The church used to hold services on Friday nights, but a shortage of guards forced a schedule change. Now there are services on Friday and Saturday, each drawing about 150 inmates at Kershaw.
Being there on a regular basis has allowed the church to build long-term relationships with inmates and the staff of the prison.
“If you show up one or two times a year and the men appreciate you, that is nice,” says Vinroot. “But what is really important to them is consistency.”
Opportunities for ministry
Holding worship services isn’t the only way churches can do prison ministry, says Yolanda Walker, a chaplain with the Tennessee Prison for Women.
Walker’s biggest need is for volunteers with Take One, a mentorship program for prisoners. She says many inmates need help with practical skills—how to write a resume, use a computer, get a GED, or find a job.
“If they don’t have a high school diploma or a GED,” she says, “it’s going to be hard for them to make it when they get out.”
Volunteers don’t just help with practical skills. Sometimes a mentor can provide a listening ear to a prisoner or offer spiritual guidance when things get tough.
“There’s some sense of community and family,” she says. “When an inmate is not having a good day, they have someone they can call.”
One of the best ways for a church to get involved with jail or prison ministry is to call the chaplain or volunteer coordinator and ask, “What can I do to help?” Or the church can call an organization like Prison Fellowship or God Behind Bars to find out how to get involved.
And there’s no need to go behind bars to do jail ministry. When Christian business owners hire former inmates, they’re doing prison ministry, says Walker. Signing up with Amachi, a national program that matches volunteer mentors with children whose parents are incarcerated, is doing prison ministry.
Even buying Christmas gifts can be prison ministry. Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program, which provides gifts for the children of inmates, is always in need of sponsors.
“Some people may say, ‘I don’t want to be bothered with those inmates, but I will help their kids,’” she says. “The inmates don’t have the finances to buy gifts—but they want their child to get something for Christmas.”
Welcoming inmates at church
If a church does get involved in prison ministry, there’s no telling where it could lead.
Eight years ago, Anita Sullivan-Akers was an inmate at the Davidson County jail in Nashville, Tennessee. A former successful caterer and single mom, she’d lost her career and her kids to a drug addiction and ended up in jail.
“I started using crack when I was about 30,” she says. “It was all craziness after that.”
During a church service at the jail, she met one of the volunteers, a “churchy” mom and nonprofit leader who helped out during a worship service at the jail.
The two hit it off and became friends.
At the time, Sullivan-Akers felt hopeless in the face of her addiction. She needed someone who could show her the way out—and someone who thought she was worth saving. A church volunteer made all the difference in the world, she says.
Today, Sullivan-Akers has her life back. She’s reunited with her kids and has a flourishing career—including running a catering program for a Nashville-based nonprofit that employs former inmates.
Most weeks, she’s back at jail—this time as a church volunteer.
According to Sullivan-Akers, “People there need a shot of hope.”
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.