Redeeming the Time: Prisoners Earn Pastoral Ministry Degree

Prisoners

On Monday, August 21, 2017, Nash Correctional Institution in North Carolina held a convocation service for about 30 prisoners who have committed to pursuing a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry with an emphasis in counseling and psychology. After graduating from the program, these students will use their training to counsel and minister to other inmates.

“It’s a way for them to make their lives count for something,” says Seth Bible, staff member at nearby Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and leader of the North Carolina Field Ministry Program.

The program, which has been featured in the local news, is made possible through a partnership between the seminary, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS), and Game Plan for Life. Game Plan for Life is a non-profit organization founded by Joe Gibbs, the former head coach of the Washington Redskins and owner of a NASCAR racing based in Mooresville, North Carolina.

Gibbs is footing the financial bill for getting the program started. Eventually, those involved hope to establish an endowment to keep the program running into the future. For now, the plans are to admit 30 students a year for the first four years. Upon graduating from the program, students will be dubbed “NCDPS Field Ministers” and will be appointed to ministry positions within prisons throughout North Carolina.

Requirements for Admission

Inmates who are selected for the program must have a significant sentence still ahead of them (15 years or more until release).

A statement announcing the new program explains that while it is “grounded in a Christian worldview,” “admission will be open to people of all faiths.” The class of 2021 includes Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Rastafarians, and others, Bible tells The News & Observer.

Other requirements state prisoners must meet include: Have a high school diploma or GED; be in the regular prison population, not be sexual offenders or sexual victims; be at least 21 years old; and not have had a prison infraction in the 12 months prior to their application date.

Bible says he did not ask applicants what got them in prison. Instead, Bible wanted admission “to be based on their conduct and their character since they were incarcerated rather than what they did to get there.”

Logistics

Nash Correctional Institution’s location makes it a great fit to host the program due to its close proximity to the Wake Forest campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Instructors will travel to the prison four days a week to teach classes on history, English literature, composition, communication, Biblical Hebrew and Greek, algebra, Christian theology, psychology, ethics, and counseling and ministry. The program mirrors another program for students offered at the Wake Forest campus. In total, students are required to complete 126 course hours.

According to the seminary’s website, the program is designed to equip graduates in the following ways:

Students will cultivate a heart of service towards fellow inmates.
Students will be able to plan and design various worship services.
Students will learn how to read and apply the Bible.
Students will formulate a philosophy of pastoral ministry.

The program is unique to other prison ministry programs, which work from the outside in. As Bible explains, “essentially you’re making a difference from the inside out.”

Bible sees the potential in the inmates selected for this first year of the program. “These guys want to make their time in prison count for something that is bigger than themselves. Something that will last beyond their time in prison,” he concludes.

The program seems to echo other thoughts on the need for prison reform that evangelicals and others have been calling for.

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Megan Briggs
Megan Briggs is a writer and editor for ChurchLeaders.com. Her experience in ministry, an extensive amount of which was garnered overseas, gives her a unique perspective on the global church. She has the longsuffering and altruistic nature of foreign friends and missionaries to humbly thank for this experience. Megan is passionate about seeking and proclaiming the truth. When she’s not writing, Megan likes to explore God’s magnificent creation.