An inmate's perspective on excellence in ministry

Bigstock / Thawornnurak

Kenneth Carder explores what prisoners can teach us about excellence in ministry.

I have a friend who has spent the last 28 years in prison, more than 20 of those on death row. He is exceptionally insightful, sensitive, and compassionate. Other inmates look to him as a wise counselor, father figure, and unofficial “chaplain.” Prison officials consider him almost a member of the staff. He has helped several fellow inmates prepare for their GED exams, assisted them with legal issues, and taught many to express themselves through art and handcrafts.

During a recent visit, the conversation turned to my work with students and pastors. He observed that he found the phrase “excellence in ministry” curious and potentially problematic. He asked, “Does it have anything to do with folks who live in this place and places like it all over the country?” He added that he hadn't seen a pastor during the six years he has been in the prison he currently calls home. The only clergy he sees is an occasional glimpse of the prison chaplain, who is also a part-time deputy sheriff.

My friend grew up in the church, and over his years of incarceration he has seen many clergy visit the prison. Our conversations over the years have included my experiences as a pastor and bishop as well as theological issues confronting the church and the world. He reads widely and deeply in Biblical studies, theology, and ethics. He always inspires me, teaches me, and encourages me.

I asked him, “What are the most important marks of excellence in ministry from your perspective?” He mentioned three: integrity, consistency, and dependability. Interpretation of each followed.

Compatibility between the pastor’s proclamation of the gospel and his or her living of it is my friend’s primary meaning of integrity . He reminded me that inmates seem to have a special sensitivity to phoniness and hypocrisy. I recalled an experience I had with several persons housed in a county jail located in a community where I served as pastor. They were particularly gifted at sketching and painting. I asked them to illustrate for me their images of preachers and churches. The result was a collection of cartoon portrayals of pretense and hypocrisy.

The failure of most pastors to visit prisons and jails is seen by inmates as an integrity issue. They interpret the churches’ absence as rejection and hypocrisy, and they tend to hold pastors responsible for the church’s failure.

Consistency is related to integrity, according to my incarcerated friend. By it he means, the excellent pastor treats everyone with compassion, respect, and dignity, without regard to status, income, education, race, etc. The test of a pastor’s consistency, says my friend, is how he or she relates to “the little people,” and “people like those who live here.” Again, a popular image of clergy for many inmates is that they pay special attention to the wealthy, the powerful, the well educated, the insiders; and they join in the scorn and neglect of the imprisoned, the poor, the powerless, and the outsiders.

Fulfilling promises is the basic definition of dependability as understood by my friend. He talked about the many pastors and lay people who have visited the prison and promised to return but never did; or who otherwise made promises they could not keep. “Don't give false hope to a prisoner,” he said. “Most of us have lived with broken promises all our lives, and trust is hard for us.”

Integrity, consistency, and dependability are valued not only by incarcerated persons as marks of excellence in ministry. They have to do with character, and Christian character is formed by ongoing relationship with the One who lived the Good News he proclaimed; who consistently treated the outcastes, the sick, the marginalized, and a dying thief with compassion, respect, and dignity; and who was himself the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Prisons are, in many ways, a microcosm of the challenges confronting the contemporary American society. More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in jails and prisons in the United States and approximately 4,500 are being added each month. Behind those walls and bars exist on an intense scale the same threats to God’s vision for a redeemed and reconciled world that are confronted by every pastor and congregation—racism, poverty, violence, guilt, despair, isolation, loneliness, and alienation.

Maybe we can learn much about excellence in ministry from those who live and work behind prison walls. Some pastors’ ministry has been renewed, inspired, and transformed by visiting prisons. There, they have found another promise of Jesus fulfilled: “I was in prison and you visited me.” My first visit in 1982 with my friend on death row taught me that. On the chalk board in the visitation room was his drawing of Jesus with this inscription: “He lives on death row.”

Dependability, consistency, and dependability—one inmate’s marks of excellence in ministry!