Guidelines on helping ex-offenders
When Wesley commenced his ministry in Bristol, he was rejected by many of the Christians and Churches in that city. He turned to preach his uncompromising gospel, the Word of God, in Bristol Prison and it was from prisons and prisoners that Methodism as we know it today shaped its social concern.
In recent years, several men and women have come to know the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ whilst serving prison sentences and have gone on to be ordained or become leading figures within the body of Christ in this country.
Today, many more men and women, whilst serving prison sentences, are receiving new life in Jesus Christ and are seeking to serve the Lord during their sentences and upon discharge. Sadly, some of these people are falling by the wayside after release and are returning to crime and sin. The reasons for this are many and varied but Christians beyond the prison walls must accept some of the responsibility for this.
Many members of the body of Christ are asking what mistakes are being made and a growing number of Churches are asking how they can be more effective, when an ex-offender arrives inside their church.
Such questions indicate that members of the body of Christ want to learn to be effective for Christ in helping such people come to Christian maturity.
There are aspects of these guidelines that may appear to be harsh and uncompromising, but these are born out of the experience of those in the front line of assisting ex-offenders. Such men and women have suffered the deep anguish following mistakes at the expense of many of those they have been trying to assist. Their desire to share some of these costly mistakes is in the hope that your caring may be more effective.
Please accept and read these guidelines as born out of the scars of people who have gone before and remember that the Word of God is a living gospel which is as relevant today as it ever was. This document will leave some questions unanswered. It is through the Word and the prompting of the Holy Spirit that brothers and sisters in Christ released from prison will be led to maturity in Jesus.
Paul says in Corinthians
Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yetready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. ( 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, (NIV)).
Take these words into your heart, and leading lovingly and firmly by the hand, bring our brothers and sisters into the Kingdom!
The enormous help of so many Christians on compiling this guideline is greatly valued.
We are now in a position in this country where many prisoners are accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour inside our prisons. This gives us good reason to Praise the Lord, but we need to think on to the next stage, that is, what happens after prisoners come to know the Lord and how can we assist them in their new life? Can we help them come to spiritual maturity and what special areas of discernment and understanding should we have?
There are two different categories of inmate; those who are serving a long sentence and might not be released in the foreseeable future; then there are those who are approaching discharge and will suddenly be on our door steps, in our church fellowships and other Christian organisations involved in the welfare and after-care of ex-offenders.
We recognise that the main support necessary for those serving long sentences is an ongoing contact with Christians, either through visits, Bible study groups, or letter writing. Individual Christians or other Christian organisations can do this. These guidelines concentrate on those inmates approaching discharge.
First we need to remember that we have to apply spiritual principals to all walks of life. We must remember the basic principal that God can meet all the needs of the people with whom we are dealing. We are the instruments of God and need to hear what God is saying, both through scripture and through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. (He guides us in giving positive help to those who come across our path.
John says in his gospel,
I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. (1 John 2:26 (NIV)).
Any help that we give must be based firmly on scripture.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.( 2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV))
Paul’s letter to the Romans reads that we can be fully equipped and that all answers are in the bible for any given situation.
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4 (NIV)).
We can learn from the situations that have occurred in the bible.
Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.’ We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did – and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did – and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the age has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.(1 Corinthians 10:6-13 (NIV)).
James tells that we all make mistakes
We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. (James 3:2 (NIV)).
Paul implores us to learn what pleases the Lord.
And find out what pleases the Lord. ( Ephesians 5:10 (NIV)).
It is so important that we learn from one another’s mistakes.
These guidelines are designed to convey some of this learning so that you may avoid certain pitfalls. However, in making mistakes with ex-offenders, we are involved with lives that are already damaged. It is our task to be discerning and mature in assisting healing and growth and not to add to any past damage through ignorance. Ours is to learn at our expense, not at the expense of those less able. Let us also remember that we cannot assist anyone to do anything that they do not want to do or be anyone that they do not want to be.
3. Exposures and Temptation.
There are many ways that ‘premature exposure’ can be damaging, first to the ex-offender and secondly to the local body of Christ.
One mistake that is often made is to expose the ex-offender or allow them to be exposed to too much publicity too quickly. It is not unknown for an ex-offender to be giving their testimony in half a dozen churches, appearing on local radio, and perhaps even becoming a youth leader or counsellor in a church within weeks or months after discharge.
Sometimes this happens through the prisoner wanting to have platforms on which to speak, and we should always encourage anyone, if they do get such a person, to tell the ex-offender to go back to their own people and witness to them. Many ex-offenders have suffered the pain of estrangement, loneliness, and rejection throughout their lives. The act of giving public testimonytoo soon can put ex-offenders in situations, which they are often ill-equipped to cope with and the results can be personally damaging. The person giving their testimony suddenly finds himself or herself accepted, embraced, held up and even revered.
These attitudes can be quite alien to them. Their inability to cope with such expressions of praise can be as unhelpful as the former rejection. Alternatively, they may find such acclaim so uplifting that through their immaturity they are led to pursuing an ongoing ego trip, which is unreal, and ultimately destroying.
Sometimes it is the fault of the place or church to which the ex-offender has returned. There is always the danger of holding ex-offenders up as trophies of grace, either to justify a ministry to prisoners or to try to prove that Jesus is alive. If a person is pushing himself or herself forward, they need to be protected from themselves.
4. Find out the facts.
Children, including spiritual children, often want to take on more than they can handle and after coming out of prison a person needs time to get themselves together in ordinary everyday life.
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14 (NIV)).
It must be understood that life within a prison is not a normal life situation. For the person who has come to know the Lord in prison there are few of the temptations that lurk outside the prison walls. Prison removes freedom and this includes some of the freedom to be tempted. The real tests occur after discharge when choice returns and the ex-offender is presented with the full gambit of worldly temptations. It must be the function of Christian Churches and organisations that want to assist ‘Fred Bloggs’ who turns up saying he is a Christian, to find out more information about him.
There are many reasons why we should do this. Firstly, if a person is in genuine need we can enquire what their real problems are, and so try to help protect him or her from sin and of course protect the fellowship. Many people who come to Christ in prison may have never set foot inside a church before imprisonment. Many find themselves in a dilemma upon release. They are quite rightly instructed by the Prison Chaplain and other Christians to seek out a church and spiritual home. Once outside the walls of the prison such people will not be brimming over with confidence. Many will have difficulty in making contact with new faces and extreme difficulty in walking into a strange church where they are unknown especially on the first Sunday after release.
Liaison with Prison Chaplains or other interested parties poses an immense challenge to Christian groups and Church Fellowships to be sensitive to such people on release from prison. It is essential that they be lovingly led to a church fellowship where they will feel comfortable and accepted as soon as possible after release.
Much of the responsibility for this must rest to the Prison Chaplain, but they can only refer ex-offenders when Christians outside are willing to act as a link between the prison and the churches.
5. Practical wisdom.
On telephoning the chaplain at ‘Slade’ prison, one might find that ‘Fred Bloggs’ is in fact a con-man who is working his way around the churches in England, conning unsuspecting Christians for what he can get and then moving on.
This does not mean that straight away one cuts off from ‘Fred Bloggs’ but it does give one a chance to say, ‘Look, we know what you have done, we will accept you, but if you get up to any tricks here I’m sorry but you may not be able to continue in fellowship with us’. Such a person will then know where he stands and help him grow in attitude and not to live in a fantasy world.
6. Confidential information.
Bad situations can arise, because Christians have not been given the information available to help them deal with such situations.
All referrals must be dealt with confidentially and limited to mature spiritual people. In order to protect an ex-offender from the rejection of bias, prejudice, ignorance, and simple damaging gossip one cannot over emphasise the need for complete confidentiality. All Christians do not have a natural sympathy towards people who have served a prison sentence. Any information given, must be treated as privileged and used with great care and in prayer, discernment and always for the protection of the ex-offenders and the church assisting them.
7. Sensitivity to problems.
If some Christians have a glass of wine with a meal they should be careful not to do this with an ex-alcoholic at their table as this might lead them back into drink or cause them embarrassment. If an ex-offender has had sex offences against children, then they should not be asked to baby-sit. The person who has had previous convictions for deception and fraud must only be introduced to risk with extra thought and not be given large amounts of money or ease of access to credit/bank cards or cheque books.
Common sense and Christian care often go hand in hand.
8. Financial help.
An ex-offender may be unable to place any real value on money and seem unable to discipline themselves concerning its use.
Christians need to be firm in their guidance and not provide more money than is sensible, remaining supportive and helpful, and allow the person to learn lessons from their own mistakes. (Do remember if any financial help is provided the person needs to declare it if they are on any type of benefit).
Where there is a need for financial help, this must be given wisely and discerningly. Should an ex-offender need to put a deposit on a flat, the church or helpers may need to respond to such need when it is genuine.
9. Always ask for advice or help.
Many Christians meet failure through lack of discernment and experience in dealing with ex-offenders. Sometimes through ignorance or an unwillingness to take the advice of those experienced in this sort of ministry. It is possible to become cynical and in such cases, turning back to scriptures may help. The key is 1 Corinthians 13, where it says ‘Love believes all things’. What we need is to come openly to those who come across our paths and try not to be influenced by what has happened in the past. We need to learn from our mistakes remaining open and loving and therefore much more effective to those who care and help.
10. Together not in isolation.
Whatever the individual ministry with an ex-offender, it should not be done in isolation. Confer with other Christians involved with other ministries adjusting your individual ministry as and when necessary, (remembering the need for confidentiality). Where more than one ministry is involved with an ex-offender, it is essential that those Christians assisting speak with one voice. Children grow into stable and mature adults through consistent loving parenting, the ‘Parenting’ of an ex-offender must be consistent, and we must not allow their emotional immaturity to ‘divide and rule’.
Children can be experts at using subtle forms of ‘emotional blackmail’ with parents to get their own way. Often an ex-offender may appear to be physically mature but emotionally they may only be a child. They may use similar forms of blackmail and Christians must be on their guard against this, making it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable.
11. Various ministries.
We may be involved in simple befriending, by inviting an ex-offender to a meal on a Sunday. We may find ourselves as a family, relating to the family of an ex-offender if they have a spouse or children. Whilst large lively churches can be helpful, it is often the individual relationships with one or two committed people that brings the ex-offender through to maturity. It may also be that we use bible study and teaching, or assisting a person to learn to read and write, or in providing voluntary or paid work for a person whom is unemployed to alleviate boredom. We may use healing ministry. To have someone who will listen to all the hurts and hatreds of the past can be very helpful and many ex-offenders do need to talk and pray through such bitterness about their past hatreds that remain unresolved. However, in seeking to minister on this level, Christians must be aware of their own limitations.
When assisting a male ex-offender it is important that a man should conduct any ministering. If a woman is involved in such ministry she should be under the authority of her husband or church leader and should make sure that he is present at the time of ministering. Very often ex-offenders have been devoid of female relationships and because of emotional arrest or damage they are unable to relate to a woman in an open and mature manner. Sexual fantasy or desire from the ex-offender towards the woman can become a serious problem when any woman involves herself with a male ex-offender on a one to one basis. She must have the protection of a spiritually mature male companion.
The same can be the case when assisting a female ex-offender, this should always be carried out by a woman, for the same reasons mentioned above.
Some ex-offenders at some time in their past have been involved in one way or the other with the occult, and the church needs to have people identified for the special ministry of deliverance.
There is also a need for people to be identified who can help Christian ex-offenders who come during the weekdays when there are no fellowship meetings.
Conflict of the old and new nature.
The person who is demanding everything, not only in the beginning (all babies are very demanding in the beginning), but carries on demanding money, time and fellowship at all hours and on a continued basis over a long period, needs particular direction and pointing to the Lord, as only He can supply all the needs.
An ex-offender who is using their past to excuse their present is wrong. Remember if anyone is in Christ, they do become a brand new person inside, and for all those who claim that their past has in fact stopped them from becoming Christians need to face the fact that God is a God of miracles.
Where a person has been in prison for many years and perhaps in other institutions for most of their childhood, they can be emotionally damaged.
(Quote from an ex-offender)
‘I know when I personally became a Christian at 25, I was emotionally about 16 or 17, mainly because of institutionalisation and drug addiction and because of being in institutions all my life. I had never formed any real relationships and never had any real responsibility.’
To understand an ex-offender, one must understand that prisons do affect people in a particular way. Where people have been deprived for many years of ‘real’ choice it can be very difficult to start thinking for themselves.
A good illustration of this is from another quote by an ex-offender.
‘I personally never realised that people had to pay electricity bills, telephone bills, and it never really clicked that people cook their meals and had to pay for food. I know that this sounds very odd, but what I am talking about is the general everyday things of life which people presume everyone knows. What can happen is that Christians can feel very hurt or confused and feel that they are being used and yet a person from an institutionalised background is not meaning to do this.’
This can lead to confusion as a Christian ex-offender can be a visionary and ‘on fire for God’ and yet find it hard to cope with the practicalities of ordinary life.
It is important to discern between the need for spiritual or cultural change. Remember that often ex-offenders come from a totally different cultural background. Problems can be caused through Christians trying to bring about cultural changes to the ex-offender and it has nothing to do with the necessary spiritual changes.
An ex-offender, even a Christian ex-offender, can sometimes behave in very terrible ways, perhaps sexually or by sliding back into one-off crime. Yet often the only difference between them and someone from a non-criminal background is that their behaviour, whilst against the law and clearly wrong, is little different in reality before God than gossiping or going away from God in a less obvious way. Be careful how you judge the actions of an ex-offender. Remember Romans 3;23, All have sinned!
Some churches have been confused and surprised by ex-offenders who question an authoritative speaker, because they do not agree with or perhaps cannot understand what he has said. This can be a form of rebellion, but sometimes it can be a genuine seeking to know the truth for themselves. Some ex-offenders do go through a critical phase that may last for long periods where they criticise everything. In dealing with situations of rebellion, one can perhaps agree with much of the criticisms and the danger is protecting things that should not be protected. On the other hand, sometimes re-action is extreme and such ex-offenders need to be loved and understood as they seek to find their own feet in a new and strange world.
To such people Christians must be patient, firm, understanding, but most of all honest. Remember we are the womb in which the young Christian is growing. We must expect to be stretched and bear with the birth pains as they grow up in Jesus. An ex-offender can sometimes have a black and white attitude towards people and issues. Coming from a world of crime and perhaps utter corruption and hypocrisy, they can sometimes see all too clearly the very subtle corruption and hypocrisy amongst the church and the Christians with whom they are involved. Often because they come as a complete outsider into a set of new circumstances where they can see a lot of wrong things. We have to be open to whatever learning God might want to bring to us through such ex-offenders and not be threatened by what is said and yet be firm, kind, and discerning.
Sometimes it will be seen that a professing Christian ex-offender is bent on self destruction and is going back to their old ways. There does come a time to draw apart and however sad, allow this to happen.
Then I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me. (Hosea 5:15 (NIV)).
Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge Him. As surely as the sun rises, He will appear; He will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:3 (NIV)).
Churches and other Christian organisations assisting ex-offenders might consider having full-time coffee bars, job creation schemes, and create opportunities so that ex-offenders are able to be physically and emotionally involved in something positive. Other groups might start to investigate ways of supporting ex-offenders by creating Christian/spiritual work under skilled guidance.
These guidelines are offered to help in situations that you may face. Many aspects and numerous practical illustrations whilst given, leave the advice incomplete, as every situation and every individual is different. It may however have sparked off your own thinking and you yourselves may arrive at answers to meet your situation.
Remember that very ordinary people have helped most Christian ex-offenders. There is always a danger that some believe that only ex-offenders can understand and realistically help ex-offenders, this is not true. Nor is it true that ‘professional’ help is always best.
Remember that in your ministries with ex-offenders, His Word will become a living Gospel. In taking up the cross of Jesus Christ and meeting the challenge of His Word, you too will grow into Christian maturity along with the ex-offender that you are assisting. On this exciting journey of faith, the Holy Spirit will provide you with all your needs. It is a journey of excitement and adventure and one to be fully shared.
In Jesus and in the Word of God, guided by the Holy Spirit, are to be found all the answers to all the situations that you will come across.
Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV)).
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13 (NIV))