FLORENCE, Colo. -- Volunteers are becoming increasingly important in prison ministry as many state-run chaplaincy programs nationwide are experiencing state budget cuts. In Georgia, the Department of Corrections plans to cut its entire chaplaincy staff -- three full-time and 49 part-time chaplains – to save $1.3 million. The state, which has the nation's sixth-largest prison population (47,000), is training volunteers, encouraging them to partake in prison ministry.
George Pickle, chaplaincy coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said Christian churches should support correctional chaplains in their call "to be the incarnational presence of Christ among people with as much need of that presence as anyone."
"They lovingly care for inmates in their relationship to God and society, while accepting them as men and women Jesus loved and died for," Pickle said. The Fellowship now has a total of 352 endorsed chaplains and pastoral counselors in a variety of settings.
"People tend to think that everyone in prison is beyond redemption socially or spiritually, that anyone who comes to chapel or asks spiritual questions is just playing games to get out of their cells or improve their chance of parole," said Susan Barnett, one of three women chaplains in the Federal Bureau of Prisons endorsed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
"Certainly, there are plenty of hard cases," said Barnett, who serves at a medium-security federal prison for men. "In September, an inmate threatened to kill me. But prisons are fertile mission fields where people are ready to hear the gospel."
That "How can we hear unless we are told? A chaplain brings a sense of humanity and compassion into a hard and sterile setting," Barnett said. "There are chances to minister in the midst of crisis as prisoners deal with bad news, such as the death of family members or being served with divorce papers."
She urges Christians to volunteer for prison ministry, "because they appreciate that you are choosing to be there with them because you love God and love them." Barnett also encourages more women to take the opportunity to provide positive female role models by being chaplains
Susan Barnett first got involved in prison ministry by volunteering while she was a seminary student.
"I didn't have any history with correctional facilities, hadn't had any family or friends imprisoned," she said. "But I realized, for me, being lost was like being in prison. I wasn't saved until I was 21, and until then I was lost and had no real purpose in life. I related to how the prisoners felt."
"I like to remind people that correctional chaplains are doing a ministry specifically commended by Jesus by visiting those in prison," Barnett added