David Peters admits he was a skeptic.
“In (this state), you would need to draw a pretty big circle to get 50 congregations,” says David, who directs evangelical mission for the ELCA Montana Synod.
“I just didn’t think it could be done,” he says. But now he’s been converted.
The synod called a full-time pastor to serve at the Montana State Prison sometime this fall, thanks to a start-up grant from the ELCA churchwide organization. The prison houses 1,400 male inmates in Deer Lodge, Mont.
“There’s been a real powerful response,” David says. “People want to be part of it.”
Many of the congregations and people involved have friends or family members who are in or have been in prison.
“It gives them hope,” says Greg Karlsgodt, an ELCA pastor who formerly directed Kogudus Renewal Ministry in Hamilton, Mont. “It really does have a transformational effect on the people who get involved with this ministry from the outside.”
The synod and congregations are using a model adopted by Prison Congregations of America, an organization started by an ELCA pastor.
“They’ve created this model where literally a congregation is established within the prison,” David says.
The premise for the congregations is simple: raise enough financial support to hire a pastor, who will work with inmates during the week. On the weekends, inmates will lead worship for guests from sponsoring congregations, while the pastor tells this story to other congregations.
“When the inmates get out of prison they have faith communities where they can be welcomed and sheltered, not shunned,” Greg says. “And that’s huge.”
The strength of the model lies in involving inmates in the ministry instead of just preaching at them, Greg says. “There’s a transformational effect that occurs when inmates take charge in the congregation. They are in charge.”
A benefit of the program is reduced recidivism rates. Across the United States, only 17 percent of inmates who are involved with prison ministry end up back in prison. That recidivism rate jumps to 65 percent with inmates who are not involved with ministry, according to Greg.
“Just looking at it from a tax payer’s perspective, it would make sense to do our civic duty and make sure that people who come out don’t go back in,” he says.
“(But) first and foremost,” Greg says, is that “we are commanded by Christ to visit those in prison and share the gospel with them.”
Carrie Draeger is a journalist who attends Celebration Lutheran Church in East Wenatchee, Wash., and is originally from from Billings, Mont.