There are many churches that are filled with respectable people, good, civic-minded citizens. But it may come as a shock to some, but there are some churches that also have members that, for one reason or another, wind up in jail or prison. Given that many churches in this country have nice middle-class members, the news that one of its members has been incarcerated can be a shock. I think that many people shy away from imprisoned people for a number of reasons. But as a pastor, you don’t have the right to ignore any of your church members regardless of where they might be living.
I can remember discovering that one of my church members had been placed in jail. At first, it was a big surprise because on the surface, everything seemed fine. The elders and I had conducted home visits and the family was in church fairly regularly. When they were absent, or when one of the members of the family was absent, there was usually an accompanying explanation—someone was visiting family or was at home sick in bed. So upon hearing the news that this young woman was in jail, I took the necessary steps to visit her. Jail is not as nice as they portray it on TV. As I entered the facility I had the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia—I wasn’t physically or intellectually hobbled, but I definitely felt like I was in a tight and enclosed space. I was searched and went through a metal detector, and then I went to the room with the phone on the wall and thick bulletproof glass, which was scratched and dirty.
As I talked with this young woman I felt like I was finally beginning to get some honest answers to my many questions, though I did speak with the jail officials as well. Once deception enters the picture you should always verify with outside sources. In this case, the jailers told me this young woman had a rap sheet as long as my arm. As I visited her over a number of months, I discovered that she had engaged in some very unwise, foolish, and very sinful activity. This young woman was eventually released on probation, and I made a number of home visits to encourage repentance, but to no avail. As much as she said she was changing her ways, she ended up in jail again for violating her probation. She eventually ended up doing a stint in the state prison.
Regardless of the crime or a person’s state, if he is a member of the church, you as the pastor, and elders of the church, have a responsibility to minister to them. This means regular visits as well sending literature to them when possible (some jail and prison systems are quite restrictive and have all sorts of rules governing how to send prisoners literature). You also have the responsibility to pray and intercede on behalf of such people, and if they are unrepentant, then you need to put them under church discipline. However, there is a sense in which I think that ministers and elders are expected to care for people in prison, but members of the church are a different matter. No one from my congregation took the time to visit this young woman while she was incarcerated. Part of me wonders whether it would have made a bigger impression upon her had a number of church members showed up to visit. This young woman expected me to be there, it “was my job,” after all. When Christ told his disciples, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25:36), I don’t think he restricted prison visitation to ministers and elders. Should you become aware of a situation where one of your fellow church members are imprisoned, certainly pray for them, but also give serious thought to visiting them.