From Local Church Ministry to Prison Chaplaincy
By Chaplain Joel Van Sant, Federal Bureau of Prisons
Where Do I Start?
This is the question that was in the front of my mind when the Lord began to lead me from local church ministry to prison chaplaincy. Where do I start? I knew that there would be many challenges but I was not prepared for the openness and transparency found in prison. For a while, I thought that prison chaplaincy was going to be a much more difficult ministry compared to local church ministry. To my surprise, while prison is definitely a different setting for ministry and has its own set of challenges, it is truly a plentiful harvest.
Over the past decade, I have been in leadership positions in three different churches. Each time I have entered a ministry, I have had to learn the culture of the community, figure out when to schedule ministries during the week, and grow into the role of leadership set before me. The latter always seemed to take the most amount time. While I was prepared to bring pastoral leadership to each congregation, I learned quickly that such a role takes time as people need to adjust to a change in leadership.
This is not always the case in prison chaplaincy. On my Sunday at Federal Correction Institution (FCI) Fort Dix, N.J., I was surprised to find a crowd of men at the door of the chapel, waiting to start their respective worship services. I attended the Protestant worship service that afternoon and could tell that these men had a desire to bring their best before the Lord in their worship. The inmate led worship team included men with professional instrumental and vocal backgrounds. It was so overwhelming to see how God was using men like this to bring people into His presence in worship. One of the other chaplains at the facility preached and encouraged the men to grow in their praise of the Lord. At the end of the service, I talked with many inmates who wanted to meet with me at some point during the week.
The following days provided me with so much insight as I adjusted to this new ministry. I was amazed to find many of these men at my office door during the week. They came and sat in my office and shared their entire story with me. They told me of their offenses and also shared about how God has been working in their lives to bring them closer to Him. A few of these men even talked to me about some of the goals and desires they had for further ministry in the prison.
Overall, this entire experience has brought me much closer to the Lord and has taught me so much more about how God continues to grow His kingdom. Every Sunday, when I preach, I can’t help but think of the words of 2 Timothy 2:9, “the Word of God is not bound!” I am continually grateful that God has placed me in a setting where hearts are longing for a relationship with God.
Join me in praying for Joel and his family as they settle into this challenging season of ministry within the Federal Prison system, as well as for CBAmerica’s fourteen (14) other chaplains serving in Federal, State and Local correctional systems.