Prison Fellowship, a ministry founded by Chuck Colson in 1976 to evangelize and disciple prison inmates, is in the process of undergoing a radical transformation. After an internal self-examination this past year, and after failing to meet its expected income last June for the first time in its history, the organization is reducing paid staff and ministry centers and re-evaluating its ministry structure.
Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) is moving toward a more volunteer-oriented format. The organization used to have about 55 area offices with a paid director and sometimes one or two paid staff members. Now PFM hopes to create volunteer "Ministry Delivery Teams" to recruit and equip churches to be involved in local prison ministry.
"Embracing this new format means we'll be able to do much more ministry and multiply more rapidly," Terry White, vice president of communications for Prison Fellowship, told Christianity Today. "Instead of attempting to hire personnel to meet the ever-increasing demands of our ministry we will now be equipping the people of the church with the necessary tools to administer the gospel to their own community."
Prison Fellowship's leaders hope these changes will move PFM even closer to its mission "to exhort, equip, and assist the Church in its ministry to prisoners, ex-prisoners, victims and their families."
These changes mean that PFM will eliminate about 100 positions and close about 20 area offices. The number of workers to be laid off is still unknown because some of the positions eliminated were unfilled expansion positions and others were positions filled by personnel who retired. According to White, some personnel might also choose to become managers of ministry delivery teams within PFM's new office centers.
The new ministry structure will call for 35 ministry hubs—some in preexisting offices and others to be created in new locations near cities with large prison populations, like Cincinnati. White told CT even more territory should be covered by these strategically placed headquarters of volunteers.
White says that PFM is continuing to expand, and that its internal review and ministry structure change were prompted by the rapid growth of prisoners in America. Not only are more resources needed to help ex-prisoners with transitions back into their communities, but PFM has also found a growing need among the children of prisoners for mentoring and encouragement while their parent is incarcerated.
PFM will continue to emphasize collaboration with churches and parachurch organizations. Already PFM has developed programs in conjunction with Campus Crusade for Christ, Walk Thru the Bible, Navigators and Promise Keepers.
"Operation Starting Line [an attempt to present the gospel to all U.S. prisoners over a three-year period] is quickly becoming a model for how we want to build partnerships to draw on the experience and expertise of others, and to maximize the reach of the gospel message," White said.
Other PFM overhauls include Neighbors Who Care and Justice Fellowship, two programs created to minister to victims. Presently separate tax-exempt organizations, Neighbors Who Care and Justice Fellowship are going to be divisions of PFM, relying on the PFM's communication and fundraising services. PFM will also cut back on its development of new initiatives, and some of its most recent programs may spin off to become individualized ministries.
White hopes PFM will be able to successfully partner America's churches with prisoners. He notes that PFM already has 50,000 volunteers engaged in its many facets of ministry.
"We've been in business for 24 years, and we continue to find that people take ownership of the ministries they work in. We hope to build excitement and passion in our workers by putting the reins of ministry in the hands of people on the scene."
Charles Colson is a columnist for Christianity Today.
Recent Christianity Today articles on Prison Fellowship and Charles Colson include:
Setting Captives Free | It takes more than getting a woman inmate out of jail to turn her life around (Jan. 21, 2000)
Things We Ought to Know | Charles Colson's apologetic—and call to action—is in the tradition of Francis Schaeffer. (Jan. 3, 2000)
Go Directly to Jail A Christianity Today Editorial (Sept. 6, 1999)
Redeeming the Prisoners | Prison ministers embrace 'restorative justice' methods. (Mar. 1, 1999)
Unique Prison Program Serves as Boot Camp for Heaven (Feb. 9, 1998)
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