In a study of 1,000 mainline and evangelical pastors conducted by LifeWay Research this year, only 26 percent said they had addressed the country’s incarceration rates in the past six months.
Four out of five pastors (83%) said they had visited a correctional facility, and about three out of four pastors whose churches averaged 250 or more attendees reported that individual members were ministering to those in correctional facilities (80%), the families of the incarcerated (73%), and those coming home (78%). But these same churches were far less likely to have formal programs: Just over half (53%) said a team from their church worked in correctional facilities. About 1 in 4 churches had a formal ministry to families of incarcerated people (24%) and people leaving correctional facilities (22%).
Responses varied dramatically by race. One third of African American pastors (32%) reported mentioning mass incarceration in the last month, compared with only 7 percent of whites. White pastors were most likely to say that they had never addressed it in a sermon (41%).
That’s partially because of their audience: About one third of African American pastors (29%) estimated that 10 percent or more of their church’s attendees currently had an incarcerated family member. Fewer than 1 in 10 white pastors (8%) said the same.
About one third of churches overall said that no one in their congregation had been previously incarcerated. That was more likely to be true for majority-white churches (33%) than majority-black churches (19%).
Overall, however, Karen Swanson, director of the Institute for Prison Ministries at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, thinks these latter numbers are too high. Instead, it’s likely that those who were previously incarcerated or have family members in prison have chosen not to inform the congregation or pastors, probably due to shame.
“You hear ‘I feel more shame when I attend the church. I don’t know want anyone to know,’ ” said Swanson. “We need to educate people in the church about how to give grace.”
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