Prison chaplains work to provide religious and spiritual care to inmates and fellow prison employees across the country.
Spiritual care, also known as pastoral care, is simpler to define when the root meaning of the word “spiritual” is given. This word is a combination of Latin and Hebrew roots:the Hebrew word Rauch, which means soul and the Latin word Spiritus, which means breathe of life. When these two meanings are combined it creates a word that means to breath life into a soul.
In a prison, chaplains provide spiritual care in a multitude of ways. Their focus is on providing spiritual care to inmates and staff through religious services, counseling inmates who are troubled and acting as a liaison between prison officials and inmates to relay news that may affect a prisoners’ emotional well-being. Chaplains also act as “religious program managers” (Rolfs). They schedule events, enlist and coordinate volunteers, enable furlough visits that are religious in nature, and educate correctional administrators and staff about religious principles, rituals, and relics of nontraditional faith groups.
From a Christian perspective spiritual care is more than just ensuring that the inmates or staff have access to religious services. Paul wrote in Galatians 6:1-2:
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (ESV).
According to Paul, when providing spiritual care it is important that the chaplain is restoring the inmate through gentleness and by helping to bear the weight of their sin. They need to be guided from the dark place they are in. Paul continues in Ephesians 4:11-16:
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried out by every wind of doctrine… Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…making the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (ESV).
The chaplain will also advise inmates or staff that have already accepted Christ as their Savior or have Biblical knowledge. It is their responsibility to teach others how to evangelize and how to share the Gospel with love. This is not a simple task and it is not one that is generally thought of when discussing spiritual care. Nevertheless, evangelizing is just as important as any other area of growth in a Christian’s life. A chaplain cultivates that gift and encourages the spiritual growth that comes with experience.
Integrating spiritual care within professional practices—especially government ones—can be difficult due to the separation of church and state. However, through applying professional practice principles, a chaplain can care for prison staff or inmates spiritually.)
Professional practice refers to any aspect of a chaplain’s work. On the job a chaplain will communicate with others through spoken and written word. Part of a chaplain’s job includes solving leadership problems among the staff. The chaplain uses their religious background when solving problems. Their work and life balance is important because without it their physical and mental health could deteriorate and set a poor example for the rest of the staff.
Arguably, one of the most important principles a chaplain follows is maintaining strong boundaries between themselves and the parishioner. It is crucial that a chaplain maintains boundaries so that they can handle all situations, including the development of a “savior complex” or inappropriate feels, in a professional way. They must also be cautious when maintain their social media accounts and when dealing with confidentiality issues.
Sharing the Gospel in a chaplain’s professional practice directly relates to spiritual care. The chaplain can do this through their words and actions. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul declares:
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (ESV).
The care that a person needs may also be completed through actions alone. These actions are useful because it is easy to mistrust what a person says, but it is simple to trust what a person does.
Based on a first impression, a prison environment does not seem like the place that spiritual care would flourish. Regardless, chaplains work every day to provide spiritual care that serves the inmates and fellow staff. This is done through arranging religious ceremonies, providing counseling and informing inmates of unfortunate news from their families or correctional facilities. Chaplains serve the staff and inmates while balancing their integration of spiritual care into their professional practice.
Dammer, H. R. (2002). Religion in prison. In D. Levinson, Encyclopedia of crime and punishment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from https://doiorg.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1177/1542305015621705
Luft, J. P. (2016). Spiritual Care and CPE: 2nd Year Experience. Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, 70 (1). Retrieved from https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1177/1542305015621705
Rolfs, T. (n.d.). Specific Duties of Correctional Chaplain. Retrieved from http://www.correctionalchaplains.org/