I write letters to prisoners. But I also love to visit the city and county jails too to share the Gospel. If you've ever thought about starting a prison ministry, I believe that the first step to beginning one is to do these three things: Pray, then pray, and finally pray some more. Bathe the idea in prayer before you do anything. Prayer is quintessential to any ministry that a person or church does. Talking with former prisoners is also a great resource. Speak with the local sheriff to see if such a ministry is already in place. Make an appointment to meet them by phone. Use the same procedure with the city; speak in to the local police chief in person to see what steps are needed. A personal visit is always more successful than a phone call or a letter. You will find local and county officials more open to the idea if you have a plan in place, which will be discussed later.
Sometimes county and city authorities like the chief of police (for cities) or sheriff (for counties) are reluctant at first. You may not be able to schedule a face-to-face meeting. State and federal prison systems are more stringent. Sometime these facilities have prisoners that are quarantined and are only allowed visits by family and the visitation sometimes may only be possible behind a glass partition. And they may have limited visitation times as well. State and federal systems are more often located at a greater distance and are less accessible than those of a city or county, so gaining access to them is strategically difficult.
Some cities have a ministerial alliance–an organization where the churches cooperate to work together for a common purpose for a city. Some counties all have such an alliance. Getting in touch with any ministerial alliance is a good beginning to see if they have any plan in place for a prison ministry. These organizations are also valuable volunteer resources with a broad base of experience that you may want to tap. Try to schedule an in-person visit with the local head of a ministerial alliance. This brings up an important point. Two men or women, depending upon which type of prisoners are wanting to be served, more often make it easier to develop a plan and to minister to the prisoners together. You don’t have to be an ordained minister, elder, deacon or have attended seminary to have a prison ministry. In a sense, we are all ministers of God.
Before you make contact with any authorities, have a specific plan in place. You want to make sure that you have the city and county's best interests at heart. Prisoners will often shy away from pure Bible teaching or preaching. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Your first visits will always be a getting acquainted type of meeting. What are their interests? Do they plan on developing a trade or have an interest in a particular occupation if they are to be released? Even if you are unable to gain access to prisoners, you can at least minister to them through biblical literature, provide them with trade journals or magazines. Make sure you are clear with your intentions.
Some local and county jails may require a background check which includes a criminal background check. The two that I have been to do not require this. They do want to know about you. They might run a check on you to see if you have any outstanding bench warrants or unpaid fines or tickets.
By the way, some institutions do not have a regular Sunday service. Even fewer have a Wednesday night Bible study. A church service in the prisons or jails is run somewhat like any local church. However, check with the chaplain or religious activities coordinator (if there is one) before your first service to make sure that you understand the customs of the group. The members of the Christian community in most prisons get along with each other much better than those on the outside, and many consider the service to be “their” church. You are just a visiting preacher. If you can not be there Sunday mornings since you may be attending your own church, then perhaps you can offer them a Sunday evening service.
Because of the interdenominational nature of the group you will be dealing with, and the mixed group of preachers who conduct the services, it is important that you NOT go in emphasizing the doctrinal distinctives of your denomination. There is a wealth of material in the Bible that you can use without having to go into the small number of areas that we do not agree on. Keep in mind, most prisoners will be either babies in Christ, or they will be unsaved, so keep it simple. The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing; and that is Christ and Him crucified for them. You do not want to divide the inmates on doctrinal differences. It is best to go with the milk of the Word and stay away from the meatier things of the Bible. This is not seminary. No preaching, but just teaching. Let them have input. Don’t dominate or cut off other prisoners if they have something to offer.
Bible studies and Bible study lessons, free Bibles, a Bible Lesson series, or devotionals can be dispensed at the local or county facility to wet the appetite of the inmates. Even if there is a ministry in place, Michael Mooney, president and senior elder of the National Association of Christian Ministers, suggests that a supplemental ministry can enhance any present ministry in the local county jail, the city jail, or in a federal or state prison.
Always follow the directives and orders of the prison or jail staff. Never deviate or talk down these officials in front of prisoners. And be consistent. Be there at 6 p.m. Wednesdays or Sunday evenings if you say you will be. You have to count the cost before you are willing to do any ministry. You can be a huge source for disappointment to them if you do not show up when you say you will or do not do what you said you would do and bring what you said you would bring.
Never get into an argument with them about the Bible. They may try to persuade you about something that is not essential to salvation, like speaking in tongues, so don’t go there. Leave the controversy stay with the TV talk shows. But if you make a mistake and they catch you on it, admit you were wrong and move on. They would appreciate honesty and humility more than being dogmatic about some doctrinal issue. Be upfront with them about your own background. Relate any mistakes that you have made in the past. Transparency breaks down barriers and crumbles walls of partition between you and the prisoners. I often make admissions of my own sins, mistakes, and faults to my congregation and this increases the likelihood of their opening up and revealing their own faults.