Can a Felon Become a Minister?

The purpose of prison is two-fold. It can be used exclusively as a tool for punishment, which is often the case when life sentences are assigned. An individual’s freedom, relationships, and the

status they might have enjoyed in society are removed. A prisoner’s physical space is confined, their time is regimented, and their choices are restricted.

A second purpose for prison is as a space where the incarcerated can confront their actions and consequences, and reconsider the direction of their life. Another term for prison is correctional facility, which points to this overlooked but crucial function that prison can serve for society. Prisons increasingly allow inmates to rehabilitate themselves through education, work experience, and religion.

This piece will focus on religion as a means by which felons can reorient their life priorities, reform their reputation, and potentially enter a meaningful line of work as a religious leader.

Religion: Showing Compassion For The Incarcerated

The connection between religion and criminals extends as far back as the idea of prison itself. The Bible, for one, records a great number of acts that would be considered criminal, both then and today. Theft, rape, conspiracy and murder all feature in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Punishment and forgiveness is a prominent theme in the Bible, and other religious texts.

The Bible records Jesus as saying that he came to Earth to save not the righteous, but the sinful. For this reason, the vast majority of prisons in the United States utilize chaplains to lead worship and administer services in a religious to inmates.

Chaplains will generally use volunteers in their prison ministry. While most chaplains encourage members of all faiths to serve in prison ministries, 69% of volunteers in American prisons are Christian. As Christianity is the predominant religion in the United States, this does not come as a surprise. It also means that prisoners are exposed and influenced primarily by Christianity. A felon who wants to maintain their relationship to religion when they are released will likely look towards the Christian Church.

Becoming a Church Leader

Becoming qualified for a position in the Church as a pastor, preacher, or minister involves schooling, tests, and practical experience. However, because Christianity is split into multiple denominations, or systems of belief and worship, those requirements will vary. Major denominations include:

  • Catholic
  • Lutheran
  • Anglican
  • Baptist
  • Reform
  • Presbyterian
  • Orthodox
  • Methodist

Each of these faiths will have different expectations for those who minister to their congregational members. This, in turn, means that future ministers will have to take separate steps towards being ordained.

Most churches have a lengthy hiring process. Multiple committees and members may have a chance to interview and interact will potential hirees. In order to get to this point, churches generally look for potential ministers to have the following:

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Masters degree in theology
  • Recognized ordinance
  • Ministry experience under an experienced pastor

Many denominations also have their own colleges and universities, which will offer educational coursework towards careers in the ministry. Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist schools are the most prominent and recognized in the United States. Bachelors and Masters degrees can be obtained through study at these educational institutions. Coursework can also be done at seminary schools, or schools of theology. Both of these are designed specifically for those who want to work in a religious capacity. They will generally offer masters degree programs for qualified applicants.

Ordainment is a requirement to perform many of the legal and ceremonial duties associated with the church. These duties include officiating weddings, baptisms, and funeral duties. An ordainment is generally valid for life, and can be obtained without previous coursework in religious studies.

It is worth noting that these are general requirements, and that not all churches will require degrees. Since there are so many off-shoots of worship in Christianity, those that do may not be concerned if you attend a school outside of their denomination.

These are formal steps, and church bodies will look beyond these when considering applicants. Pastors and ministers must be seen as model citizens in their conduct and ethics. Putting God and faith first in all matters is not a matter of words, but actions. Consider the following as you enter this career path:

  • Motives for entering the ministry
  • Knowledge of scripture
  • Ability to build relationships
  • Love of language and communication
  • Love of all, including those who disagree with you
  • Comfort with both the uneducated and highly educated
  • Emotional balance

It is also possible to start your own church. This has become a popular choice for many young pastors and ministers who find it difficult to attain a head pastor role in a large church. They also may find it daunting to lead a congregation that is accustomed to a particular style of worship.

A Felon’s Path to Priesthood

For felons, a career in ministry may be a rewarding one, both personally and professionally. Few careers offer as much opportunity to teach, lead, and govern. Furthermore, many felons have unique experiences that may be seen as an attribute for many churches. Felons endure hardship, and will often use their struggle as an opportunity to improve themselves. This is a personal journey that many will see as inspirational.

Unlike other professions, a criminal background does not automatically exclude one from working in the ministry. Each denomination, and each member church, may have its own preferences for church leadership. A hopeful applicant may want to contact the church prior to beginning the application process for a clergy position, and inform a board or council member, associate pastor, or program director, about anything that might appear on a background check.

Most churches will be open about their policies. Also, due to various outreach programs many churches will have to prisons, the homeless, or those struggling in other aspects of life, church leaders may also provide guidance towards a ministerial career path. Personal references and evaluations from previous jobs, academic instructors, and spiritual mentors will be significant aids in attaining employment.

Career Prospects For The Clergy

As of 2018, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates the mean, or average, annual salary of a clergy member at $53,290. This does not solely include ministers, but it does provide an idea of the kind of compensation to be found in the profession. The BLS also projects that jobs in the clergy will grow at a rate of 8.16% over 10 years.

Job duties as a pastor or minister include the common duties, including preaching, wedding officiating, funeral services, and baptisms. They also include less public jobs. These might be:

  • Church council meetings
  • Budget oversight
  • Admitting or expelling church members
  • Leading small classes
  • Providing counseling services to troubled members
  • Speaking in the community
  • Serving on academic panels and boards
  • Contributing to theological publications

The church provides an excellent opportunity for felons looking to rebuild their lives. It is crucial to have an appropriate devotion to schooling, consistent support from loved ones, and a willingness to commit to honesty and disclosure in the hiring process. With these elements in place, you may find that your experience is a help, rather than a hindrance, as you move into the ministry.

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