President Vance Drum’s Letter Number 7 – July 2016

Mistakes Chaplains Make:  Growing Edges in Ministry

In this letter I’d like to visit with you about mistakes we make in correctional chaplain ministry.  Mistakes short-circuit our ministry both to offenders and staff. 

After many years in the field, I can tell you I’ve made lots of mistakes.  I’ll note three big ones:

              1. Not Pacing Yourself

              2. Not Managing Your Program Meetings

              3. Not Developing Helpful Relationships with Staff

1. Not Pacing Yourself

After the Reduction In Force (RIF) of 2003 in my state (Texas), I found myself working harder and longer, and, at the same time, getting farther and farther behind.  We had lost 40% of our chaplaincy corps (from 154 chaplains down to 93) for our 150,000 offenders and 40,000 staff.  My 2,400-man maximum security prison had gone from having three chaplains to one. 

I talked with my Director of Chaplains at the time about my feelings, and my weariness.  He said to me, “Vance, you did not ask for this situation.  You didn’t pray for or wish for it.  You’re in this for the long haul.  Do your eight hours of daily work, and go home.  Take care of yourself.” 

What a relief to hear those words from my supervisor!  I had been feeling guilty, but after he spoke with me, I felt at peace with the steady, not breakneck, level of my work.  Realizing I wasn’t in a sprint but a marathon, I persevered at the Eastham Prison for 28 years.  Some of the greatest blessings came even after the RIF. 

2. Not Managing Your Program Meetings

When I came to my 100-year-old prison, the chapel program—our meetings—were completely out of order.  Here were some signs of the disorder:

              1. Not many offenders came to the chapel.

              2. Of those who came, about half were there for the wrong reasons.

              3. Many wanted to come but did not, not wanting to be associated with more crime.

              4. Trafficking and trading was happening.

              5. Sexual activity was going on here and there.

              6. Voting on whether to do a gang hit was being conducted—passing a yes/no ballot.

              7. Offenders were carrying on their own conversations/meetings during the program.

              8. Volunteers were unhappy with the disrespect they sensed and saw.

              9. The whole prison knew the chapel was out of order.

How to manage such an out of control situation? 

When I first came as a new chaplain, I was not pleased with what I saw.  Every week I put 2, 3, or 4 offenders out of the chapel during the worship service, mostly for talking and not obeying my order to stop. 

Soon the word got around the prison that the new chaplain was not tolerating the illegal activity.  The ones I put out did not return.  Other offenders, who wanted to worship and learn, began to come.  They were thankful for the new sense of order.  They finally had a worshipful, learning environment. 

I did not begin an action, however, with putting people out.  Here was my management technique, which I continued during my entire time as a facility chaplain:

              1. I stood at the back of the chapel and observed.

              2. If I was at the front, I also observed.

              3. My #1 rule:  There are no legal meetings in the chapel except the one I’ve called.

              4. When I saw someone talking to another during the program/service, I quietly went to them and gave them the universal sign that means “be quiet”—index finger over my lips. No word was spoken.  They always complied. 

              5. I then returned to the back and observed.

              6. If the ones I had quieted began talking again, I asked the security officer to watch me.  Then I quietly went back over to them, and, using my index finger, motioned for one of them to come with me.  Not a word was spoken.

              7. We went to the back and the other side of the chapel to an empty chair, and I quietly said, “Sit here.”  I never explained why; he knew why. 

              8. If he refused, I never argued with an inmate.  I brought him into my office at the back, with the security officer present with me.  I said, “You can sit in that chair, or you can get a disciplinary case for creating a disturbance, and leave.”  End of story.  Nearly all sat down, separated from his pal. 

              9. I’ve used the word “quietly” several times.  My manner was gentle but firm.  I did not act in a confrontational way with an offender.

              10. If I was preaching or teaching at the front, and observed an ongoing conversation, I would often stop, get their attention, and put my index finger to my lips.  Then, carry on.

Think about this.  If all offenders in a chapel program were allowed to carry on their own meeting, quietly talking while the program was going on, it would be chaos in the chapel. 

Chaplains must manage their program meetings.  Your chapel population will appreciate you for it.  If the meetings are not managed well, the environment will not be transformative, nor worshipful, nor conducive to study and learning, and the program will be damaged or destroyed.

3. Not Developing Helpful Relationships with Staff

In the beginning of my ministry (1980s), unbelievably, chaplains were instructed in our trainings not to minister to the staff.  The reason given:  it was not in our job description.

One day, many years later, a new prison Director asked the Director of Chaplains why it seemed to him that the chaplains did not have much to do with the staff.   When the prison Director heard that we were instructed not to do staff ministry, the prison chief said, “What?!  You have got to be kidding!  Change that today!”  The policy was changed immediately.

In those days I had no problem not ministering to the staff in my prison.  I did not like the staff, and they did not much like me.  I believed they were ministry obstructionists who reveled in their attitude of “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”  They did not seem to want to help inmates, and did not care for anyone who was trying to help.

My standoffish, even antagonistic, attitude toward the staff was a huge mistake.  I learned about my mistake through the kind and gentle words of a warden, during one of my annual performance evaluations.  God spoke through the warden when he said:  “Chaplain, do you know that my staff needs you?”  I thought about it, and said, “No sir, I don’t.”  He did not act surprised.  He replied, in a pastoral manner, “Well, let me tell you.  My staff needs you.” 

Wow.  I had never heard that.  At first, I didn’t believe it.  He asked me to start paying attention to his staff.  I did. 

The next day, God seemed to say to me:  “Vance, I want you to go to all the mid-level security managers in this prison (the ones I disliked the most) and apologize to them for ignoring them for the past 10 years.”  I did that too.  They had mostly minimalist responses.  My attitude changed, and, shortly, my ministry to all in the prison began to change for the better.

Get to know your staff.  Do not ignore them.  Ask them how they’re doing.  Listen to what they say.  They all—as well as the offenders—have deep needs and problems which need your confidential, listening ear and your empathic response.  Your pastoral care to staff will bless not only your ministry but your institution.

Vance L. Drum is the Director of Chaplaincy Operations,

Texas Department of Criminal Justice.