Leaning on the Door: Relating Effectively to Leadership
What do you do as a chaplain when the door seems closed to positive change in criminal justice policy and practice?
But it’s important to realize that waiting does not mean being inactive.
There are at least seven components to promoting positive change when opportunities for change seem remote:
(1) Doing your job well;
(2) Relating to your current leadership;
(3) Leaning on the door;
(4) Valuing teamwork;
(5) Educating the people;
(6) Faith-friendly leadership;
I. Doing Your Job Well
When the chaplain drove up for work at the old prison in 1985, there was not much of a welcome party to greet him. It was a maximum security prison where the modus operandi seemed to be, “Prisoners are criminals who don’t deserve programs to make them better. Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”
Our forward-looking Chaplaincy Central Office in those days was trying to tell us: Do some marriage seminars. Do some family-friendly programs. Do some rehabilitative and reentry ministry which will help offenders not only when they are released but also while they are incarcerated.
The answer from the old-school wardens of 30 years ago? “No.” No explanation, just no.
So, what does a chaplain do when the administrators deny your requests for helpful programming?
Do the best you can at what you are authorized to do. Interact in helpful ways with offenders and staff. Become a friendly and pastoral presence with the staff. Guide offenders into the rehabilitative programming that is approved—limited as it may be. Facilitate and conduct meaningful worship services. Be a pastoral counselor for offenders—individually and in groups.
Do everything in your power to be the best chaplain you can be. Establish your reputation—by consistent, dedicated work—as a professional chaplain who demonstrates integrity, pastoral care for all, and increasingly effective skills to make a difference in the lives of those you serve.
II. Relating to Your Current Leadership
While you are waiting for positive change to come, doing your job well, pay attention to working on your relationship with your retro leadership. Ask yourself: Why is my administrator so opposed to good programs which could promote positive change in offender behavior?
The answer may be that the administrator has never seen what good programs can do. He or she may have no vision for such change. Wardens are products of their environment and their training. If their social and training environment is limited, you must work with what you’ve got.
So, how do you work with a warden who would rather not have much of a chaplain? You may have to work very little with such a person, but some contact is necessary for building a positive—if limited—relationship.
Go by the warden’s office every morning and say hello to all who are there. If only an administrative assistant is present, say hello. If the warden is in, wave a friendly greeting. If the warden wants to see you, he or she will call you in. By being present and visible, you let everyone know that you are on the facility, and that you are available if any special need arises.
Periodically, ask to have a brief sit down visit with the warden to let him know what you are doing. Often a brief written summary of your activity is helpful. The warden may place it in a file so that he can have some talking points when his supervisor asks what the chaplain is doing. Take care to write your report with good grammar, with bullets or other easy-to-read format.
Wardens do not like surprises, so your efforts to inform will normally be well received. Do not stay in the warden’s office long, unless he wants to talk. In that case, stay as long as he is talking.
Respond empathically—letting the warden know that you hear, you understand, and you understand the depth of feeling with which he is speaking. Make a serious attempt to connect with your administrator on common ground—asking about his family and what he likes to do when he’s off (hunting, fishing, ballgames?). When you feel comfortable doing so, you may ask him or her about their faith.
III. Leaning on the Door
While you are doing a good job with all of the pastoral care for staff and offenders in your facility, you are also doing something called “leaning on the door.”
Sometimes the door is closed. But closed doors are still doors, and sometimes they open. They will open more readily if someone is leaning on it.
Leaning on the door is meant to indicate—in a figure of speech—gentle promotions of the chaplain’s vision for more effective, restorative, rehabilitative and reentry programming which will be a blessing to all in the institution.
The chaplain knows that such programming will promote positive, prosocial change in offender behavior. If the door is currently closed, lean on it in such a manner that your administrators know your vision, while at the same time not demanding action which threatens your administrator’s position as “the boss.”
How does this work? When you receive a directive or suggestion from your central office, let the warden know about it, and let him know that you would like to bring it to him and visit with him about it sometime. Ask him if that would be alright. The warden will normally reply yes, even if he has an initial, reflexive resistance to central office directives. When you see the warden, talk about the program in a non-threatening manner. Assure him that the program has been done in other places (if it has been), that you will train and supervise the people involved, and that you will be responsible for the outcome of the program.
Another aspect of leaning on the door has to do with prayer. (Chaplains are religious or spiritual people, and we should pray about all sorts of things all the time.) If your warden is recalcitrant, pray about it. Sometimes it may be necessary to pray a stubborn and resistant administrator out of his office. The administrator will not be where he is forever. Prayer can help move him along.
IV. Valuing Teamwork
Normally, a facility chaplain cannot do the whole job that needs to be done. There may be structural, systemic changes in leadership that need to happen for the doors of opportunity for effective programs to open most widely. There may be things to be done and things to be said that are better done and said by persons outside the organization.
Several years ago in my state there was a Legislative Budget Board (LBB) proposal to eliminate the entire chaplaincy department (120 chaplains) statewide, due to “budget constraints.” Whether it was a “trial balloon” or a serious proposal is unclear. (“Trial balloons” become serious when there is no pushback.) Things could have gone either way.
At that time, however, the Team swung into action. Who was the Team? They were 23,000 recognized, trained, on-the-Agency-computer but outside-the-Agency volunteers. As soon as the LBB proposal became public, legislators’ phone lines lit up with thousands of incoming calls, fax machines were jammed, emails flooded in, and much knocking on the door of legislative offices saved the day. When legislators’ office aides saw the volunteers coming, the visitors didn’t have to say much before the aide replied, “Thank you for coming. We’ve been flooded with your request. I’ll let the representative know you were here with your concern for the chaplains.” Within 30 days, chaplains were back in the budget proposal with 100% funding.
The team does not have to be huge. But there needs to be an active team that strategically spreads the word about constituent concerns.
V. Educating the People
It is normally the case that people do what they do because they believe what they believe. If the administrators in your state reflect the views of the people in their state, expressed earlier (“Prisoners are criminals who don’t deserve programs to make them better. Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”), then you know there is a need for education.
In my state a volunteer networking group, the Restorative Justice Ministry Network of Texas, was founded in 1994 for the purpose of networking restorative justice ministry volunteers, and educating the people of our state on the best way forward in criminal justice.
One of their good mottos was “Smart on Crime.” We’ve always been tough on crime in our state—we built so many prisons in the 1990s to accommodate our crime problem. But to be smart on crime, looking for more helpful ways to divert people from prison to effective treatment—especially faith-based treatment—was something we had to work on.
A former Director of Chaplains and RJMN founder, Emmett Solomon, worked with a dedicated, faith-filled ex-offender, Bill Kleiber, and an administrative assistant, Anita Parrish, to blanket the state with education. Emmett and (now RJMN Executive Director) Bill would speak anywhere folks would listen—to civic groups, church groups, criminal justice administrators, local governmental groups, and at legislative hearings to let people know there is a more cost effective and humanly effective way to deal with crime than warehousing people in prisons.
This ongoing 20-year educational effort has paid off, and today—though much work still needs to be done—there has been a seismic shift in attitudes in our state. Republicans and Democrats tend to fight over everything, but to be smart on crime—working toward restoring peace—is a movement which has brought legislators together in common cause.
VI. Faith-Friendly Leadership
Not much good happens without helpful, faith-friendly leadership which facilitates positive, prosocial change. In my state the composition of the legislature dramatically changed in the 1990s. The outcome was a body which wanted to promote faith-friendly programs in the criminal justice system.
The prisons in the past had been closed societies where community volunteers were not much welcomed. However, the legislators passed legislation mandating that wardens report to the legislature how they were working to recruit community volunteers to assist with rehabilitative programming. Policy and procedures were put in place to train and supervise volunteers. For the past 25 years, the volunteers have been bringing great change for the better to the prisons.
The recidivism rate during that time (after three years out of prison) dropped from 84% to 21%.
The governor of the state appoints the state prison Board members. The governor—a man of religious faith himself—over time appointed all nine members, and he appointed in each instance faith-friendly Board members. The Board selects the prison’s executive director—also a man of faith—who has been in his position long enough to see great change. And great change has come.
The prison’s faith-friendly executive leadership has filtered down into the ranks of the facility wardens and their staffs. The wardens used to be selected based on their “warrior” status (who was the meanest and toughest man around). Now wardens are selected who can best manage their populations, and turn out a better person upon release from prison than when they entered.
The old-school warden the chaplain encountered in 1985 is seldom seen. If any are still around, they do not get promoted.
Many unpleasant things were done and said to the chaplain in the years following his entry into chaplaincy in 1985. It was the way it was. Chaplains, however, do not get their kudos from people; we get ours from a Higher Power—from the Almighty. We have developed thick skins. To be a warden, for a chaplain, would be a demotion. To be left out of the warden’s team is counterproductive, but sometimes it happens.
It always helps to realize that things will not always be the way they are today. With perseverance, and faith in God, things have changed for the better in my environment. If the legislative and executive leadership does not change much, at least the environment will be blessed around you because you are there.
I spent nearly 28 years in my facility as a chaplain. After 10 years of fruitful ministry with offenders, but not much headway with administrators, a new warden showed up. He said to me, on his first day at the prison, “Chaplain, what kind of programs you got going on here?” When he learned we had very few, he said, “Well, that’s going to change. Get me some programs!”
I did, and the old, violent throw-back prison I entered at the start began to change at a more rapid pace. The next 18 years—because I stayed—were much more fruitful than the first 10.
If a chaplain is active in productive ministry, longevity is a plus. You tend to outlive your adversaries. More Power to you as you lean on the door.