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Try welcoming an ex-offender

14 February 2014

Congregations can offer vital support, says Lindsay Llewellyn-Macduff


THE "ministry of welcome" is a thorny subject in some churches. There is a line between interrogating people about their possible skills and availability, and ignoring them altogether while we talk to our friends. It becomes even trickier when the one being welcomed has a criminal record.

Let us imagine the Revd Jo Smith, of St Nicholas's, in some town we have never visited. She is delighted one Sunday to see a new face in her congregation: young (under 50, anyway), male, and engaging. She is already lining him up as a potential churchwarden, as she approaches him after the service with a standard: "Hello, I don't think we've met before." The visitor's name is Tom, and he asks whether he can see her privately.

It turns out that he has recently been released from prison. He tells Jo that it was a minor traffic offence, and that he has a background in finance.

Scenario A: St Nicholas's has been struggling to find a treasurer; so it seems natural to ask whether Tom is interested in the post. The position of treasurer has nothing to do with children; so Jo and her churchwarden decide that there is no need for a CRB check. Within a year, Tom is managing the budget of St Nicholas's, receiving and managing all the incoming funds from the collection, planned giving, and fund-raising.

Within three years, he has stripped the church's finances to the bone, and run, having had his hand in the collection plate for some time. When the police arrive, they tell Jo that Tom had been in prison for fraud.

Scenario B: Jo, as soon she hears that Tom has been in prison, tells him politely that he is welcome, but that, as a matter of course, she will inform safeguarding that he is worshipping at St Nicholas's. The diocesan safeguarding officer recommends that a CRB check be made before Tom takes on any position of responsibility.

When Jo asks him whether he will consider being treasurer, she tells him that he will need to fill in a CRB form, and Tom then confesses that it was not a traffic offence, but fraud. He apologises, and says he was ashamed. Instead of becoming treasurer, Tom joins the PCC - after a CRB check - and Jo ensures that he is kept away from the church's finances.

Tom becomes a dynamic and imaginative member of the PCC, and although he takes his turn counting the collection on a Sunday, this is routinely done in pairs, so he is never tempted to revert to his old ways.


THEN again, let us imagine the Revd Sam Jones, of St Agnes's. He is new in post, but his attention is drawn to a young man sitting at the back.The churchwarden, Claire, tells him that the young man is new. Claire introduces Sam to the visitor, who says that his name is John. Again, John asks for a private conversation with the Vicar.

John says that, under the terms of his licence, he needs to make it clear that he has recently been in prison for sexual offences. He tells Sam that he came to faith in prison, and although he is struggling with the guilt about his offence, he really wants to change.

Sam politely gets to the end of the conversation, but he wants nothing more than to leave so that he can think. He is repelled, but he is also genuinely concerned for the safety of his congregation. He fears that he should tell John that he cannot come back, but he is not sure how. Perhaps he should tell him that he will visit John at home - but is even that wise?

Scenario A: Sam decides to tell John that, since there are vulnerable adults present, and a flourishing children's ministry, it would be better if he stayed away. He gives John the telephone number of the Revd Ann Bloggs in Little Ruralsham. Perhaps, he says, a smaller church in the country, with no children present, would be a safer place for him to worship.

But in Little Ruralsham, Ann tells Tom sadly that she does not feel it wise to include him, because the congregation is so small. It would be hard, she says, to explain why a man of his youth and vigour is not helping out more. She is very sorry; perhaps John can support the congregation in his prayers.

So John is excluded from the one place where he had hoped to find some measure of acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption. The Church which, in prison, had told him that he was forgiven and restored in Christ, outside treats him as a pariah. John's new faith crumbles.

"I want to go back to prison, because I want to go to church," said one ex-offender (this quotation is not fiction).

Scenario B: Sam phones his local safeguarding officer for advice. The diocesan officer contacts the probation service, so that it can assess the risk that John is thought to pose, and advises Sam to set up a covenant of behaviour with John, as an ex-offender. This way, John can be safely and discreetly supported and held accountable by a small group of trusted members of the congregation.

Sam also searches online, and discovers Caring for Ex-offenders, a charity that trains congregations to mentor and resettle ex-offenders. It turns out that the charity knows of a business locally that specialises in employing ex-offenders. Sam puts John in touch with them, and he is soon employed.

John's new support group at St Agnes's helps him to put disciplines in place which keep him from reoffending, and John flourishes in his new job. His employer has a link with a housing trust that will provide accommodation.

With these three things in place - accommodation, employment, and a support network - John's risk of reoffending diminishes ex­­pon­­entially. He becomes a stable and fruitful member of the church congregation and of wider society.

IN THE chapel in prison, we find that many previously nominal Christ­­ians suddenly discover what their faith means, in the context of sin and redemption, but are afraid that the Church "outside" will reject them. The temptation to hide their history, and be assured of an easy welcome, is great, but they - and we - will be far more vulnerable if they do.

All of us have weaknesses: sins we are more likely to commit than others. For most of us, those sins are not also crimes. Our best bet is to build one another up; to form a humble community of sinners, where we can protect the vulnerable and encourage the weak. To do this, we need to have our eyes and our hearts open.

There is huge amount of charit­able support available, from Caring for Ex-offenders and the St Giles Trust, which specialises in re­­in­­tegrating ex-offenders, to websites such as clinks.org, which lists a host of charities that work with offenders and ex-offenders.

Then there are the structures built into the system: every diocese has a safeguarding officer who is available for support and inform­ation. Many probation departments and prison chaplains are happy to give general advice to churches, or if applicable - and with the consent of the person concerned - provide background checks to help assess the risk that an ex-offender poses.

Our ministry of welcome goes far beyond the after-church coffee. We must engage pastorally and safely with ex-offenders, while not trusting foolishly, nor turning our backs in fear. The history of our faith is full of people who have been trans­formed in Christ. 

We, more than any other com­munity, should be saying: "Come, and sin no more." 

The Revd Lindsay Llewellyn-Macduff is a prison chaplain.

The opinions expressed here are in no way an official view of the Prison Service; neither should they be considered an indication of Prison Service policy.

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