Evangelical leaders believe that former prisoners can be redeemed and, if otherwise qualified, should be considered to serve as pastors. In the February Evangelical Leaders Survey, 97 percent of evangelical leaders said that a previously incarcerated person who is otherwise qualified for the ministry should be eligible to serve as a pastor.
“Evangelicals believe that the gospel transforms lives. When former prisoners serve in ministry, we are reminded of the redemption and restoration that all Christians enjoy in Christ,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).
Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, shared that his father served as a Pentecostal pastor for nearly 40 years after he was released from prison where he went through the Teen Challenge program.
Jay Barnes, president of Bethel University, added, “We’ve had previously incarcerated people come through Bethel Seminary. Their testimony is clear, and their heart for serving the Lord has been tried by fire. We believe in repentance and changed hearts. It is at the core of the gospel!”
Several respondents pointed to biblical examples of redemption. As Steve Jones, president of the Missionary Church, said, “The calling of Saul of Tarsus demonstrates that God can choose whomever he wants to use. The qualifications for ministry found in the Bible are all about current character traits, not past-life perfection.”
Many leaders noted that prisoners as well as ex-prisoners whose lives have been transformed by Jesus Christ have gone on to serve the church with extraordinary effectiveness.
Johnnie Moore, president of The Kairos Company, told of the leader of prison ministries at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, who was serving a double life sentence for murder when he found Christ in prison. He planted a church in his prison. After the governor commuted his sentence, he joined and now leads Saddleback’s prison ministry, which works in more than 600 prisons nationwide. “I’ll never forget the morning the church elders dedicated him as a pastor, and the church prayed for him,” Moore said.
A number of leaders cautioned that adequate time should be allowed for an ex-offender to demonstrate the fruits of a transformed life before being entrusted with pastoral responsibility. And others said that certain crimes, such as the sexual abuse of children, would permanently disqualify a person from pastoral office.
“A qualification for pastoral ministry is a person ‘above reproach,’” said Ron Hamilton, conference minister for the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. “While a person can be restored to healthy life, the reputation of such a person could result in a lack of confidence by people in the church.”
The NAE has joined with Prison Fellowship and other groups to promote April as Second Chance Month, highlighting the ministry of churches in welcoming and supporting ex-offenders as they seek gainful employment, reunite with family members and begin the process of rebuilding their lives. More information and church resources for Second Chance Month are available at PrisonFellowship.org/second-chance-month.
The Evangelical Leaders Survey is a monthly poll of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. They include the CEOs of denominations and representatives of a broad array of evangelical organizations including missions, universities, publishers and churches.