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How to deal with ex-offenders

By Bill Price

Develop a policy in the context of discipleship and full reconciliation.

“Frank” arrived at our Celebrate Recovery meeting on Friday night for his first visit. He looked vaguely familiar to a few members who became suddenly alarmed when they recalled seeing his face on the evening news several nights before.

Frank had recently been released from prison, labeled a Level III Sex Offender (L3SO), and the community was warned of his presence via the local newscast. Church members’ concern over Frank’s presence grew to the level that the ministry leaders approached Frank and asked him to leave the premises. This was done graciously, and perhaps anticipating their response, Frank agreed to leave. It was Thanksgiving weekend when one of my staff called to alert me to a growing firestorm. The director of the local ministry to ex-offenders, a ministry with whom our church has very close ties, was very upset.

Professed his faith
I soon learned that not only had Frank made a profession of faith while in prison, but for the last year had been discipled by the chairman of our elder board. These men knew Frank well and joyfully anticipated his release from prison and his fellowship in the ministry of the church.  They could not believe that a church otherwise known for its loving embrace of all seekers could have acted so thoughtlessly.

“Aren’t we all forgiven sinners?” “No sin is greater than any other.” Phrases like these formed the conversations of the next several weeks as we gained a clearer picture of exactly what happened and why. Those who knew Frank as a believer wondered why others had responded in such an unchristian manner. Those who knew Frank only as a L3SO wondered why others seemed dismissive of their fears.

In retrospect, the leaders of Celebrate Recovery made the best decision they could at the time with the information available to them. In any case where the safety of those attending a church ministry is at stake, it makes sense to err on the side of caution. Our senior pastor met with Frank and his spiritual mentors to apologize and welcome him to the church. In the end the situation was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and identified the need for a policy to provide future guidance.

I did some online research to see how other churches had dealt with this issue. What I found was truly surprising. The prevailing tone of many of the policies I reviewed reflected the justifiable fear of the congregation but seemed to overlook the needs of the ex-offender.

Most of the policies rang with phrases like, “You will not go to this part of the building…” and “You must be within 15 feet of your supervisor…” and the like. Upon reading the tone and stipulations of these policies, one wonders why an ex-offender would want to endure the humiliation of attending church. I understand the legitimate responsibility of church leaders to protect members and their children from predators, but it seems logical that any offender with predatory intentions is not going to identify himself to church leaders in the first place.

Fears are considered
The imbalance of many of the policies we reviewed led us to develop a policy that appreciates the fears of the congregation and the responsibility to protect vulnerable children and adults, but attempts to do so in the context of the discipleship and spiritual growth of the ex-offender. We refer to our L3SO policy as a Personal Discipleship Plan and we hope that this is more than mere semantics.

We have many of the same requirements in place as other policies, but include these both to protect the ex-offender from false accusations and to protect the congregation. We assume that a L3SO who desires fellowship with the body of Christ has experienced true repentance and is eager to embrace a discipleship plan that includes spiritual mentorship, Bible study, corporate worship and authentic spiritual community.

Our policy attempts to immerse the ex-offender in a gracious spiritual environment that leads to full reconciliation with God and the church. Our plan is not perfect, but offered for consideration of other churches looking for a model as they develop their own policies for the discipleship of ex-offenders.

Bill Price is executive pastor of Autumn Ridge Church, Rochester, MN. www.autumnridgechurch.org

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A policy for the congregation and the offender

Autumn Ridge Church has an L3SO Discipleship Plan that tries to take a responsible approach both to the congregation and to the offender. It explores theological, biblical and pastoral implications and deserves careful reading. For a copy write price.bill@autumnridgechurch.org. Excerpts follow:

The response of church attendees
Because of the nature of the ex-offender’s previous crimes, people’s initial response to the presence of an L3SO is fear … .

In some cases fear of an ex-offender is unwarranted.  The ex-offender may have completed their sentence and probation and have been released by the courts but still be under the L3SO designation for several years after probation.  In addition, the person may have been involved in a successful discipleship relationship with a church for a number of years while labeled L3SO, but this would not be generally known.

While the fear response of the general population may be irrational, disproportionate or unwarranted, the fear is real and must be taken seriously by church leadership. While much of the ministry in this situation is directed toward fostering a discipleship relationship with the ex-offender, the leadership also has a responsibility to allay the fears of the congregation through accurate information and meaningful relationships with the ex-offender.

Most every church that has an L3SO policy includes mentoring with a mature believer as a component of the discipleship process, even to the point of accompanying the ex-offender while on church premises. The purpose of the mentor and disciple being seen together is not to prevent the ex-offender from getting into trouble; it is to demonstrate to the congregation that the disciple has established a meaningful relationship with the mentor.

An important part of helping members of the congregation overcome their fear is to assist the ex-offender to re-establish trust with society. Forgiveness must be immediate, but from a practical perspective it often takes time to rebuild trust.  Even though a sexual offender may have paid their debt to society they lose in varying degrees the common trust that society gives to each member. In doing so, they lose some of the common freedoms that accompanies that trust.  The goal of this discipleship plan is to recover lost freedom and rebuild lost trust.

Ministry to the ex-offender
It is the purpose of Autumn Ridge Church to make disciples of all men, baptizing them and teaching them to follow the commandments of Christ (Mt 28:19-20).  It is important for any ex-offender who desires to be a part of Autumn Ridge Church to understand that the intentions of this policy are not meant to be condemning or demeaning in any way. If on one hand they have fulfilled the sentencing of the criminal justice system and are abiding by any prolonged requirements, and as well have truly repented of their sin and have expressed a desire to grow in faith, they will be welcomed into the fellowship of this church just as they are welcomed by a gracious God, fully justified by the atoning blood of Christ … .

[O]ur purpose is to welcome the ex-offender, to help them grow in their faith, to protect them from the temptation to reoffend, and to establish meaningful spiritual and social relationships with the body of Christ; to allay the fears of the congregation, to teach the congregation to respond with love and forgiveness, to encourage them to build relationships with all who desire to grow in faith and to honor God in all ways.

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