A group of 12 inmates at Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent, Alabama, gather for two hours most weekday mornings in a makeshift conference room as they take classes to pursue seminary degrees from Birmingham Theological Seminary (BTS), a board-directed ministry of Briarwood Presbyterian Church.

Many would call the group’s very existence a miracle, as its members have perpetrated some of the worst crimes imaginable — including murder, rape, and sexual offenses.

“To know what these men have done and see the transforming power of Christ working in their lives is astounding,” said Dr. Thad James, vice president at BTS and director of its Prison Initiative. “Some people want to lock them up and throw away the key, but they don’t realize that 75 percent of people behind bars are going to come out. Our prayer is to release people who love the Lord and won’t be involved in further criminal activity.”

Many would call the group’s very existence a miracle, as its members have perpetrated some of the worst crimes imaginable — including murder, rape, and sexual offenses.

An Ambitious Plan  

The BTS Prison Initiative is the first free seminary program of its kind in Alabama, and is based on other successful programs in South Carolina and Louisiana. Its long-term goal is to train men who will minister to their fellow inmates and be a positive influence in prison.

To select the inmates for its inaugural program, James and several others traveled to correctional facilities around Alabama to interview potential applicants, trying to identify men with a deep faith and a desire to serve. There were several screening criteria: no death-row inmates were allowed and men had to have at least seven years left on their sentences so that they could complete the two-year training and have five years left to teach fellow inmates. The first cohort began the two-year program in September 2016 and upon graduation will be sent out two by two to other state facilities in a missionary-style endeavor.

The Prison Initiative seeks to change mindsets of the seminary students as they work through a curriculum including Bible, theology, counseling, and discipleship.

“People are seeing that the only power to transform prisoners is through the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” says James, noting that he was granted an extraordinary ability to request transfers for seminary students because Alabama’s governor and commissioner for the Department of Corrections are behind this effort.

Renewing Minds

The Prison Initiative seeks to change mindsets of the seminary students as they work through a curriculum including Bible, theology, counseling, and discipleship.

“It’s easy in prison to develop an institutional mindset, to mistrust people and look out only for yourself,” said James. “We focus heavily on helping these men renew their minds.”

The program’s outward focus supports this effort, as seminary students know they are being trained not only for their own edification but to equip them to serve fellow inmates in other prisons. James has high hopes for one seminary student who is gifted in evangelism. “He is so passionate about evangelism and his love for the Lord. You can see the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart.” This inmate committed a horrific crime 32 years ago and has been in prison ever since.

Though doubters would scoff at the idea of true transformation for inmates like these, James insists the changes are authentic.

“I would have no problem having any of these seminary students in my home around my family,” he said. “I tell people, if we don’t believe in the changing grace of God we’re in the wrong business.”

To learn more about the BTS Prison Initiative, including ways to pray and contribute, contact Dr. Thad James at tjames@briarwood.org.

4 Responses to Seminary in Prison

  1. Pastor Mike Hays, Covenant Church West Campus, Flagstaff, Az says:

    I am a retired prison administrator and now serve as a Pastor involved in prison ministry. I have met individuals who have been incarcerated for serious crimes, who only through a relationship with Christ were able to make such positive and permanent life changes. I know it is almost cliche these days but, Jesus does indeed Save. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

  2. Kim An says:

    As a retired engineer, I help campus ministry at UAH Huntsville, AL. I also witnessed a murderer, who killed seven family members but accepted Jesus, confessed his joy to see the Lord soon at his execution. If one is authentically changed, he will want to serve to his inmates even after his incarceration. Why? – He wants other inmates to experience the same joy and freedom of salvation. Mark Stern’s Lincoln Village ministry moves on with his strong gratitude to the Lord who saved him from the same situation. My husband also started the campus ministry after he experienced Jesus while he was atheist physicist to show Muslim, Hindu, and atheist students the same love he experienced. The changed inmates will lead many inmates to our Lord…

  3. Dianne Larson says:

    I wonder if these prison students would care to have outside seminary student for pen / prayer partners. Might benefit both.

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