Why CPE for the Correctional Chaplain?

Why CPE for the Correctional Chaplain?
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R. Tim O’Dell, M.A., BCC

Christian Chaplains, who serve in a correctional setting, find themselves dealing with individuals from widely diverse backgrounds. Many cultures, languages, and belief systems are represented in the typical correctional population. Additionally, many incarcerated individuals exhibit non-rational and often criminal thinking patterns. The chaplain has to learn a new language, as it were, and be cautious in his/her dealings with those he/she serves.

The dynamics that drive these issues are profoundly complex and can become a seemingly insurmountable barrier to effective ministry. Additionally, the facility’s classification level and population demographics further rules out any “one size fits all” approach.

Through our clinical pastoral training, we learn that every individual we serve is unique. Anton Boisen taught that each person is a “living human document”. Each of these unique documents are written from a perspective peculiar to that individual, based on their worldview, experiences, education, and bias.

Incarcerated individuals typically think differently than members of the public. This is not a demeaning statement, merely an acknowledgment of the facts. Incarcerated individuals filter their thinking through a different set of ‘screens’ than most in the general public. These screens are frequently the result of deprivation, abuse, neglect, prejudice, and poverty among others. While this may not be true of all those who have been convicted of criminal conduct, it is a very common reality.

Chaplains must learn to read the documents before them with great clarity. Not everyone who seeks out the chaplain is looking for guidance or assistance. Some are doing so under the pretense of seeking help, when in fact they are seeking an opportunity to manipulate the chaplain, another staff member, or a volunteer. Therefore, discernment is profoundly critical.

The chaplain has to learn to balance the danger of being manipulated with the mission of pastoral care. This is not a balance easily achieved or maintained.

The tools acquired during one’s CPE training can make the difference in this situation. Carefully constructed open-ended questions and highly developed reflective listening skills can, and more often than not, reveal the motivation behind the request.

We never want to be guilty of rejecting someone’s plea for help or to fall prey to a well-constructed ploy. The safety and security of the facility at large and of those who work and live there are uncertain. Not everyone who is called to ministry is well suited to the correctional environment.

In a correctional setting, the chaplain generally has the luxury of time. Most requests can be responded to a bit later. This delay gives the chaplain an opportunity to do some homework about the individual inmate and the nature of his/her request. However, it is critical that delaying an answer is not perceived as a lack of compassion or interest. Again, asking the right questions is essential to gaining sufficient understanding of the situation to give the appropriate and timely response.

In this midst of this environment are men and women who long to be heard, who long for someone to express concern, compassion, mercy, and grace. Grace is the primary expression of God toward the children of humankind and ought to be the chief attribute of the chaplain. Not naiveté, but genuine godly compassion (i.e. grace).

The temptation for correctional chaplains is often driven by the “righting reflex”1 as Dr. William Miller calls it. We want to fix people. We understand that their thinking has produced a life style that is criminal. Thus, driven by criminal thinking, these men and women end up separated from their families and communities – locked away into something less than the position human beings ought to occupy.

The idea that we can diagnosis the root cause of criminal behavior and provide a simple fix is a bit over optimistic, perhaps short sighted. Long-term chaplains have grown to understand the process of change is slow. It requires first that the person with whom we are working recognize, for themselves, that the mindset they hold is more of a prison that the physical structure in which they reside. Without this recognition, change cannot take place. In that all change is “self-change”, it is an acknowledgement that change is needed is the necessary starting point.

Most offenders are slow to consider that there is something wrong with their lives. Most, not all, hold to the idea that they are victims of a society that dislikes or even hates them for some reason or another. Many will say, “I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.” The idea that something external to themselves lay at the root of their incarceration is all too common. Holding a victim responsible, in the inmate’s mind, is quite common. In addition, culturally, this concept has gained considerable footing in the United States and our communities. It is no surprise then that this way of thinking is common among those incarcerated.

Paul writes in Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

Simply put, most of those who are incarcerated have a history of demonstrated difficulty with authority. The sin of the Garden was a rejection of God’s authority—and all sin since that time has its roots in the rejection of God’s authority.

The correctional chaplain has to illustrate an unwavering subjection to the proper authorities both in the community and in the institution. This “living out the faith” is vital to leading by example; as a man/woman in subjection to God’s authority and thus the authorities that He Himself has instituted. This might be understood better if we equate it to walking a tight rope… with a significant drop beneath.

From the Christian perspective, the problem is what the Bible calls “sin.” C.K. Chesterton wrote, “The ancient masters of religion… began with the fact of sin – a fact as practical as potatoes.”2 It is sin, common to all men that lay behind the motivation to misuse and/or take advantage of others. Sin, not poverty, or similar issues lay at the root of criminal behavior. Perhaps it is the sin of the fathers or mothers, but sin nonetheless. Yet, much like an undiscovered cancer, it cannot be addressed until there is the recognition that it exists.

Clemente, Norcross, and Prochaska, in their trans-theoretical model of change argue that many who are in need of change are pre-contemplative, that is, they see no need for change.3 Such is the mind and heart of a man or women committed to sin. The life of sin is addictive… in many respects attractive and easily justified in our own minds.

As a chaplain in a correctional setting, you are dealing not with merely momentary challenges or crises in the minds and lives of those you serve – but with long-term issues that began months or perhaps years before you met this poor soul and will not be remedied with a sudden application of grace. That change may well come (and God is able to bring it to fruition instantly), but in my experience, rarely does it occur quickly. It is then a process more often than not. A process that begins when the chaplain, using every skill and grace granted him/her, extends the hand of God’s grace to that incarcerated soul.

CPE then, within the confines of a correctional facility, leads us to come along beside the incarcerated individual and journey with him/her toward the possibility of a new life… a life filled with hope and promise rather than one caught in the cycle of crime and imprisonment.

Self-awareness is an essential mindset for the correctional chaplain. We must recognize the baggage we carry along and know how of keep the skeletons of our past from interfering with the ministry of the present. CPE teaches us to be self-aware.

Self-awareness gives us the insights to keep our personal prejudices at bay and thus to be transparent with those we serve – no matter what their beliefs, crimes, or attitudes.

Self-awareness helps us recognize our own venerability to “the sin which so easily entangles us” (Hebrews 12:1b NAS95), and thus understand, as we look in the face of our incarcerated client; “but for the grace of God there go I” .4 Self-awareness produces genuine humility, a necessary attribute for the correctional chaplain.

In short, taking advantage of clinical pastoral training equips us to be more effective as chaplains in a most difficult environment. Balancing the roles of “pastoral care” and “corrections professional” requires every advantage you can get. CPE goes a long way to meeting that goal.


1The Righting Reflex, Motivational Interviewing, Third Edition: Helping People Change (Applications of Motivational Interviewing) by William R. Miller, Stephen Rollick (location 204, Kindle edition)
2Orthodoxy, C.K. Chesterton, William Clowes and Sons, Limited, London; 1908 p.5
3Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward by James O. Prochaska, John C. Norcross, PhD Carlo C. DiClemente.
4Attributed to 16th Century English reformer John Bradford prior to his martyr’s death at the hands of Bloody Mary. Bradford was burned at the stake.


Tim O’Dell is a prison chaplain with the Corrections Corporation of America and a Board Certified Chaplain and Supervisor-in-Training with ACCC.

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