Mission Lab 2018

Ministering to the families of inmates

Mercy Heart launches online training. Goal: Change prison ministry narrative ‘to include families’

September 19th, 2017 / By: Michael Foust / comments

FORT WORTH A full 97 percent of Protestant pastors in a LifeWay Research survey earlier this year agreed that churches should care for the families of those who are incarcerated. But only 14 percent of pastors said their church has a formal ministry to that often-neglected group.

Why the disconnect? 

The head of a unique ministry that focuses solely on the families of the incarcerated thinks he knows: Pastors and other church leaders simply aren’t equipped or don’t know what to do.

“That’s not something that pastors learn in seminary,” Ryan Northcutt, CEO of Mercy Heart, told the TEXAN. “You don’t take a class about what to do with these kinds of families. That seems to still be a question that a lot of pastors that we talk to have.”

Mercy Heart was formed out of Glenview Baptist Church in Fort Worth in 1995 and has since grown to encompass a small network of congregations nationwide that partner together for the betterment of families of prisoners. 

The ministry recently launched an online training platform at MercyHeart.org that allows church leaders to train their members to reach out to the families of inmates. The platform includes training videos for leaders and volunteers, as well as downloadable curriculum.  

Unlike traditional prison ministries that focus on inmates, Mercy Heart assists the families back home who are without a key member—often a father—and are struggling to make ends meet. It also assists ex-offenders as they transition back into society and family life. 

“We minister to children,” said Roger Hollar, the founder and director emeritus of Mercy Heart. “We minister to moms and dads who have a son or a daughter in prison. We’re trying to change the whole prison ministry narrative to include families in that discussion and in that conversation.”

Mercy Heart is the only such ministry nationwide that uses the local church to assist such families, Hollar said.

“Law enforcement will tell you that it’s critical what happens with the family before the person comes home as to whether or not they’ll be successful in their re-entry,” Hollar said. “The family is essential.” 

 “Statistically, most churches already have these families in the church,” Northcutt said. “They just don’t know about it. Families who have a loved one incarcerated are living in the shadows of society. There’s a stigma that’s attached to it. There’s a shame. There’s a fear.”

Northcutt hopes the digital training platform will boost the number of churches who are involved. In the past, a training session at a church required the physical on-site presence of a Mercy Heart representative. That no longer is necessary.  

“We have taken 20 years’ worth of experience and translated it into this digital content, and we’ve put all of our training resources and curriculum onto the website so that a pastor can access it immediately right where they’re at,” Northcutt said.

For more information, visit MercyHeart.org