What Makes the Texas Field Ministers Program Different?
This movement to train men and women with long-term prison sentences to serve their peers is unique in the history of prisons anywhere in the world. It is fair to ask, “What makes the Texas Field Ministers Program unique?”
The Texas Field Ministers Program Consists of Six Key Elements.
Each of the six key elements described below, together, make the Texas Field Ministers Program unique.
L.E.T.L.A.P. = Lifers,Equipped,Transferred,Live-in,Access,Peer to Peer
● L: Lifers and Long Sentences. Only “lifers” and inmates with extremely long sentences need apply to the Texas Field Ministers Program. We don’t want someone to earn his or her theological training and then leave the prison, when the prison desperately needs the word of God as do the inmates who live in it. We want men and women who will be Texas Field Ministers for the rest of their long sentences. What better option does a lifer have, who wants to build a new life and serve others, than to become a Field Minister while in prison?
● E: Equipped. A two-step process: 1.)We equip the lifers with 4.5 years of sound theological training through providing a fully scholarshipped education that leads to the Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies. This degree is the only degree accepted as the qualification of the first step to becoming a Texas Field Minister. The Heart of Texas Foundation entirely funds this educational component. Without the Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies, no inmate can progress to the next step in his or her preparation to become a Texas Field Minister—the Texas Field Ministers Academy. 2.) The Heart of Texas Foundation’s Texas Field Ministers Academy helps a person with a long sentence transition successfully from his or her years as a full-time student to a full-time Texas Field Minister. Matters of integrity, real field experience, and successful dos and don’ts are all part of the Texas Field Ministers Academy. Upon successful completion of both steps, a man or woman will be able to voluntarily accept the job of Texas Field Minister.
● T: Transferred. When an inmate is appointed as a Field Minister, he or she is actually transferred by TDCJ to an outlying prison to begin service as a Field Minister. The new Field Ministers are placed in teams of two or more. With this transfer out, the new Field Minister’s entry into the mission field begins.
● L: Live-In. These Field Ministers, whatever their faith, take into their new prisons the education and training poured into them, and they take the gospel of Jesus Christ with them if they are Christians. And, unlike all Wardens, Chaplains, and all volunteers, the Field Ministers don’t “go home at night.” They are home! And they live in that large “village” around the clock, seven days a week. They don’t go on vacation. They don’t go home on the weekend. They live in their mission field, and most will die in that mission field. They are like any other missionaries anywhere in the world: they live with their people, they speak the same language, they dress like their people, and they indeed are culturally identical to their people. But Field Ministers take no furlough.
● A: Access.Field Ministers would be like any other inmates if they were not, by special permission, given access to all areas of the prison where inmates live, function, and go. While each Warden carefully monitors his or her own Field Ministers, TDCJ has officially sanctioned and encouraged Wardens to allow the Field Ministers to have access to any housing area a man or woman lives. This is where the “darkest of places” comes into view. The Field Ministers are allowed to have daily, and sometimes hourly, visits to places no volunteers can go. And Field Ministers can usually go to these places at any time of the day and also be called out during late hours of the night. Such areas include restricted housing (familiar to civilians as solitary confinement); inmates on Constant Direct Observation (CDO) for circumstances such as threat of suicide. The Field Ministers have a large impact on inmates who are totally separated from their peers because of their crimes or because they are known gang members. Field Ministers can bring comfort to inmates who are in the medical or hospice units. The Field Ministers are trained in how to preach sermons in the chapels, teach Bible studies, or counsel the grieving and depressed in their cell blocks. Such state-approved access for inmates such as Field Ministers exists nowhere in the United States.
● P: Peer-to-Peer. Inside the culture of all prisons is the overwhelming influence that one inmate has over another. This peer influence is at the core of why prisons contain dark and violent cultures. That culture is usually founded upon intimidation, suspicion, retribution, extortion, violence, and hostility. The most influential inmates control every prison’s culture. And who are the inmates with the most peer influence? Typically it is those who have the longest sentences, the lifers, because they have committed the worst of crimes and have to do the longest time. They are instantly given “respect.” They are the “role models” for all the other inmates. They have the respect and the power. And of those with long sentences, the avowed gang members are the ones who bring fear into the hearts of other inmates. Their influence always sets the culture inside a prison. The prison’s culture is totally invisible to the outside visitor, to the staff, and to the volunteers. It underlies, controls, and directs all relationships inside the prison. It is not a culture of light. It is a culture of darkness. No warden, no chaplain, no volunteer can have the impact that a Field Minister has as a peer.
Remove any one of these above, and the unique mixture of what makes the Field Ministers so effective is lost. At times, those who have seen the effectiveness of the Texas Field Ministers Program will attempt to replicate it in an “easier” way by reducing the length of the prison sentence requirements, reducing the length or standards of the education, not granting graduates the access they need to serve others, or focusing solely on education without service. Any attempt to reduce any one of the key elements in L.E.T.L.A.P. will not result in the same measure of impact seen in the Texas Field Ministers Program. It simply will not be the same thing. We believe that any attempt to replicate the Texas Field Ministers Program without the gospel of Jesus Christ will lose its impact entirely.
Something impacted the culture of our prisons when the Texas Field Ministers arrived. The Texas Field Ministers brought new and positive “role-models” as scholar-mentors into the prison system. Inmates are stunned to find out that Field Ministers don’t intimidate; they don’t retaliate, can’t be bought, have markedly different countenances, and live their lives in total contrast to the gaming, deceit, and distrusting culture in the prison. They are not snitches; they are not spies for the warden. The Field Ministers are front-line spiritual responders, positive role-models that are unlike any the inmates have ever seen.They bring into the prison a new kind of peer-influence because of the exemplary lives they live, in full view of every inmate.
Kate Shellnut, “COVID–19 Shutdowns Are Shifting Seminary Education,”Christianity Today, April 23, 2020.