Probation’s Ban on Church Attendance

This is an appeal for help by other churches and ministries in reversing the local probation office’s de facto ban on church attendance in Prince William County, Virginia.

Our network of fellowships, with other churches in the county, actively ministers to and embraces men and women on the fringes of society. We have found that if the Gospel doesn’t work for those whom some consider the worst among us (including ex-sex offenders), then it works for none of us.

Our work with sex offenders often begins in the jail as we reach out to them and they turn their lives over to Jesus. We then engage in intense pastoral counseling that focuses on confession, forgiveness and repentance as we get to the issues in their lives and allow the Lord to bring healing. We also foster indigenous churches in the jail where they, and others, can experience vibrant fellowship and grow in their faith. It is not easy, but we have seen great success.

As part of our own network of typically home-based fellowships, we actively invite and integrate ex-offenders into our communities when they are released from jail. We find this is the most effective way to continue the process of healing and transformation, and is at the core of our Biblical belief about being the varied, multi-part and participatory Body of Christ.

Some churches have taken a different approach by encouraging fellowship meetings that are limited to ex-offenders and others on the fringes, in isolation from the larger community of believers. We honor that approach, but view it as transitional rather than the ultimate answer for most ex-offenders. However, we are not asking those churches to change their views. Rather, we ask that they stand with us in protecting the right to follow the dictates of our conscience and beliefs by helping to remove a major impediment to the approach we have adopted, which involves supervised integration into our churches.

In the last several years, it has become impossible to continue our ministry to ex-offenders who are still on probation. It used to be that the probation officers (“PO”) would allow a probationer – in cooperation with a willing church – to work out a “safety plan” that allowed participation in the life of the church under appropriate supervision and monitoring by a responsible member of the church. Generally, we found that this worked well and was a reasonable accommodation of Probation’s legitimate role in protecting society, a church’s right to minister to ex-offenders, and an ex-offender’s religious rights.

Now, however, Probation is not allowing any attendance at any church during the first year of probation if there might be a minor (anyone under 18 years old) present. We are not sure why this shift occurred, although it seems related to Probation’s increasing reliance on contract counselors and group sessions – where decisions previously made by a PO are now being made. Some of those contract counselors, by all accounts, are very antagonistic to church attendance – in addition to even prohibiting ex-offenders from receiving one-on-one pastoral counseling.

We are asking the larger church community in Prince William County to help address the need for reasonable guidelines and procedures, and to counter the de facto blanket ban, on church attendance for ex-sex offenders. We believe that Probation’s failure to come up with reasonable guidelines and procedures, and their deference to the increasing role and apparent antagonism by contract counselors regarding county churches and their ministries, is at odds with the law and with the spiritual health of men and women who want to grow in their faith.

At the request of our churches, the local Cooperative Council of Ministries has formed a subcommittee to look into and address this problem – on behalf of the larger church community in the county – because it potentially effects all churches.

If your church or ministry in Prince William County shares our concerns, please join Fulcrum Ministries in working with CCOM to find a solution.

Contact me if you want to participate in resolving this issue and protecting the right of churches to effectively minister to ex-offenders in Prince William County.

~ Jim

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