June 13 2024

Theology and Ministry at Garden State Correctional Facility

by Melanie Webb, Princeton Theological Seminary


Do you think the seminary would ever want to teach us?

In 2013, I first cotaught a college class at a New Jersey state prison, Garden State Correctional Facility, in Bordentown. The course was in literature, but one of my students noticed from the syllabus that my institutional affiliation was with a seminary. He pulled me aside in the middle of the semester and said, “Mel, I notice that you’re at Princeton Seminary. I’m a theologian, and I’m the choir director here. Do you think the seminary would ever want to teach us?” I stared at him in silence, taken aback by the simplicity of his request to be taught by the seminary as any other faith leader might be taught.

The seminary’s mission is, after all, “to prepare women and men to serve Jesus Christ,” and here stood before me a man serving Jesus Christ who was asking to be better prepared for that ministry. Yet the possibility of offering a seminary-accredited course for students who had yet to complete their BAs was not within reach. I knew the answer to his question was not, “No,” but did not know how it could be “Yes.” I began considering what programs the seminary offered that required a high school education or the equivalent and that did not involve a residential component.

Also in 2013, I began teaching in the theology and ministry certificate program offered by Continuing Education at Princeton Seminary. The program is designed for lay leaders who are active in ministry and able to participate in the program online, either from their home or by joining a cohort hosted by a local church where students gather for weekly live online sessions. The program consists of six five-week classes in major areas of seminary study (Old Testament, New Testament, theology, history, practical theology, and ethics). The online certificate in theology and ministry provided a clear pathway to beginning an educational venture in a prison within a short time frame.

When, in February 2014, I approached the new associate dean of continuing education, Dayle Rounds, about launching a cohort site at a local prison, she responded enthusiastically. By the end of that same week, she got the green light from the seminary’s president, and I approached the chaplain supervisor at Garden State Correctional Facility, Reverend Charles Atkins, Jr. Reverend Atkins also happens to be an alumnus of the seminary, and he started working at that prison as part of his field education experience in the late '90s.

The CTM-Inside Program

Together we began to imagine what role the program might have within the faith community at Garden State. We planned to invite lay leaders from local area congregations to enroll in the cohort at the prison, having them travel to Garden State every Friday evening for class. The cohort at Garden State, then, would consist of leaders in the congregation at the prison and leaders from congregations in the surrounding area. Our hope was that the program could facilitate interaction among congregational leaders in several different faith communities—a vital component of the program experience for our 140+ online students every year.

The CTM–Inside program is an extension site that is part of the current Certificate in Theology and Ministry Program (CTM), which in 2013 and 2014 was offered exclusively online to individual students and to those participating in cohort sites. CTM–Inside functions as an additional cohort site that consists of a combination of incarcerated (inside) and community (outside) students, and it is moderated in person by members of the seminary’s teaching staff. The teaching staff and outside students enter the facility together for class meetings with inside students.

Program Structure and Pedagogy

When going behind the prison walls with this program, we did not want to bring a team of volunteers who viewed themselves as offering something to wayward convicts in need of some “good time” on their record. The prison is so effective in drawing a boundary through our imagined communities—or erasing our awareness of those imprisoned altogether—that we can be easily seduced by the emphasis that we on the outside have something that they on the inside need—or that we know anything about them at all. To counteract this bias, we designed a program where each participant cultivates the conditions of a mutual learning environment and where the questions and materials under discussion invite everyone to bring their wisdom and their uncertainties into conversation. An inside student has said that the program “allows us to get a sense of how the body of Christ looks outside prison. The diversity of thought and personality makes CTM a pleasurable experience. I think that it also positively affects the outside participants because they get a chance to see that those of us on the inside are just like them.” Each participant encounters anew the materials required for a certificate in theology and ministry, and together they work to deepen their understanding of and critical engagement with the Christian tradition and its implications for their own lives and ministries.

Such an approach is premised on the proclamation that “the dividing wall of hostility has come down” (Eph. 2:14), and we are invited to enter God’s presence by being present to and with one another. While the curriculum for the online students and the Garden State cohort shares many points of continuity, the teaching staff, which consists of MDiv and PhD students, adapts it for the distinctive learning environment that we forge together at the prison. The online classroom is not accessible from within New Jersey prisons, so all class sessions for the cohort at Garden State are conducted in person. We develop our capacity for mutual recognition and appreciation by arranging our classroom space in a circle and, at least once in a class session, asking a question or giving a prompt to which each participant responds. In the first class session, teaching staff and students name and discuss the expectations and aspirations that will animate our year together. This involves drafting a class covenant that shapes how we structure our time each week and that we revise throughout the year.

Based on the class covenant, the teaching staff reviews lessons delivered by faculty in the online classroom for the prison classroom. Each faculty member in the program attends one session in person at the prison, and works with teaching staff to prepare for direct engagement with these congregational leaders. For the remaining four sessions in each course, the teaching staff selects portions of the recorded lecture delivered to the online cohort and then conducts discussions related to key topics and at points of intersection with our students’ ministries. At other times, instead of watching the recording, we adapt the online lessons so that what was initially delivered in a lecture format might be discovered together in focused conversation.

By studying theology and ministry in a prison context and cultivating a hospitable environment for one another, we experience personal and communal transformation together. Both non-incarcerated and incarcerated participants share the identity of Christian faith leader and, in our program, student. An inside student, reflecting on his experience of the first class session, said that, “It was a beautiful thing to see so many people from not only the inside and outside but from so many different walks of life come together for the glory of God.” By designing a space in which incarcerated status is not the most salient difference, other, deeper aspects of each student’s distinctive qualities and interests can then rise to the surface and contribute to the diverse classroom space that is so necessary to both democratic education and Christian formation.

We set this trajectory towards practices of mutual recognition by interviewing each applicant in person. For the prospective outside students, we plan for a fifteen-minute interview that allows members of the teaching staff time to converse with the applicant, to hear what drew them to this opportunity, and to discuss the emphasis on collaboration and mutuality within the program. Often, this means emphasizing the identity of “student” that they will share with all others in the cohort. For many applicants, this is an unexpected aspect of the program—that they are not primarily coming to minister but also to be ministered to, and to minister with those who are incarcerated and learn about ministry from them. As one outside student who completed the 2015 program described the first day of class: “It was also a ‘God Moment’ for me when I realized that the inside student sitting next to me wanted to do youth ministry, which is my calling too!” Our outside students are active in a variety of ministries as well—youth ministry, choir, building and grounds care, family counseling, volunteer coordination, and running a homeless shelter. 

For the prospective inside students, we work closely in collaboration with the chaplain at the prison, Reverend Atkins, who has designed a three-month program called “Logos,” which is a skill-based program that draws on incarnational theology to teach participants how to attend to their spiritual, physical, mental, and social well-being during their incarceration and anticipate the challenges that they will face upon re-entry. Applicants must complete this program prior to entering the Certificate in Theology and Ministry Program, and the seminary relies on Reverend Atkins to guide us in admissions decisions.

The students at Garden State have many different areas of ministry, including as facilitators for the Alternatives to Violence Program (offered by a local Quaker chapter), teaching assistants for the Logos program, discussion leaders in Bible studies, spoken word artists who perform edifying and original poems in Sunday services, choir members, and clerks of the chapel. Their involvement in, for example, the plumbing department, inmate legal association, the kitchen, and college program are also understood as sites of their ministry, as well as the relationships they have with “bunkies” and on their tiers. The impact of the 2015 students’ ministries was evident when, in conducting interviews with inside students for the 2016 cohort, we asked, “Tell us about one person who has had a positive impact on your spiritual life.” Many of the applicants named men in the 2015 cohort, whose theological insight, mentorship, and pastoral care had challenged and grounded them in their faith.

The cohort at Garden State is also unique in that, unlike other combined cohort programs, the outside students do not come from among those who have matriculated at Princeton Seminary. Rather, they are lay leaders in communities of faith across the mid-Atlantic. With one in 100 citizens imprisoned at any given time, America has one of the highest rates of incarceration of any nation—this makes incarceration a common part of the American experience and an important area of concern for the American church. By fostering relationships among committed Christians who serve their communities both inside and outside America’s prisons, CTM–Inside seeks to strengthen the American church for responding to the theological, pastoral, and social challenges encompassed within and reflected by the trenchant realities of mass incarceration. These challenges are so diffuse that we cannot rely only on those with expertise in criminology, the history of incarceration, or policy advocacy to effect the necessary changes. The transformations that will reconstitute our society in the midst and aftermath of mass incarceration must also be diffuse.

Several of our outside students have previously encountered the realities of incarceration. Given that one in twenty people will, at some point in their lives, live under state or federal surveillance, this is not surprising. The interpersonal encounters with incarcerated lay leaders can also be a source of healing and empowerment for them. One outside student reflected on his own family background, his personal renewal, and his pursuit to mend a difficult relationship within his family: “There was a moment when I spoke about the incarceration of my oldest brother and I began to cry because I could not reach him and understand him. But being here has given me a lot of insight into what happens when you are incarcerated and it has prompted me to restart a relationship with my brother.” The practices of mutual recognition that happen within the cohort have an impact that extends beyond the cohort, and can expand the possibilities for empathy with others in one’s life.


When, in spring 2013, the choir director at the prison asked me whether the seminary would teach him and other leaders in the congregation at Garden State, he posed one of the most salient questions for any institution of higher education: “Who are our students?” For a seminary, the answer to that question reflects our own imagination of who is and will contribute to the flourishing of our society and the faith communities within it. Such a question echoes the inquiry once posed to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’s response then, as now, invites us to dismantle the walls that seek to divide us.


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Princeton Theological Seminary. 2016. “Certificate in Theology and Ministry.” Continuing Education. http://coned.ptsem.edu/certificates/certificate-theology-ministry/

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Scott, Robert. 2013. “Distinguishing Radical Teaching from Merely Having Intense Experiences While Teaching in Prison.” The Radical Teacher 95: 22–32.

Stern, Kaia. 2015. Voices from American Prisons: Faith, Education and Healing. Routledge.

Wolf, Janet. 2012. “To See and Be Seen.” In And the Criminals with Him: Essays in Honor of Will D. Campbell and All the Reconciled, edited by Will D. Campbell and Richard C. Goode (252–72). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Wray, Harmon L. 2002. Restorative Justice: Moving beyond Punishment. New York: General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church.

Melanie Webb (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary, 2016) is broadly concerned with political, theological, and philosophical constructs of flourishing societies, and the ways in which their members are expected and enabled to foster mutual well-being. Her dissertation explores Roman virtue traditions, sexuality, violence, and salvation in Augustine's City of God. Webb has offered courses in seminaries, churches, universities, prisons, and online classrooms. In addition, she is an independent researcher, currently working with the Humanities and Liberal Arts Assessment Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education as well as on a project that studies the history and contemporary landscape of religious education in prisons.

Photo: A student raises his hand in a English seminar facilitated by Cornell University at the Auburn Correctional Facility. Credit: Cornell Prison Education Program.