Becoming a Prison Chaplain

What is a Prison Chaplain?

A chaplain is a generic term for a minister, pastor, priest, rabbi, or some other representative of a religion. However, chaplains generally do not work in churches; instead, the term is reserved for those who provide religious guidance and comfort in secular areas like hospitals, military bases, universities, prisons, and police departments.

A prison chaplain tends to lead the religious congregations of a prison and provide religious counseling to the inmates. This is often a high stress job because there may be concerns about health safety. If you chose to work as a prison chaplain in a maximum security facility where people have been incarcerated due to murder or other serious felonies, you may be more concerned about your safety than if you worked in a facility that incarcerates offenders of lesser crimes.

Prison Chaplain Duties and Qualities

A prison chaplain does more than just counsel inmates and lead religious services. They are also in charge of supervising volunteers and administering various religious programs in the prisons. Some may think that the congregations in prison would be fairly small. After all, serving time in a prison means that a person has broken the law, and in most cases, that means they have sinned. Those who do so may not always feel the need to find forgiveness, especially those who have committed more serious crimes like murder and rape. However, according to surveys and other research data done on prison inmates and religion, almost 50 percent of all inmates are Christian and attempt to convert others. What this means is that prison chaplains often find themselves preaching to a fairly good sized and growing flock.

Prison chaplains are often confidants. They listen to those who have committed a crime and, in many cases, are asked to provide help in becoming rehabilitated. In this regard, they do the exact same job that prison administrators and therapists do: they work with inmates to help them identify what they did, understand why it was wrong, and create new behaviors and habits that ensure they will not commit these types of acts when they leave prison.

For those sentenced to life in prison, chaplains help them come to terms with that. They offer peace of mind and can help these inmates reconnect with their spirituality and learn how to accept the fact that they will live out the rest of their natural lives in jail without their loved ones.

Prison chaplains must also comfort and counsel those on death row. They help these people make peace with their lives and with God. They may provide last rites and sit with the accused in their last hours, offering them prayer and forgiveness. Some also help facilitate discussions between the inmate and their family or between the inmate and the family of those who were hurt. Some on death row do want to ask forgiveness from the families of their victims, and such a discussion often needs the help of a chaplain to make sure it goes smoothly.

A prison chaplain also often functions as an administrator and supervisor for volunteer counselors. In large prisons, the chaplain may not be able to personally provide counsel for every inmate. Other ordained members of the church may volunteer their time, freeing up the chaplain to work with those who are in need of the most guidance. Some prisons also have a number of religious programs in place such as Bible study or a choir. The prison chaplain acts as the administrator for these programs, although again, in many situations the programs are actually run by volunteers.

Steps to Become a Prison Chaplain

The requirements for becoming a prison chaplain vary from state to state and from prison to prison. However, there are many common requirements that all candidates should be aware of. In short, it is necessary to have a bachelor’s degree, become ordained, and become certified in order to hold this position. Many prisons may require a chaplain to hold a master’s degree, especially those that house large populations or have inmates who have committed very serious crimes. Listed below is a complete summary of the general requirements to become a prison chaplain:

  • Have a strong faith.
  • Be empathetic, understanding, and nonjudgmental.
  • Earn a bachelor’s degree in an area such as religion or counseling.
  • Consider earning a master’s degree in a relevant field, such as Biblical Studies, Theology, Divinity or Religion.
  • Get ordained by your church.
  • Complete a residency or internship if required.
  • Get licensed or earn ecclesiastical certification.

Have a Strong Faith and a Willingness to Forgive

It’s true that any chaplain is going to need to have a strong faith, but it’s especially important for someone who is dealing with criminals to be strong in their beliefs and be willing to forgive others. You may interact with murders, rapists, and others who have done horrible things. As a chaplain, you must be willing to listen to them without judging them. In many cases, they will ask for forgiveness, and while it may not be yours to give, you have to know how to handle these situations.

Become Ordained

In order to offer the best religious counseling and guidance possible, plus in order to be qualified to lean a congregation, you will need to be ordained in your church in order to serve as a prison chaplain. This means that you will need to follow the ordination process. This process varies from church to church, but in many, it requires going before a board of ordained church leaders and demonstrating that you have the knowledge, desire, and training to serve the church in a leadership role.

Education Requirements

The educational path for anyone interested in becoming a prison chaplain will start with earning a bachelor’s degree in religion or a related field. Most opt for religion because many programs offer programs tracks aimed at educating new chaplains. These tracks focus on courses such as interpersonal communication, Biblical counseling, and more. They provide a future prison chaplain with the foundation needed to counsel those whose life circumstances are unlike the average member of the congregation. This type of training is vital because it takes more to work as a prison chaplain than it does to lead the average church.

While most people get a degree in religion, some who plan to go into this line of work also take courses in psychology and counseling. These courses often help support the work they’re doing in their religious classes. Some opt to do a minor study in psychology or get a religion/psychology double major.

The Importance of Program Accreditation

When selecting a program, it’s important to select a program that has been accredited by a third-party organization. Those going for an undergraduate degree will want to make certain that the entire university and, especially, the university’s school of religion is accredited. Holding a degree from a university that has been accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) will make it easier to obtain different certifications, but it’s not required.

If you’re studying for a graduate degree, you may want to make certain that the university’s program has been accredited by one of several different organizations that specialize in religious program accreditation, such as the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) or the Transnational Association for Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS).

Consider Earning a Master's Degree

Some prison chaplain jobs do not require a graduate degree, but a number of them do. Some even give preferences to those who hold doctorates in religion. While you may be able to find a job with only a bachelor’s degree, there are many more doors open to those who hold a graduate degree. A Master’s in Divinity or in a related field can make it much easier to get a job. When you begin working in a graduate program, you’re going to want to take courses in pastoral counseling, biblical counseling, and grief counseling in addition to other religious studies. These courses will help prepare you for the type of help inmates are going to seek from you.

Graduate Program Goals and Objectives

The objective of any graduate program in religion is to prepare its graduates to enter the world with a greater knowledge and understanding of religion. The more practical goal, however, is to prepare people to become ordained leaders in their church. Many programs aim to teach graduate students how to connect with members of the congregation and how to counsel them appropriately, which will be of great help to a future prison chaplain.

Earning Practical Experience

You may be required to gain practical experience under a supervised, certified chaplain before you qualify for certain jobs. These residencies often last up to two years and require doing much of the same work as you would as a full chaplain. The only difference is that you have a senior chaplain there to provide you with guidance and help you learn everything you’ll need to know.

Prison Chaplain Licensing and Certification

Some chaplains are going to need to complete the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) certification program before being hired. This includes those who are going into work at hospitals and in most prisons, so expect to need to get this certification. It’s available through the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education and involves taking CPE courses and passing a specific number of units—some programs require more units than others.

In addition to CPE certification, you may also need to be certified by the Association for Professional Chaplains (APC). There are a number of other chaplain organizations out there that may provide certification, but the APC is the largest group in the U.S. The APC requires applicants to be ordained, hold a graduate degree, have completed four units of CPE, and have an endorsement from their church.

Prison Chaplain Jobs & Job Description

Acting as chaplain in one or several jails and prisons in a particular area is a job for the resilient, faithful and practical.  While jobs do vary depending on the population and institution, most prison chaplains are comfortable performing the following duties:

  • Administer religious programs
  • Cooperate with other members of the clergy and faith teams to provide a variety of accessible worship experiences
  • Lead worship services and other services
  • Work with external faith-based groups
  • Advise correctional staff on religious issues
  • Be prepared to speak with offenders after release
  • Supervise and train volunteers
  • Provide support and counseling for staff
  • Facilitate interfaith dialogue
  • Administer secular rehabilitation services
  • Follow up with former inmates after their release
  • Help offenders examine their behaviours and decisions
  • Facilitate the process as offenders discover new ways of living
  • Help offenders find peace of mind
  • Facilitate the acceptance of responsibility for their actions
  • Help offenders safely reintegrate into communities
  • Ensure that offenders of all traditions are offered equal opportunities to practice their faith
  • Perform administrative tasks
  • Facilitate communication between families and inmates
  • Offer regular pastoral counseling
  • Offer crisis pastoral counseling to offenders in need
  • Coordinate pastoral volunteer services
  • Visit with inmates and their families as appropriate
  • Obtain an official ecclesiastical endorsement from their denomination or faith group
  • Help inmates explore questions related to spirituality, religion, vocation and life purpose

Professional Organizations for Prison Chaplains

Most professional chaplains are members of the APC. This nondenominational group has members who belong to many different religions. This organization provides a number of different resources and hosts various conferences throughout the year to promote dialogue and thought about what it means to serve as a prison chaplain. Listed below are additional resources for chaplains working within the correctional industry.

Organization/AssociatonContact Information

American Correctional Chaplains Association

P.O. Box 85840
Seattle, WA 98145-1840
(206) 985-0577

International Prison Chaplains Association

P.O. Box 159
Fort Langley, BC V1m 2R5

American Association of Pastoral Counselors

9504A Lee Highway
Fairfax, VA 22031-2303
(703) 385-6967

Canadian Association for Spiritual Care

1267 Dorval Drive, Unit 27
Oakville, ON- Canada L6M 3Z4