Jeff Henig on Prison Ministry (Encore Presentation)
Date: April 1st, 2018

Why would anybody ever want to become a prison chaplain?   And what do those folks involved in prison ministry do?  Jeff Henig, who recently was hired as a prison chaplain in Arkansas, discusses his background, the journey he took to become a prison minister, and the various challenges he faces in this line of work.  This is part of our ongoing series to talk with practitioners, people who work in the spiritual trenches day-t0-day and often have insights into human behavior that scholars often overlook.

We begin with Jeff’s background.  Interestingly, he uses the third person to talk about his life growing up the son of ’60s hippies and ending up in group homes and foster care.  He also talks openly about his time in the US Marine Corps and how he was a rebel against authority, which is probably not the best thing for somebody in the military.  Nonetheless, this background helped shaped who he is and helps him relate to many of the individuals he ministers to in prison.  The story also moves through his conversion to Christianity in 1989 and how that changed his life.  We follow him then through a series of jobs and, more importantly, into the world of a cappella singing.  While seemingly unrelated to prison ministry, it was singing with a Christian a cappella group that brought him into his current career.

A good portion of the middle part of the interview is spent talking about what went on with his a cappella prison ministry.  We talk about what a typical show would be like and the various constraints faced by the band.  Jeff notes how enthusiastic inmates were to see folks “from the outside,” but that prison regulations limited the time that they could have with prisoners.  He discusses how they would get their message across in between songs and with some short conversations after the performance.  We also learn the difference between jail and prison at this point, and Jeff points out that the transitory nature of jail makes it more difficult to reach out to the folks as compared to prison where the inmates know they are there for a longer period and approach life behind bars with greater seriousness.

We then move along to discussing how he obtained his current position as a prison chaplain.  We talk about the educational background he had, as well as “learning on the job” as a certified religious assistant (CRA).  We talk about some of the different challenges prison ministers face, including attempts to “game the system” by inmates, as well as some of the heavy psychological toll that this can take on the pastor.  Jeff shares a wonderful story about when he was significantly down and a number of the prisoners rallied around him, providing him with insight to how much of an impact he was having on these individuals.  He also discusses some of the legal issues that need to be managed, including a new Supreme Court religious liberty ruling on facial hair.  We finish with the three things Jeff has learned throughout his several decades of prison ministry.  First, you need to relate to people as they are and not as you want them to be.  Second, God doesn’t make trash.  And finally, you have more impact on people than you might think.  Good lessons for prison ministers and all of us as well.  Recorded: April 3, 2015.


First Day Music, Jeff’s a cappella group’s website.

Holt v Hobbs, Supreme Court case regarding religious facial hair.

Harding School of Theology.


Byron Johnson on Religion & Delinquency.

Byron Johnson on More God, Less Crime.

Robert Kinnune on Military Chaplains.

Daniel Stiles on Cowboy Churches.

William Wubbenhorst on Serve, West Dallas.

Jason Jewell on Why Christians Should Read the Great Books.

Jason Jewell on John Locke and Religious Toleration.

A list of episodes from practitioners.

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