Madison church offers service especially for convicted sex offendersIn late February, First Congregational's long-standing prison ministry project began biweekly, Thursday night worship services for adults only.
By: By Doug Erickson, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
On the website for First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison, photos glide by of parishioners holding sentence fragments that together read, "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."
A glib statement? No, this church really seems to mean it.
In late February, First Congregational's long-standing prison ministry project began biweekly, Thursday night worship services for adults only. No children are present at the service or in the church building.
The services could appeal to anyone seeking an unusually quiet worship experience, but they are designed especially for convicted sex offenders who cannot be where children are present, said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, director of the prison ministry project.
Although many churches have elaborate and appropriate protocols to ensure child safety, such as installing windows on all classroom doors and making sure a child is never alone with an adult, these measures often aren't enough to satisfy strict probation and parole restrictions, Hancock said.
"That raises a number of issues for these men -- and they are almost always men -- but also for the churches," Hancock said.
The idea for the service came from a call he got about a year ago from a probation officer asking if there were any worship services that didn't include children.
Jim Gerndt, a Madison psychologist, said the adults-only aspect eliminates an environment that could be problematic for the recovering sex offender.
"For someone who is actively provoked by sexual stimuli, such as being around male or female minors, part of their rehabilitation is to alter their sexual arousal patterns and to completely avoid stimuli or to limit exposure to it," he said.
Even if these offenders aren't high risks for re-offending, eliminating potential triggers "means they don't have to go through the conflict inside themselves or with their parole supervisors," Gerndt said.
First Congregational initially didn't widely publicize the services because of concerns the idea could draw protesters. Instead, it spread the word through other churches and organizations such as Madison Area Urban Ministry.
At the first service Feb. 23, no one in the target audience showed up, although other people attended to be supportive. The church is expanding its outreach efforts.
Hancock stresses it isn't a "sex-offender service." Its intent is broader.
"It's not designed to be therapeutic," he said. "It's not a support group. We are using the same text, the same order of worship and the same sermon topic that was used the previous Sunday."
The church is committed to the idea on a trial basis through May. The services are every other Thursday at 7 p.m. at the church, 1609 University Ave. The next one is Thursday.
"We truly want to be a church where everyone is welcome," said Susan Heneman, a parishioner involved in the project. "We have to live this out, not just say it on paper."
Religion-related story ideas? Contact Doug Erickson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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