Preaching for persons with a death sentence or facing long-term incarceration is challenging.

One of the challenges is preaching to provide pastoral care for them. In an earlier article, I provided an initial literature review of sources bearing on the topic. Below is a list of 50 potential themes for pastoral care through preaching for those incarcerated on Death Row derived from that literature review.  The 50 were written with Death Row in mind, but many of these themes are also relevant to ministry for incarcerated persons in general.

  1. Helping create meaning for the incarcerated person[1]  
  2. Compassion[2]   
  3. Demonstrating listening to the incarcerated person[3]
  4. Coping with loss, grief, trauma, and broken relationships[4]
  5. Reconnecting with the goodness of life and living life to the full[5]
  6. Encouraging a faith worldview, e.g., God’s constant presence, reliance on God and the Bible, resurrection, and growth in the direction of Jesus’s example[6]
  7. Reassurance of Jesus as savior and hope provided by Christ[7]
  8. Grace and forgiveness provided by God[8]
  9. Providing comfort, assurance, theological perspective, and hope[9]
  10. Expressing the “hoped-for change” in the person or their actions[10]
  11. Facilitating a spiritual encounter and the encountering of mystery[11]    
  12. Providing and embodying ritual, including leading the service and preaching[12]
  13. Facilitating and bonding community[13]
  14. Life-cycle rites, including community celebrations, praise, and lament[14] 
  15. Encouraging spiritual growth, such as in faithful works and witness[15]
  16. Care towards the incarcerated person’s families and communities[16]
  17. Coping with strain on relationships, including with family, prison workers, other inmates, or victims and their family, and any needed reconciliation[17] 
  18. Offering comfort and coping relative to conditions of confinement, including with isolation, depression, hopelessness, and similar feelings[18] 
  19. The reality of the government having them under control but yet are going to put them to death, weighing on minds and spirits[19]
  20. “[T]he simple assurance that God is good.”[20]
  21. Relational expressions encouraging closeness with God (e.g., thanking, praising) and facilitating spiritual intimacy with others (e.g., asking forgiveness, prayer).[21]
  22. Religious change in the inmate taking place during incarceration
  23. Seeking to establish some form of control over their life (e.g., “surrender” to the divine, “give myself to God,” “I am ready”)[22]
  24. “Where will you spend eternity?”[23]
  25. Regeneration in Christ, the inmates as a new creation[24]
  26. Upholding and affirming the inmate’s dignity[25]
  27. Resisting government authority over them and death, relative to God[26]
  28. Repentance, salvation, and conversion[27]
  29. Fear of being released, of not being capable of making it in life[28]
  30. Simply showing care about incarcerated persons[29]
  31. Coping with the forces of death pursuing the inmate every single day[30]
  32. Affirming the incarcerated person is human, that they are people, too[31]
  33. Bearing witness to hope, reconciliation, lament, and life together in Christ.[32]  
  34. Dealing with trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, anxiety and fear, on a communal level[33] 
  35. Compassionate witnessing, forgiveness, self-empathy, Koinonia (life together), and a restorative church 
  36. Communal or individual lament, including prayers of lament[34]
  37. Considering communal nature of sin[35]
  38. Questions on their mind, reassurance, challenges, blame, despair, witness, acceptance, hope, and the linking of God’s story with the human story[36] 
  39. Listening to the inmates, e.g., space for them to tell their story[37] 
  40. Incarcerated persons as community sacrament, with their experience through which others might receive grace and improve their understanding of God[38] 
  41. Enabling people to function as agents of God’s hope for the world[39]
  42. Affirming a person’s life, as present and valuable[40]
  43. Death Row inmates both face their own death and grieve the death of others, including other inmates, family, and friends[41]
  44. The threat of death and dying in light of the resurrected Jesus and living God[42] 
  45. There is no one right way to react to the threat of death or death, whether acceptance, denial, fighting it, accepting it, or something else[43]
  46. Death is not a punishment for sin, and was natural and good at beginning, as God intended death as a boundary marker and temporary stage[44] 
  47. Death post-Fall as enemy and annihilating power aggressive towards being[45]
  48. God experienced dying and death by his exposure to non-being in Christ’s death, but God was not overtaken by death (as we are) and made death God’s servant[46] 
  49. God experiences death and dying in the sense of “relationlessness”[47]
  50. Any hope beyond death must be found in God and not in ourselves[48]

These themes may be useful in sermons, in formulating a theological ethic for providing pastoral care through preaching to those serving on Death Row and other incarcerated persons, and for similar purposes.           


This article is part of a beginning of a concentrated attempt to think deeper about effective preaching for persons incarcerated on Death Row. 

May God bless this work and your work and help it to bring the love, justice, mercy, and peace of God to all, including people incarcerated on Death Row and people incarcerated anywhere.




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Sources & Notes

The contents of this article appeared as Part II of a paper I presented at the 2021 Stone-Campbell Journal Conference, “Death-Row Pastoral Care Through Preaching: Brief Literature Review and Consideration of Potential Elements of a Theological Ethic Towards an Ecclesiological Framework for Engagement,” 2021 Stone-Campbell Journal Conference, Ecclesiology & Social Ethics Study Group (April 16, 2021).

The full cite for the sources cited in the endnotes below can be found in the endnotes of my earlier article that presented part I of that pape: Steve Gardner, “Pastoral Care via Preaching for Persons Incarcerated on Death Row: Literature Review,” Authentic Theology (April 18, 2021).

[1]  Doehring, supra, xix-xx, xxiii; Ramshaw, supra, loc. 190-243.  An interesting thought here is the pastoral care through the inmates’ actions they might offer others, inside and outside the prison walls.

[2]  Doehring, supra, xiv, xvi-xvii.  The Good Samaritan story offers much on compassion.

[3] Ibid., xxviii.  A traditional “priestly” function of presence and listening in pastoral care is in view. 

[4] Ibid., xxviii, Diagram A.  In many cases, a Death Row inmates’ family and friends have long abandoned them or they are otherwise estranged from family and friends.

[5] Ibid.  What impact does interacting nearly solely with those convicted of murder have on one’s view of life itself?

[6] Neufeld, supra, 70-73; Barth, supra, 13-27.

[7] Barth, supra, 13-27, 35-42, 51-59.  Hope is prominent and a recurring theme in the relevant literature.

[8] Ibid.  Assurance of forgiveness by God is a form of hope.

[9] Preaching as Pastoral Caring, supra; Neufeld, supra, 70-73.

[10] Long, supra.  Knowing that someone else is “rooting” for you can make a meaningful difference.

[11] Mitchell, supra, 13-15; Ramshaw, supra, loc. 305-420.  Honor the time together and listen for the Spirit together.

[12] Ramshaw, supra, xxx.  Ritual relative to services can be a form of assurance and hope.

[13] Ibid., loc. 243-265.  Encouraging mutual edification and love between inmates is worth consideration.

[14] Ibid., loc. 431-605; Preaching as Pastoral Caring, supra.  This can go unnoticed in a prison environment.

[15] Preaching as Pastoral Caring, supra.  Works and witness can be done by those behind prison walls.

[16] Ibid., 105-106.  Death Row inmates have families and can be highly concerned about them.

[17] Moore, supra, 7-9; Arnold, supra, 16; Simons, supra, 311-337.

[18] Salai, supra; Harvesttime International Network, supra.

[19] Salai, supra; Harvestime International Network, supra; Recinella, supra.

[20] Graves, supra, 192.  This is particularly challenging relative to wrongfully convicted persons.

[21] Smith, supra, Abstract.  Many of the inmates were not raised in a church or spiritual environment, so guidance in such areas may be lacking in their life.  How to get closer to God, increase in spiritual intimacy, etc.?

[22] Ibid.

[23] Smith, Death Row Chaplain, supra, xi, 131-132.

[24] Ibid. (citing 2 Cor 5:17, “… if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:… old has gone, the new is here!”).

[25] Ibid.  There is much to be said about this.

[26] Cooey, supra, 710.

[27] Simons, supra, 311-337,

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.  Presence and participation in the worship service, including singing, are steps.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.  I experience this with the most intensity during the singing portions of a worship service.

[32] Pembroke, supra, 7-132.

[33] van Deusen Hunsinger, supra.

[34] Ibid. (for (35) and (36)).

[35] Ibid.  This is a major topic, and raises questions of blame for the situation beyond the individual inmate.

[36] Ihewulezi, supra, 42-50, 55-56..

[37] Ibid., 42-50, 55-56; Streets, supra,  832-853.

[38] Ihewulezi, supra, 44.

[39] Streets, supra, 846-847.

[40] Ibid.  I like the “Life Row” label suggested in Brown, Child of Grace, supra, 5-6.

[41] Fiddes, Chapter 7. 

[42] Ibid., 224-225.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 233-234 (citing Isa 25:8; 1 Cor 15:54; Rev 21:4).

[45] Ibid., 235.

[46] Ibid., 237-238.

[47] Ibid., 244.

[48] Ibid., 244-247.

The full cite for the sources cited in the endnotes below can be found in the endnotes of my earlier article that presented part I of that pape: Steve Gardner, “Pastoral Care via Preaching for Persons Incarcerated on Death Row: Literature Review,” Authentic Theology (April 18, 2021).

Update (02/23/22): Other possible topics for sermons for inmates—  Theology of Suffering (many incarcerated persons have suffered tremendously as children and otherwise; abused by parents etc.); bolstering / encouraging their belief in God (cf. suffering); integration of incarcerated persons into the sermon; integration of incarcerated persons into the sermon via some interactive piece where they speak; / interactive; imago Dei emphasis; ….

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