Prison seminary frees director to train future ministers
“We're trying as Southern Baptists to get the Gospel into every culture in the world. The prison culture is a culture that desperately needs the Gospel. Arkansas Baptists have a wonderful opportunity to invest in this culture that by and large, most people have forgotten about.” – Dr. Mark Thompson.
In 2019, Arkansas Baptists, in partnership with Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee helped launch a brand-new prison seminary at the Varner Maximum security unit. Dr. Mark Thompson, Professor of Church History, Missions and Theology at Mid-America, serves as the Director of the Arkansas Prison Initiative. He’s the man charged with organizing the prison seminary and leading the 24 inmates who make up the first-year class.
The idea for the seminary was birthed in the heart of several believers years ago, after learning about the impact this program had in prisons in other states. God orchestrated answers to years of prayers of many believers in bringing together the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) and Mid-America to develop and fund the program. The primary educational goal of the Arkansas Prison Initiative is to train long term inmates and “lifers” to serve as lay ministers under the ADC prison chaplain. These men will receive an undergraduate degree from Mid-America that equips them to minister in the place that has become their home.
Click here to see the presentation of the vision for the prison seminary that was presented at the 2019 annual meeting of the ABSC.
Dr. Thompson came to Mid-America in 2011 to pursue his Ph.D. in Church History and Theology and Missions, not really knowing what he would do with his degree. During this time, God gave him a desire to invest in and to teach and train pastors, especially those who couldn’t come to the seminary. He just didn’t know what this would ultimately look like.
Even after his graduation in 2015, Thompson still did not have a clear direction of how he would follow this God given desire. He began serving as pastor of First Baptist Church in Hughes, Arkansas. He continued to pray believing that God had something different planned for him.
In August of 2018, Thompson visited with Dr. Michael Spradlin (President of Mid-America) to discuss a pastor position that would soon be available. Dr. Spradlin asked him to consider another ministry position. Mid-America had begun discussions with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention about beginning a seminary in the Arkansas Department of Correction. Dr. Spradlin asked Thompson to take some time, talk to his wife, and pray about becoming the Director of the prison ministry.
Thompson shared the news with his wife, Laurie, and they began earnestly praying together. It wasn’t very long before God confirmed in both of their hearts that He wanted them to be a part of this prison ministry.
As the director, Thompson is at the Varner Unit five days a week. The men come out of their barracks and head to the classrooms each morning at about 7:30 a.m. Thompson is with them each day until about 4:00 p.m. At the end of the day, the men go back to their barracks where they read, study and prepare for the next day.
Although the course work is similar to what Dr. Thompson is used to, the environment at the prison seminary reminds him that this ministry is very unique. For one thing, there’s always security present. All the students are maximum security inmates. At least half of them are serving a sentence of life or life without parole, so they will never see the outside of a prison again. Thompson says he has never felt threatened because the men respect him and listen to what he has to say.
Thompson’s relationship with the men started before the program officially began. He built a rapport with several of the guys during one of his early visits to the prison to look over the classroom situation. That morning a number of the men who would be in the program were in the gym. Thompson introduced himself and the group huddled up around him. They began to talk and get to know each other. “It was just a really unique thing, before I ever came to class - before they ever came to class, of me getting to be able to begin to know some of the guys that would be in the program.”
Thompson enjoys his role as professor and administrator. But it is the chance to impact the lives of the men God has called him to lead that really drives him. While the program is designed primarily to focus on ministry training, openness requirements mean that not all of the men in the class are believers. He recalls a recent opportunity he had to share the Gospel with the class, reminding them that Jesus is the only way to heaven and that the Bible is completely true. As he was sharing, he says the Lord impressed upon his heart to pray for each guy out loud and to publicly call them by name. He asked God to do great things in each of their lives and that they would make themselves available to whatever He wanted to do in them.
After praying, Thompson encouraged the men to take seriously God’s command to love one another. He reminded them that they could not go out into the hallways of the Varner Unit or any other unit in the Arkansas Department of Correction and serve others if they weren't willing to love and serve the guys that were in the classroom. After class ended, one of the men came to him and asked, “Doc, how did you know?” to which Thompson replied, “how did I know what?” The man shared how he was involved in a serious conflict with another inmate in the program. Things had gotten so bad that the two were ready to fight one another. The man said he was sorry and wanted to work things out with the other inmate. He knew he needed to show God’s love, but he didn’t know what to do. Thompson encouraged him and helped him see how he could respond in such a way that God would be honored.
A few days later, Thompson learned that the two men had taken his words to heart and were able to work out their differences. He was assured that things were much better now. He sensed that this was true as he observed how the countenance of the two men had changed. “God really brought peace to the situation. It was really a neat deal to just watch and see how God worked through that,” Thompson said.
Thompson acknowledges that starting a prison seminary has not been easy. “What we've done is we've taken Mid-America seminary and just dropped it right in the middle of the prison.” This meant there were a lot of unique problems to work through because there were so many things that could not be done in a prison setting that could be done in a residential setting.
For instance, the inmates could not have any access to the internet, which created a difficulty in terms of having enough resources to be able to do their research. “We were completely moving and creating a campus. So, that meant bookshelves, furniture, computers, everything that you would need in a free world setting, we had to put into a prison setting,” Thompson said. But through it all, God was faithful and ultimately provided everything that was needed.
Dr. Thompson is grateful to have served as an Arkansas pastor for six years before taking on his role as Director of the Arkansas Prison Initiative. But as year one comes to a close, he believes without a doubt that God has answered his prayers.
He recalls the student who came to him to share how God had used the program to change his life. He thinks about the relationships he has built with others in the prison who are not part of the program. He points to one young man in particular who gave his heart to Christ after Thompson spoke in chapel one day. “These are the things that just kind of confirm, ‘God, you are at work here. And you're using me to do some of this work.’ It's amazing to know that I'm doing what God wants me to do.”