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Pilot Horse Program Provides Support for Prison Chaplains

Helen Neinast
January 29, 2013
Paul Ritter, Neil Highley, Thomas Johnson, David Klink and Will Hoyle
In a pilot program co-sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s United Methodist Endorsing Agency and the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, several chaplains began the next step in their clinical education by spending a long weekend with horses. Shown, from left: Paul Ritter, Virginia Department of Corrections; Neil Highley, Federal Bureau of Prisons; Thomas Johnson, Federal Bureau of Prisons, David Klink, Pennsylvannia DPA D.O.C.; Will Hoyle, Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Horses played an important part in the history of The United Methodist Church. They carried Francis Asbury, the founding bishop of Methodism in America, more than 270,000 miles as he rode the circuits, preaching more than 16,000 sermons.

Pam Roberts
Pam Roberts is director of Centered Life: Education, Counseling, and Spiritual Care in Colorado Springs, Colo., where the pilot program is operated.

Today’s horses work on farms, carry riders, and round up cattle. They serve on search and rescue teams and patrol with police officers. And now, horses are helping train United Methodist prison chaplains.

In a pilot program co-sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s United Methodist Endorsing Agency and the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, several chaplains began the next step in their clinical education by spending a long weekend with horses.

“Working with horses is both exciting and challenging. Important issues come up that might not otherwise surface—issues of leadership, of listening skills, of maturity and self-knowledge, “ says Pam Roberts, director of Centered Life: Education, Counseling, and Spiritual Care in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Horses are very good at reading relationships. Understanding their environment has always been essential to their survival, and they have honed that skill. They are quite attuned to people and their needs,” Roberts added.

“It is amazing,” she notes, “to watch the horses ‘pick’ the person they will work with. The horses’ sensitivity to what people are dealing with is remarkable, “ Roberts observes.

And that’s not the only innovation in this pilot program. These five chaplains—three working in federal penitentiaries and two in state facilities—meet every week for study and reflection—not in person, but online.

“These chaplains work with difficult prison populations. Convicted sex offenders and others with acute personality disorders offer challenges for our chaplains. They need the support of continuing education and colleagues, but often they are unable to enroll in a traditional clinical pastoral education program that takes them away from their work for long periods of time, says Bruce Fenner, GBHEM’s director of Extension Ministry and Pastoral Care.

“This online distance-learning course—with its intensive onsite experience, extensive readings, and weekly meetings on the Internet—is creative and inventive. Our evaluation of the program when it ends in April will let us know how we can better serve not only prison chaplains, but also other ministry professionals whose jobs make it difficult to enroll in a residential CPE program,” said Fenner.

Fenner and Roberts believe clinical pastoral education through online learning has possibilities for widespread success. In this instance, horses and distance learning are poised to bring pastoral education to chaplains who serve in more isolated places—all in the name of caring for those in prison, those who are sick in mind or body, those on the fringe of society.

*Neinast is a UM elder and freelance writer who lives in Lakemont, Ga.