February 22, 2012
Weighing Outreach to Sex Offenders
A ruling against one Florida ministry underscores the complexities.
Churches and ministries that interact with sex offenders face numerous challenges, as our national research in 2010 revealed. A recent case in Florida involving Matthew 25 Ministries, an organization devoted to working with sex offenders, underscores the complex nature of these challenges.
Four years ago, the group leased residences in a development to house recovering offenders, only to quickly learn the state doesn’t allow convicted offenders to live within 1,000 feet of a nearby public school bus stop. The organization attempted to get the bus stop relocated. Then it tried to convince neighboring families to move. Eventually, the management company overseeing leases in the development notified 25 families of possible eviction if they weren't out by a certain date.
Lawsuits followed, leading to a recent decision from a federal judge that “both the ministry and [the leasing management company] were guilty of discrimination on the basis of familial status,” our sister website ChristianityToday.com reports.
What can churches and ministries take away from this story?
First, any church or ministry that decides to develop an outreach to a high-risk group of people needs to thoroughly research local, state, and federal laws that may affect how and where they do it. The absence of this knowledge may ultimately undermine an otherwise well-intentioned effort, or unintentionally expose the ministry to significant legal and risk management liabilities.
Second, while all of the details aren’t entirely clear, this story serves as a powerful reminder of how churches and ministries must work carefully and lovingly whenever wading into potentially heated disputes with those in their local communities. In this case, it's not clear why a decision was made to pursue eviction notices, but it appears that move pushed the matter into a lengthy legal entanglement.
And third, the call to serve those who have committed offenses that society deems unforgivable likely will not find flexibility, much less sympathy, from their local communities. As ChristianityToday.com later notes:
Prison Fellowship vice president Pat Nolan said the situation is far broader than Matthew 25 or sex offenders, illustrating the difficulties any ministry that works with an unpopular constituency faces. "It's a 'not-in-my-backyard' problem."
What adds another twist to the complexities of this issue is that similar mentalities exist inside local churches as well. Of the nearly 3,000 respondents in our 2010 research, 45 percent said they believed the presence of sex offenders in a church would present “a big problem” to address. While 38 percent said they believed sex offenders could be rehabilitated, a nearly equal number (37 percent) said they weren’t sure, and the remaining 25 percent said no. And with respect to sexual problems, a quarter of churches provided no ministry or counseling, while 49 percent only refer people to outside programs and counselors.
And yet, in the same survey, 80 percent also said sex offenders should be allowed to attend church with appropriate supervision and limitations in place.
In other words, many church leaders understand the need for God’s redeeming love and grace in the lives of those who have committed offenses that society prefers to outcast and ignore. But many aren't certain offenders can be fully healed, and what the outreach looks like, how it’s done, and by who, remains ambiguous, and possibly contentious, for many.
The hardest part? If churches or groups like Matthew 25 Ministries don't do it, who will?
For churches looking to evaluate the integration of sex offenders in their congregations, check out Sex Offenders in the Church and Juvenile Offenders in the Church, two downloadable training resources that include sample policies and agreements.