Entertainment Exec. James Ackerman Takes Over as New Head of Prison Fellowship

James Ackerman
James Ackerman | (Photo: Spinnaker Media)

Accomplished American businessman James Ackerman has put aside his 25-year career in the entertainment and media industry to take over as the next president as the nation's largest prison ministry, the Chuck Colson-founded Prison Fellowship.

Ackerman, the former executive chairman of Broadway Systems who sold the company to an Israeli-based technology firm last October, took over as the president of Prison Fellowship on Monday after having been named the replacement of the organization's former President Jim Liske last month.

In an interview with The Christian Post, Ackerman said God aligned everything just right for him to take over the reigns of the organization that he has volunteered with for over a decade.

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Being the son of Emmy Award-winning television producer Harry Ackerman and actress Elinor Donahue, Ackerman explained that he was born into the entertainment and media industry.

He led successful organizations like the Documentary Channel, Broadway Systems and Spinnaker Media. He also launched the Spinnaker Media Fund in 2008 and was appointed chairman of the Board for Accedo, a leading provider for user experiences and technologies for mobile apps, earlier this year.

Despite having spent his entire career in the entertainment industry, he told CP that he knew if God ever called him into full-time ministry, he needed to be ready to answer God's call.

During a father-son retreat in California over 12 years ago, Ackerman recalled waking up to the realization that although he always had aspirations to participate in prison ministry, he never made time to actually go to prisons and help better the lives of inmates.

Shortly after meeting Prison Fellowship's Dick Paulsen at the retreat, Ackerman began making time to go to prisons to use his business and leadership experiences to teach inmates how to write resumes, how to conduct themselves in job interviews and how to budget their time and money.

Ackerman also got the opportunity to be mentored by and spend quality time with Colson before he died in 2012.

"The few things I learned from [Colson] was to pour my own life and the experience that I have had in life back into other people. I share his passion for ministering to the needs of those who are incarcerated," he explained. "I also learned and adopted his passion for worldview and how many people unpack their worldview. He said that we were both very tough-minded men but we got along really well."

After over a decade of volunteering with the organization, Ackerman sold Broadway Systems and took time off from his career to spend time with his family. During that time, Ackerman said he received an email from Liske over last Christmas season explaining that he was stepping down from his role as president of the organization to become senior pastor at Christ Memorial Church in Holland, Michigan.

Ackerman emailed Liske to express an interest in his old job. Ackerman was eventually put in touch with a search committee tasked with finding the organization's new head. From there, things just seemed to line up perfectly for Ackerman.

U.S. President Barack Obama is shown the inside of a cell as he visits the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
U.S. President Barack Obama is shown the inside of a cell as he visits the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. | (Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

"The thing I think is really fascinating is that I'm an experienced operational leader. But I have been in the media and entertainment business my entire career. I grew up in the industry. By no design of my own, only by God's grace and providence, Prison Fellowship decided they need an operational leader to take the organization to the next level," he said. "They found one who not only is an experienced operational leader, but has passion for the work that Prison Fellowship does and has been working in the field with Prison Fellowship for a dozen years, who also knew and was mentored by Chuck Colson."

"I just think that is just amazing how this worked out. I just happened to have myself some time when I was in between things, having just sold a company," Ackerman added. "I have always felt the importance, even really early in my career, that if God calls me to go into full-time ministry to do it. I am going to do it if that is what God calls me to do. Now he has."

Although being president of Prison Fellowship is a full-time job, Ackerman will also uphold his role as general partner for Spinnaker Media Fund. He assures that his role with the Delaware fund will not interfere with his work with Prison Fellowship.

Ackerman addressed the Prison Fellowship staff on Monday. In a speech, he outlined the goals that he has set forth to help the organization grow.

"We are going to take a very holistic approach to serving the needs of inmates and their families," Ackerman told CP. "That includes sharing the love of Christ with anyone who is interested in hearing the message, discipling men and women, which is what we are called to do as Christians. And, arming people with useful life skills and other training that they need to live successfully on the outside, building bridges from within the walls to outside the walls — from the church community and the community at-large — to receive inmates back into society."

Ackerman added that the organization will continue to advocate for just and fair sentencing reforms at state capitols across the nation.

"Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world, with unjust laws resulting in disproportionate, often entirely unnecessary, prison sentences," Ackerman said in a statement. "Each one of the 2.2 million men and women behind bars has a life that matters, and I now want to dedicate myself to working with those who are among the most marginalized in society today by providing them the opportunity to experience the love of Christ and receive valuable education and training."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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