Inmates at a men's prison in North Carolina will now have the opportunity to earn their bachelor's degree in pastoral ministry thanks to a new collaboration between the state government, the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a nonprofit organization founded by NFL hall-of-famer Joe Gibbs.
According to The News & Observer, a convocation ceremony was held on Monday at the Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, North Carolina, to mark the beginning of a new four-year degree program that will be offered to inmates at the prison.
The program is called the North Carolina Field Minister Program and is being offered by the SEBTS, whose main campus is located in Wake Forest. According to SEBTS, the program offers a bachelor's degree in pastoral ministry and a secondary emphasis on counseling.
"This degree is the same degree offered at the main campus in Wake Forest," the SEBTS website explains.
The program is designed so that inmates can counsel other inmates. And the program is only available for inmates that have an "extensive amount of time remaining on their sentence." The seminary's definition of "extensive" is 15 years or more.
"It's a way for them to make their lives count for something," Seth Bible, the head of prison programs at SEBTS, told The New & Observer.
SEBTS states that the purpose of the program is to increase "the long-term, spiritual impact of inmates in the North Carolina prison system."
SEBTS will admit about 30 inmate-students into the program each year for the first four years. By year four, about 120 students will be participating in the program.
"Once at full capacity the program is designed to be on-going from year-to-year thereafter and will continue to admit 30 new students each year," the SEBTS website explains. "Graduates of this program will be designated as 'NCDPS Field Ministers' and appointed to field ministry positions within the prison system across the state of North Carolina."
Although the program is "grounded in a Christian worldview," SEBTS will allow open admission to "people of all faiths."
SEBTS is also partnering with an organization called Game Plan for Life, a Christian evangelistic outreach organization dedicated to inspiring men, to facilitate the program.
The organization was founded in 2009 by former Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls during his coaching career. Gibbs is also the owner of NASCAR's Joe Gibbs Racing team.
The News & Observer notes that Game Plan for Life will provide the start-up funds to launch the program. However, the hope is to one day establish an endowment to keep the program running and possibly expand it to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.
Bible told the news outlet that the new program models other seminary degree programs offered in prisons in Texas, West Virginia and Louisiana.
"At institutions like ours that are unapologetically Christian, we know that God is a God of grace, and despite our worst actions at times, God's grace intercedes in such a way that people who have committed the worst crimes you can imagine can authentically be changed," Bible said. "And if given the opportunity, they can live a life that has a positive outcome from that point forward. A program like this really builds on that concept."