When sex offenders and other ex-felons meet Christ and repent, they pose a dilemma for churches that want to accept them but also protect their congregation. A few churches are rising to the challenge
Ben Sanders has a series of regrets. The 67-year-old finish sander from Hillsboro, Ore., spent almost 25 years in prison or jail and 45 years on probation or parole.
Growing up without a father at home, he got drunk for the first time while in seventh grade and by age 19 was shooting methamphetamines regularly. He picked up a robbery conviction at age 20.
That isn’t the worst of it. Sanders is a registered sex offender. Two 1974 convictions for sex abuse and attempted rape, and a 1998 conviction for sodomy, earned him years of prison and state supervision and an ignominious place on Oregon’s Sex Offender Registry. Sanders is one of about 1,000 “Level 3” sex offenders the state considers high risk: The state’s public website posts their names, mugshots, and crimes.
When Sanders left prison in 2006, the terms of his parole prohibited him from being anyplace families with children were present unless he had a state-approved safety plan. That included Saturday farmers markets, fairs, family functions, and churches.
But one church welcomed him. Sonrise Church in Hillsboro, just west of Portland, had started a special service ministering to ex-felons and registered sex offenders like Sanders. The service, called Light My Way, had a security team present and didn’t allow children on the premises. People like Sanders could attend without violating parole.
When Sanders first showed up at a friend’s invitation, he found the group to be small but friendly: “They seemed to really care about a person.”
Fifteen years later, Light My Way still meets at Sonrise every Saturday afternoon. After moving online during the coronavirus outbreak, the service currently draws up to 40 weekly in-person attendees, with other viewers online.
Light My Way Pastor Clifford Jones, who himself served time in prison for armed robbery, describes the service this way: “The ability to worship without ostracization.”
Ministries like Light My Way are extremely rare. Many churches have no formal plan for how to handle a registered sex offender or ex-felon who might wish to attend, much less a dedicated ministry for such people.
Complicating the matter, each state has different laws governing what a registered sex offender can and cannot do, rules typically aimed at protecting children. In Oregon, a sex offender under parole cannot legally attend a church, synagogue, or mosque where children may be present, without a safety plan and a trained chaperone. The rule applied to Ben Sanders, even though his crimes were against adult women, not children.
Even when sex offenders can legally attend regular church services, the situation poses a conundrum for churches: With a duty to protect their flock, should they welcome registered sex offenders to their public services? If so, how can they safeguard children and former victims of abuse?
For churches that manage to engage in such ministry safely, the results can be life-changing.
Since his first visit to Light My Way in 2006, Sanders has made a profession of faith, been baptized, found a stable job, found rental housing, gotten married, and told his story to a local TV news station. Today he serves as a deacon at Light My Way, sharing with other ex-offenders how Jesus changed him.
He’s not proud of his past, but he’s thankful for what he does have. “I got a life,” he says. “I’m a child of God.”
AN ESTIMATED 752,000 registered sex offenders lived in the United States as of 2019. Depending on the state, authorities may place people on a registry for offenses ranging from indecent exposure to incest to rape. The offense often marks persons for life, restricting where they can live and go.
According to a 2010 study by Christianity Today International, about 20 percent of church leaders knew of at least one convicted sex offender who was attending or was a member of their church. But 80 percent of respondents agreed sex offenders who have legally paid for their crimes should be welcomed into churches.
Not all churches have policies in place to accommodate sex offenders, though. And many do not appear eager to discuss them.
WORLD called or emailed the 12 largest churches listed on Outreach Magazine’s 2020 list of U.S. megachurches. Of those, one church said it had a policy addressing whether registered sex offenders could attend, but it did not return calls seeking more detail. A staff pastor at another church said she didn’t believe it had any such policy in place. A third church declined to comment. The remaining churches did not respond to WORLD’s queries.
James Gleason, the Sonrise Church pastor who started Light My Way in 2004, understands why few churches host such ministries: “Frankly, it’s a risk.”
For one thing, neighbors worry about safety and likely won’t be thrilled a local church is hosting sex offenders. When the Light My Way service first began, neighbors complained and called a community meeting in an attempt to shut it down. (Support from local police and corrections officials helped keep it running.)
There’s also a strong social stigma attached to sex offenders. After Sonrise began its worship service welcoming sex offenders and ex-felons, some congregants were so appalled they left the church. “It’s almost like the Old Testament, the leper,” said Jones, the Light My Way pastor. “He’s got to tell everybody, ‘I’m a sex offender.’”
Only a fraction of Light My Way attendees are registered sex offenders, according to Sonrise. The others include ex-offenders guilty of nonsexual crimes, or nonoffenders who participate in the ministry. At a typical service, attendees arrive early for a potluck meal, where leaders and volunteers sit and talk with them. Then they gather in an auditorium, sing worship songs, and listen to a sermon. (Under pandemic safety rules, the potluck is on hiatus, and attendees have worn masks and kept socially distanced.)
“We give that opportunity for sex offenders to be able to come and experience worship, a life-changing word from God, and be transformed and changed and truly rehabilitated,” said Jones. “If you don’t have access to the house of God for a sinner, I don’t think we’re doing the heart of God.”
ACCESS TO THE HOUSE OF GOD, however, comes with a host of legal complications.
WORLD asked several lawyers and other legal experts how churches should handle registered sex offenders who want to attend public services. They offered various views: Some said churches should welcome many offenders with appropriate safeguards. Others suggested churches were better off ministering to offenders outside of their regular services. All agreed churches need advance policies in place to handle such scenarios and protect the congregation from a potential predator.
Sex offender laws are rooted in the knowledge that molesters are often repeat offenders, said Mike Sloan, director of safeguarding at the organization GRACE, or Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. Many offenders already have a history of sexual offenses when caught the first time.
Offenders can be deceptive and may groom church leaders to trust them by appearing to be “redeemed,” he said. Leaders may struggle to discern between deception and true repentance.
“You need deeper training and better skills to be able to understand when you are being manipulated,” Sloan said. “It takes real work, an investment, to do this well. … We owe it to children, and Jesus calls us to do that.”
When offenders do manipulate churches, tragedies can happen: In February 2020, 55-year-old Lavelle Mayfield received a sentence of 25 years in prison for creating photos and videos showing his sexual abuse of a 16-year-old girl he met in a Virginia church. He had three previous convictions–1994, 1995, and 1999—for sexual assault against minors, according to The Virginian-Pilot. After his release from prison in 2011, Mayfield began attending Providence United Church of Christ in Chesapeake, where he met the victim.
How likely is a sex offender to re-offend? Researchers have attempted to answer that question, but the results vary based on factors including the type of offender, the time period studied, and the researchers’ definition of recidivism.
Roger Przybylski, director of research at Justice Research and Statistics Association, addressed the question in a 2015 research brief for the U.S. Department of Justice, “Recidivism of Adult Sexual Offenders.” He cited rates from different studies: One found a repeat rate of 5 percent for offenders in 15 states over three years. Another analysis, using research from multiple studies, found the rate to be 24 percent over 15 years, with the highest rate among child molesters who targeted boys. (Such rates are ultimately an underestimate, Przybylski noted, because many re-offenses go unreported.)
In a more recent government study of more than 7,000 registered sex offenders in Washington state, 13 percent were arrested for a new sex offense in the 15 years following their initial registration.
Some experts do believe it’s possible to welcome registered sex offenders into a church safely, with proper safeguards and supervision. Some denominations, like the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have posted to their websites guidance for churches dealing with sex offenders. The Southern Baptist Convention has published a hiring safety guide for its churches.
At least one large Southern Baptist church, the Summit Church in Durham, N.C., has adopted a formal attendance policy addressing sex offenders. Created in 2016, the policy allows registered sex offenders to attend services under a set of restrictions, explained Brad Hambrick, the church’s pastor of counseling.
Key rules from Summit’s policy include: A mentor must accompany the offender at all times during the service, including visits to the restroom. The offender may not participate in or be near the children’s ministry under any circumstance. Additionally, the offender must sign a release of information form allowing Summit leadership to be aware of the offender’s rehabilitative progress.
Hambrick said church leaders crafted the restrictions with North Carolina’s laws in mind and with input from local law enforcement, parole officers, and lawyers—all important partners for a church engaging in such ministry.
WHEN CHURCHES FIND the right approach, they can help people find life change in Christ. Sonrise hosts the Light My Way service on Saturday in a separate part of the building, with security teams in place and signs marking off the area for people 18 and older.
Sonrise has established a good relationship with local corrections officials. At the Washington County Community Corrections Center, a custody facility that helps transitions to independence and employment, residents can obtain special passes to attend the Light My Way service. The residents ride a light rail train to a stop one block from the church, and Light My Way leaders mark their passes to record their attendance.
The system has worked well, although Sonrise leaders once had to intervene after some attendees’ wives or girlfriends tried to arrange conjugal visits and smuggle drugs to them during the service. (Security cameras now help keep watch.)
Light My Way leaders often help attendees find housing and jobs—a hurdle for ex-prisoners with little money and criminal records. Sonrise allows some offenders to attend services with the larger Sonrise congregation, provided they follow safety protocols and their parole officer and therapist agree.
Light My Way served as inspiration for another adults-only church in Oregon, Free on the Outside in Oregon City. According to Pastor Mike Cross, convicted of a misdemeanor sex offense involving a teenage girl around three decades ago, the church welcomes everyone, regardless of conviction history.
Kenny Ricketts, 61, remembers when he first attended Free on the Outside in 2015, after spending 36 years in prison on two homicide convictions. He was already living in housing provided by Free on the Outside’s recovery housing ministry. Someone had invited him to another local church, but he decided not to attend after learning he would be required to stick to the back of the church and speak to no one.
At Cross’ invitation, Ricketts showed up instead at Free on the Outside’s Thursday evening 12-step recovery service. What happened there shocked him: After Cross introduced Ricketts and other new members, the approximately 40 adults at the church stood up and began to clap. Their applause welcoming the new members continued for several minutes, Ricketts said. When the service finished, people shook his hand and talked with him.
“I was so unprepared for that. It just blew me away,” he said. “Everybody gets a full welcome like that—welcome home.”
At Light My Way, Sanders felt welcomed, but he says he attended for several years before truly becoming a follower of Jesus. A turning point came in 2011, the same year church leaders made him confess to his parole officer that he’d been drinking in his room—a parole violation. He has since given up alcohol, he said.
Pastor Gleason, who befriended him and would take him out for coffee and lunch, was a big influence.
“He talked to me. He told me he loved me. When I got my first housing, he bought me some towels and a clothes hamper,” Sanders says. “He talked to me in more detail about what Christ was about.” Later, he was baptized, and Gleason officiated at his wedding.
Sanders is off parole now, although he’ll remain on the sex registry for life.
“I’ve been doing good,” he said. “It helps being married.”
Now, he tries to offer his friendship and guidance to new attendees, telling them his history and what God has done for him: “I just plant the seed and let them see the changes in me.”
—WORLD has updated this story to correct the year in which Pastor James Gleason started the Light My Way service.
Permission and procedures
The laws governing sex offenders have grown stricter since California became the first state to establish a registry in 1947. Parole officers, lawyers, and insurance companies can help church leaders align their policies with state laws. Churches should craft procedures for handling sex offenders long before one shows up, said Voyle Glover, an attorney and author of Protecting Your Church Against Sexual Predators.
Guy Russ, assistant vice president of risk control at Church Mutual Insurance Company, advises churches to train leaders and volunteers to identify suspicious behaviors and screen leaders and volunteers through interviews, background checks, and references. Russ added that when a sex offender begins attending a church, leaders should inform the whole congregation: That ensures everyone can keep the offender accountable and helps parents protect their children.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., state Rep. Patsy Hazlewood proposed a bill to allow offenders to attend any church service with written permission from the church. A registered sex offender had attended one church for over 20 years, she said, and wanted to start attending a Wednesday class offered by the church. But his parole officer would not allow him to attend the class because it occurred at the same time a nearby day care was open.
Hazlewood hoped her bill, which has not yet passed, would enable him to attend with written permission from the church. Creating such a policy is like trying to thread a needle, she said: “If people are willing to change their lives, I think we are called as Christians … to try and help give people the opportunity to do that, at the same time recognizing that we have an obligation to protect the other neighbors.” —D.J.D. & L.R.
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