ASHEVILLE, N.C. (BP) — In a move that could cost the ministry an untold number of volunteers, Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program is requiring its coordinators to affirm its statement of faith. The requirement, which became official Jan. 1, is an effort to ensure theological alignment between volunteers and the program that, for 33 years, has delivered gifts and the Gospel to inmates and their children.
The requirement is proactive and not in response to a specific problem, Prison Fellowship vice president Sara Nagelvoort Marlin told WORLD. But the organization’s statement of faith does put it at odds with liberal churches that may share Prison Fellowship’s conviction to help prisoners and their families but not its stand on issues of life, marriage and the inerrancy of scripture. Angel Tree’s volunteer coordinators represent 7,700 U.S. churches.
Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree ministry works to maintain relationships between incarcerated mothers and fathers and their children through year-round programs, beginning with the popular Angel Tree Christmas gift program.
The Prison Fellowship Angel Tree ministry is distinct from the Angel Tree program of The Salvation Army, which provides Christmas gifts for needy children and seniors.
“Part of Prison Fellowship’s standard for volunteers has always been its statement of faith,” Marlin said. “The ministry has always provided the statement of faith to its volunteers with an application so there could be no confusion about what kind of organization they were volunteering with.”
Prison Fellowship volunteers who have teaching and mentoring roles within the prisons are required to sign the statement, stating they agree with its precepts. But Angel Tree volunteers have only received a copy as a “reference document” with no binding agreement.
“We recently decided to be more direct about our faith expectations with Angel Tree coordinators,” Marlin stated. “So beginning (in 2016), our Angel Tree coordinator application will ask those volunteer candidates to sign that they have read the statement and agree with it. It simply provides better mission alignment for us and applies the same application process to all of our volunteers.”
But churches that honestly evaluate their own doctrine in light of Prison Fellowship’s statement of faith could be forced to dissolve their relationship with the ministry. “We believe in the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death,” the statement reads. “We also uphold the holy institution of marriage between one man and one woman, rooted as it is in God’s creation of man and woman in His image and in the relationship between Christ and His Church.”
The Prison Fellowship’s statement of faith calls the Bible “God’s authoritative and inspired Word,” adding “Christians must submit to its divine authority, both individually and corporately, in all matters of belief and conduct, which is demonstrated by true righteous living.”
Marlin said it was important to safeguard the integrity of Prison Fellowship’s mission by ensuring all Angel Tree partners agree with the statement of faith and not merely acknowledge that they have read it.
She recognized they may lose some church support, but accepted that fact “because our statement of faith holds great significance for us.”
According to Angel Tree, 2.7 million U.S. children have an incarcerated parent. In its 33-year history, the organization has distributed more than 10 million gifts to children on behalf of their imprisoned parents.
The ministry has expanded to include summer camps and mentoring programs for those children, establishing year-round relationships between the prisoners, their children and the church volunteers.