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Theological Education in Prison

Innovative new program links academic study with the struggles of real life

While teaching a class at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Yardville, New Jersey, Melanie Webb ’09 ThM, ’16 PhD was approached by one of the inmates who asked, “Will the Seminary teach us? I’m a theologian, and the choir director at the prison.” 

Struck by his question, Webb presented the idea to Dayle Rounds ’89, ’97 ThM, associate dean of continuing education. They partnered with the Reverend Charles Atkins ’00 MDiv/MA supervisor of chaplaincy services, New Jersey Department of Corrections, to imagine what the program could look like.

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Students in the C:TM + INSIDE program deepen their knowledge of the Bible, God, and the world

Now, in its third year, the Certificate of Theology and Ministry: Inside (C:TM + INSIDE) gives “inside” students in the prison and “outside” students—community members and leaders of local congregations—a deeper understanding of the Old Testament, New Testament, theology, World Christianity, and the practices of faith and leadership. C:TM + INSIDE is a cohort of Princeton Seminary’s Certificate in Theology and Ministry Program (C:TM + ONLINE), a 14-week online curriculum designed for ministry leaders with no formal theological education and taught by the Seminary’s faculty.

C:TM + INSIDE forces us to think differently about who our students are,” Rounds said. “We are offering theological education in a new setting, and we are providing it for students who have an interest, but have not had opportunity.”

Dennis Olson, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology, said he plans his lessons to incorporate topics from Scripture that will be useful to Christian leaders, but that also touch on the students’ real-life struggles.

“Biblical stories of revenge and forgiveness offer students a space to reflect on their own interactions,” Olson said. “The inside students are eager to deepen their knowledge of the Bible, God, and the world. They share their engagements and struggles with God, faith, justice, and life. Their perspectives are fresh, earnest, sometimes raw, and often surprising.”


Programs like this that get students and professors out into the world—in congregations, neighborhoods, hospitals, and prisons—help us link our academic study with the struggles of everyday people.

This program brings together students from different perspectives to learn from one another. Although the participants in the course may have different life experiences, they share a common commitment.

“Both the inside and outside students share the identity of Christian faith leaders,” Webb said. “C:TM + INSIDE creates a space in which incarcerated status is not the most salient difference.”

Olson added, “The outside students provide a network of support and a commitment of friendship as they study alongside the inside students. As people of faith, they often serve as mentors. It creates a sense of community and a rich learning environment.” 

In just three years, a total of 47 inside and outside students have completed the yearlong C:TM + INSIDE. This program is just one of the ways Princeton Seminary is equipping Christian leaders to respond to the theological, pastoral, and social challenges related to the realities of mass incarceration.

“The prison culture cannot stop God’s gift of faith, but it can hinder a person’s search to understand how their faith can inform their lives,” Atkins said. “C:TM + INSIDE provides the space, time, and resources for the inside students to engage in critical thinking and to become agents of God’s love, peace, and wisdom.”

“Programs like this that get students and professors out into the world—in congregations, neighborhoods, hospitals, and prisons—help us link our academic study with the struggles of everyday people,” Olson said. “Christian leaders need to practice the art of interpreting the Bible for the sake of the community they lead.” 


Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Vicar, Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, Boone, North Carolina

Sylvia Bull , Class of 2015

“My field education placements lifted up my gifts for ordained ministry, and the dual-degree program helped me develop the skills for ministry. ”