A Student Reflects on His Field Education in Prison Ministry

Jonathan Burke’s interest in prison ministry began with a PTS course that addressed both trauma studies and one-on-one counseling.

Jonathan Burke’s interest in prison ministry began with a class he took at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) called “Trauma and Grace,” a course that addressed his interest in trauma studies and one-on-one counseling. When it came time to decide on his field education experience, he knew he wanted to work in either a prison or a psychiatric hospital. Ann Klein Forensic Center offered both.

Ann Klein Forensic Center, a psychiatric hospital in Trenton, New Jersey works with patients in the legal system, focusing on the treatment of psychiatric illness and evaluation as requested by the courts. Under supervision of the center chaplain, PTS student interns interact one-on-one with patients for pastoral counseling, and lead patient groups on topics ranging from mindfulness to spirituality. Some of the patients have been found legally incompetent to stand trial; others have been tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity but are still considered potentially violent towards themselves or to other people.

Burke, MDiv ’19, found the first day of his ten-week summer internship somewhat intimidating, though he felt confident that he was in the right calling. “I knew I wanted to be involved in training to learn about how trauma affects people's lives,” he says.

During his internship, Burke interacted with patients seeking pastoral counseling. Patients would typically meet first with Rev. Ali Van Kuiken, chaplain at Ann Klein, and then with Burke who says he experienced chaplaincy in the contexts of both mental illness and a prison setting at during the regular one-on-one weekly pastoral care sessions.

Burke says he received a lot of guidance and support from Van Kuiken. “It can be difficult, and self-care is really important because you definitely hear very tragic things on a daily basis,” he says. “It’s also important to know your limits and recognize when you're getting emotionally wrapped up in something the patient is saying.”

He credits Van Kuiken with helping him find the balance between “the emotional connection that drives us to help patients, and having an emotional response that could distract me from listening reflectively,” he says.

She also helped him see his role as that of a “spiritual midwife” in which he was functioning as a companion with patients on their spiritual journey, he says. “As patients struggle with questions or fears about God, spirituality, or other aspects of their lives, the role of chaplain is not to give them answers, but to offer guidance and point out patterns or thoughts that may be keeping them from moving forward.”

Would he do it again? “Yes, without hesitation,” he says. “It’s been a great, affirming experience for me.” After completing an MDiv at PTS he plans to apply to a full-time, one-year pastoral residency and eventually achieve his goal of becoming a certified chaplain.

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Pastor of Scottsboro Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Alabama

Micaiah Tanck, Class of 2015

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