NBTS E-Story

Dr. Warren Dennis

New D.Min. Program Gets Underway

Twelve students representing seven states and various occupations and denominations made New Brunswick their home for one week to kick off the intense and accelerated new Doctor of Ministry degree program: Prisons, Public Policy and Transformative Justice.

"This is an impressive and amazing group of people who checked their egos at the door and opened themselves to each other as a cohort of teachers and learners," said Dr. Warren Dennis, Director of the NBTS Doctor of Ministry program and Dirk Romeyn Professor of Metro-Urban Ministry. "I have no doubt they will make a tremendous contribution to theological education, what goes on inside prisons and outside of them, as well as what goes on inside and outside of congregations."

Read more below about the crisis of mass incarceration and how NBTS is preparing students to meet the challenge head on.


Perhaps no more urgent issue exists in the urban community than the issue of mass incarceration. The U.S. represents about 5% of the worlds population, but accounts for more than 25% of the worlds prisoners. The prison industrial complex has devastated African American individuals, families and urban communities. One in three young African American men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system. According to Michelle Alexander, Ohio State University Law professor:

More African Americans are under correctional control today  in prison or jail, on probation or parole  than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began&More black men are imprisoned today than at any other moment in our nations history. More are disenfranchised today than in 1870& [The New Jim Crow, 176, 179]

The prison industrial complex makes visible the connection between a failing public education system, a depleted social services network, an increase in poverty, an intensification of racism and the incarceration of brown and black people  including many juveniles. The Childrens Defense Fund documents these failures, identifying the cradle to prison pipeline for people of color, especially those who are in impoverished communities. The issue exposes the interconnections between these systems and the deadly impact on urban communities of color.

This crisis of mass incarceration urgently needs a Christian response. A prophetic critique of and challenge to the prison industrial complex has yet to take hold in most congregations because of the barriers to connecting with people inside jails and prisons, the shame often connected with arrest, conviction and incarceration, and the traditional focus on whats wrong with those in prison. Silence implies consent to a system that incarcerates a higher percentage of Black men than South Africa did under apartheid. Not only is it time for the church and community to respond, but it is time for our theological schools to do the same.

New Brunswick Theological Seminary is taking this challenge head on by offering a new, collaborative Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree program for Christian leaders who have the courage, passion and drive to understand and transform the systemic realities that are daily destroying the lives of individuals and communities. The centerpiece of this program is a network of faith-based organizations linked with community organizing efforts, prison think tanks and students inside prisons and jails to construct a context-specific pedagogy.

Our program is offered in partnership with the Program for Religion in Prisons (PREP) and Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation (SALT). PREP and SALT share a common mission: to create educational partnerships that bring together those inside and those outside to study the theology, sociology, and the politics of crime and justice in America.

The learning processes in this format will not only provide healing for groups within the congregations and ministry settings of the doctoral candidates, but will have enormous benefits for the wider community as well. We need seminary faculty, community representatives, clergy and candidates trained in the various disciplines of urban living, transformative justice and the criminal justice system, and we need them to work together.

In addition, this program urges congregations to wrestle with questions around how to engage with the ninety-five percent of the more than 2.4 million people currently incarcerated who will return to our communities. How do we invite and equip the church to welcome those who have been incarcerated?

Stigma and shame loom large in congregations that have members who are incarcerated. By offering a D. Min. in Prisons, Public Policy and Transformative Justice degree program, New Brunswick Theological Seminary hopes to move the church from silence to critical thinking, transformative leadership and, ultimately, systemic change.

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