Behind the Scenes: Lessons for Life Correspondence Course

     Surprisingly, one of the main motivations for writing the Lessons for Life Correspondence Course was frustration. I had been trying to help quite a few men over a period of several years with little or no success. These were grown men of all ages who had recently been released from prison. They contacted me because a mom, or an aunt, or a brother, or a friend had recommended me. Though these appointments were more or less cordial, few ever ended with positive results.

     My attitude and intentions were always the same. I knew they needed help. I knew what kind of help they needed. I knew how to help them, and I wanted to help them. Unfortunately, their attitude toward me was also consistent. They didn’t know me. They didn’t know how I could help them. They weren’t sure they wanted my help. They definitely didn’t want the kind of help I was offering, and in many cases, the only reason they met with me in the first place was out of courtesy for the person who had asked them to.

     Often, it seemed as though I was more serious about their lives than they were. I knew that if they didn’t make some good decisions soon, they would probably end up going back to prison on a parole violation, or worse, another crime. Early on, I learned that the two most important questions I needed to ask in order to help them were not the questions they wanted to hear and definitely not the questions they wanted to answer—especially to a total stranger.

     I tried to set the stage by telling a little about myself and my own experience with the challenges that come with being newly released from prison. This approach would help some, but no matter how comfortable they seemed after my story, the moment I asked the first question about them, the walls would go up.

     “Now that you are out of prison, what is your plan?” I would ask. Their response would either be something to the effect of, “I don’t have one,” or, “What’s it to ya?”

     My next question was even less popular. “Do you have a job?”

     I knew what they didn’t know or didn’t want to admit, and that was to make it in this world, at least in America, you need to have a plan, and you need to have a job. Success requires it, society expects it, and the parole board demands it.

     That initial meeting would usually end with a handshake and a “I’ll be praying for you,” or, “Good luck” from me, but rarely did they want a second meeting and rarely did they understand that I was trying to help.

     Slowly, I came to the realization that I needed a new approach. I thought, What if they truly understood before we met that I was trying to help? What if they knew how important having a plan and a job was before we had our first conversation? Those questions led to more, because the reality of the situation in most of these men’s lives was that they had no context, no point of reference about how life works—especially as a Christian. Though I started with the needs of a plan and a job, my ultimate goal was to talk to them about spiritual matters and their relationship with God. Not only did they have no context for the basics of survival, most had not faced issues like honesty, humility, surrender, forgiveness, or their secret fears. 

    At some point after one too many of these discouraging encounters, the light finally came on: What if all of these topics could be talked about before they get out of prison? And so it began.

     The Lessons for Life Correspondence Course started with just two students from a prison in Colorado. Though I had general ideas for what I wanted the class to be, I had not yet written the lessons. I wrote and sent out the first one to those two men, and as soon as they sent back their answers to the lesson’s questions, I sat down and wrote the next. This was probably not the ideal method on my end, but we all need motivation to finish a project, and their enthusiasm and my promise to deliver got the job done.

     The entire process was a valuable experience for me. At the end of each chapter there are five or six questions for them to answer, and I was surprised at how transparent they were in this context. “I’ve never had a plan,” they wrote. “I didn’t realize until this lesson that I was such a selfish person.” “I have let pride ruin my life.”

     I knew I was on to something. I didn’t know if these lessons would help a lot of people, but I knew the ones who took the class seriously would be better for it. And with the Lord giving the increase, the course has grown from those first two students to over 670 in the past three years. The course has been published as a book, utilized by other ministries, and we also teach it live in small groups at jails and prisons, as well as use it as a mentoring tool in one-on-one appointments. Funny what a little frustration can accomplish. Aside from all this, what pleases me the most is how well the meetings and phone calls go now after the men are released from prison.

     Instead of no desire to meet with me, they are now excited to get started on the next stage of their life. Instead of hostility and evasiveness when I ask about their plan, they come to me with ideas. Instead of no intention of finding a job, they either have one already by the time we meet or several possibilities lined up.

     Prison is not a pleasant experience and trying to put one’s life together after release is not easy. However, one of the key themes that I address throughout the course is to remind them of how important it is to make the decision to live their life on God’s terms and not their own. If they will take that one instruction seriously, they have everything they need for this life and eternity. And now that I think about it, so do I.

Gary Skinner