by Frank Zeidler, Jr., Executive Director
This will likely be the last item you read from me this year. After 20 years on the staff of the Saints Prison Ministry, our Board of Trustees has graciously granted me a sabbatical. To be more accurate, they granted me a sabbatical more than a year ago, but God had other plans.
Late in 2019, as I was preparing for my time away from the ministry, Jimmy Cochran’s parents were involved in a horrific automobile accident – his father was taken by ambulance to a local hospital and his mother was airlifted to a Georgia trauma center. While it was not their fault, they paid a significant price for the other driver’s carelessness. Both parents endured lengthy hospital stays – in different hospitals – and didn’t see each other for months! The healthcare professionals then orchestrated time for them in the same rehab facility, until his father was released while mom stayed behind. At the same time Jimmy and his family were trying to tend to the needs of his parents, their daughter experienced month-long complications from her ongoing battle with a disease she has had since birth. This was not the time to ask Jimmy to take over as Acting Executive Director, so the sabbatical was delayed.
It was February before Jimmy started to get his head above water, so the Board and I discussed a spring timeframe. Those of you that know my wife and I personally are aware that she also has long-term health issues, some of which are exacerbated by cold weather. So, shifting the leave from winter to spring seemed to be a blessing in disguise; that is, until we actually got to spring. Yep, you guessed it – my sabbatical coincided directly with the arrival of our new friend, SARS-CoV-2! As prisons began to close for volunteers, everyone involved agreed that this was not the time for the Executive Director to head for the hills…and besides, the hills were closed! So, once again, we delayed the sabbatical.
The summer has been spent trying to navigate a previously uncharted mine field, with both medical and political pitfalls to overcome. Prisons postponed, rescheduled, and eventually cancelled our summer visits, making March 8th the last time a Saints team visited a prison (as of this newsletter printing). At the same time, we were tightening our belts at every turn in an effort to keep all six staff members working (yes, that’s right – everything you read about is done by six staffers and an army of volunteers!). We spent time managing, re- imagining, and reworking the softball schedules around the country and still processed the paperwork for 90-100 missionary-athletes. If the doors did open, we were ready at any time to walk through them! Even this time was not without its tense moments, as one of our staff members tested positive for the virus (completely recovered and back to work in a couple weeks), one staff member had just moved a parent into a Veterans long-term facility when the virus began its attack on retirement homes around the country, and we all mourned the passing of Leigh Ann’s father, who had been in declining health for some time.
Through all of this, God has been faithful – and those in whose hearts He has moved have responded with Spirit-led giving in spite of the lack of events or results that normally abound this time of year. As I write this, the ministry is just a couple weeks from the end of our fiscal year and all signs are that we will finish “in the black,” although it may be by about $1.27!
As we move into the fall, and with all pandemic related news now cloaked in political dialogue, no one knows what to expect next. Could the prisons open up to volunteers toward the end of the year? Maybe, but no one knows. Will the upcoming election cycle have an effect on how the pandemic is viewed? Maybe, but no one knows. Will our fall and winter sports find a foothold, even if it is a later season than usual? Maybe, but no one knows.
Here is what I do know: God has blessed this ministry with a tremendous staff, a team that understands what we’re up against and has pulled together to maintain a focus on our mission. God has also blessed this ministry with a dedicated group of godly men around the Board table, all of whom routinely inquire about the state of affairs and the condition of our people. Beyond that, God has further blessed this ministry with an amazing collection of volunteers – missionary-athletes, birthday card teams, prayer warriors, pen pals, and financial supporters – who stand at the ready to be used by Him, whenever and wherever the need arises.
With all of that in perspective, I’ve gotta’ go. We are 13 months past the Board determining that a sabbatical is in order, and to be transparent, I don’t disagree with them. Given the current climate, I have begun calling this my “extended time off with no place to go and nothing to do” – but I am looking forward to a time of refreshment, renewal, and personal growth.
The team that God has assembled – staff and Board alike – to oversee HIS ministry while I am gone is both qualified and capable. But my peace in stepping away during this unusual time is not found in their qualifications. My peace comes from knowing that they have embraced the mindset that you have heard me voice many times: this is God’s ministry. He is calling the shots, He is in control, and we are simply trying to follow where He takes us, without running ahead or lagging behind.
In the final months of 2020, I ask that you include these things in your prayers: that my time away will be fruitful despite the restrictions and challenges of the coronavirus, that the Board and staff will be listening for and hearing God’s voice clearly, that His people will continue to respond to the needs of SPM as they always have, and that when 2021 arrives we will look back on this year and say “To God be the Glory!”