Rev. Dr. Susan Allers-Hatlie (’85, ’04) and Rev. Lynda Lee (’14) are prison chaplains. Sue, an Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) Certified Educator, teaches CPE to prisoners and seminarians inside Minnesota Correctional Facility (MCF)-Stillwater. Lynda, a trauma-informed care specialist, runs a grief and loss class at MCF-Lino Lakes. In their work, both have created uniquely effective means of ministering within prisons.
Answering a Call
Sue was raised in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and considered being a lawyer or probation officer. Directed by her Lutheran college to a seminary, her burgeoning interest in prison chaplaincy was deemed an unacceptable path. Stepping away, she found a CPE course at the University of Minnesota and a mentor who pointed her to United and the UCC.
United offered a contextual formation process to meet Sue’s goals. She studied liberation theology with Rev. Dr. Robert Bryant, Professor Emeritus of Constructive Theology, who took students on an eye-opening trip to Central and South America where poverty and oppression mirrors the US “pipeline to prison.” She completed an internship at MCF-Shakopee, a women’s prison, with alum Carrie Dorfman* (’78).
Lynda, a music major in college, has always been creative. She discovered United through a United/Minneapolis Institute of Arts joint project and ARTS: The Arts in Religion and Theological Studies. Gradually, Lynda realized she wanted to work with people in prison and began volunteering. When her friend, Patsy Herbert* (’15), said she was taking classes at United,
Lynda decided to apply.
Working full time, Lynda earned her MDiv in six years. A CPE unit taught her to recoup energy expended in ministering. United’s arts emphasis helped her value the process of creation as storytelling and subvert the idea of failure. In her final semester, Lynda met Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, whose book, Soul Repair, reinforced the practice of using art in narrative healing.
Making a Difference
In 1998, Sue started a DMin at United and Certified Educator Training through ACPE. Rev. Dr. Christie Cozad Neuger (’80), Professor Emerita of Pastoral Counseling and Pastoral Theology, guided Sue’s work in narrative therapy. Sue then offered CPE units in correctional settings. In 2019, she sought funding to expand CPE training to imprisoned leaders so they could gain credits and learn spiritual care skills. It was the first such program in the US.
Since finishing CPE units with seminarians and incarcerated leaders, Sue asserts that “doing CPE inside prisons is a way to practice anti-racist commitments, integrate restorative justice, and live out liberation theology.” It is also systems change.
Prison chaplaincy is vital to restorative justice. As Lynda explains, when she can help people to deconstruct sources of their pain/grief, become aware of somatic responses to feelings, and accept that past events and actions do not have to define them or their future, a new life story becomes possible. “Real healing,” she adds, comes from “addressing losses that have been unarticulated and offering compassion to those parts of yourself.”
Lynda also seeks out relevant spiritual resources for the diversity of faith communities at the prison. For this work, she says, “United continues to offer a deep bench of consults.”
“What would I have done without United honoring my deep desire to do this work?” Sue asks. She has won national awards for being prophetic and innovative. “United seminarians,” she adds, “have been amazing, and transformations are literally contagious as the learning unfolds between all of the students!”