By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

As Dick Kunnert heads behind bars this week, a laptop bag hanging over his shoulder, his venture marks a remarkable milestone.

No, he’s not being incarcerated. For the 80th time in his tenure, Dick will be facilitating a Lead Like Jesus Encounter for prisoners in the Winnebago County Jail in Rockford, IL.

No other Facilitator has come close to leading that many Encounters in the worldwide Lead Like Jesus movement, co-founded more than a decade ago by best-selling business book author Ken Blanchard and his close friend, Phil Hodges.

That he has led that many for men who are behind bars – and has also led more than a dozen other Encounters for business and church leaders in India, Uganda and Haiti, as well as the U.S. – makes Dick’s story truly unique.

But now – ironically when Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day occur on the same day – we focus on just the part of his unique contribution that concerns prisoners. As it turns out, that’s more than enough. And it’s wonderfully timely love story.

Of course, as Dick would surely tell you, the most auspicious milestones to celebrate are not the programs, but the changes they have inspired in prisoners’ hearts.

Expensive failure

Perhaps no system of any kind has spent more money accomplishing less than the U.S. system of jails and prisons. In 2015, states spent about $45 billion to sustain their prison systems, or an average of just over $33,000 per prisoner per year.

Yet, within three years after those prisoners are released, an average of seven out of 10 will be rearrested, convicted and sent back to jail or prison for another crime.

At more than $33,000 per prisoner per year, this failure rate represents a huge cost to society – not to mention the hurt and loss caused by the crimes themselves.

There are many reasons why people – mostly men – go to jail. And there are even more reasons why they return after they are released. That’s because ex-cons face some unique challenges: how to fit back into society, this time as a productive contributor rather than a criminal; how to find employment with a criminal record and a sketchy work history; how to avoid all the bad habits rampant in the people and places they go back to after release.

Whatever the reasons why people go to jails and prisons and then why they return, if they are going to chart another life path after incarceration, it is going to require at least a change of heart and perspective on their part. They can’t keep doing what got them into trouble in the first place. They have to change.

A hand up

Dick is too savvy to think that offering 8 hours of training in how to lead like Jesus would turn every prisoner’s life around.

At 81,after 30 years of working in mental health – including 11 years as head of a huge state residential mental health facility – and decades of experience working as a volunteer with the homeless and other marginalized people, Dick knows that the kind of behavior that puts people behind bars can be deeply rooted in a person’s development and identity.

But in offering the option not only to learn how to lead Like Jesus – but also to live and love like Jesus – he saw an opportunity to expose prisoners in the local jail to another way of dealing with their many relationships that might give them the basis for beginning new and better lives.

He knew he wouldn’t touch everyone. But he believed he might touch some – perhaps even many.

That was 80 Encounters ago. At an average of about 15 prisoners per class, that was also almost 1200 prisoners ago.

Dick doesn’t have the means to track the life trajectories of these men after they are released, so there’s no way he can speak about the percentage whose lives are changed by their exposure to how to be Jesus-like leaders.

But he does know some of them have turned their lives around in dramatic ways.

A family restored

Take the case a roofer who approached Ruth Fairchild, a co-facilitator with Dick, at a housing project in Rockford. “Ruth,” he said as he approached her. “You probably don’t recognize me, but I attended your Lead Like Jesus workshop in jail. You and Dick really changed my life.

“When Ken Blanchard’s video came on talking about apologizing,” he continued, “it was like God talking to me. Years ago I was living with a lady and I really treated her badly. We had a daughter and the lady punished me by never allowing me to meet my daughter. Well, I knew right then I had to find her when I got out of jail and apologize to her.

“I did that,” he added. “I found her and apologized. What has happened is we are getting married before Christmas and are buying a house together. Plus I have met my daughter, and my granddaughter.”

A proud graduate

Then there was the time Dick’s daughter Beth was at a holiday party engaged in a conversation about Christmas. All the sudden a guy she didn’t know started talking about a class he had been in about Jesus and leadership. In fact, he was carrying his certificate in his pocket.

Beth asked where the class was held, and the guy said he attended it in jail. Beth told him that was her dad who was teaching it. As far as she knows, the guy remains a successful graduate of the class -- still doing okay today.

A viral impact

Sometimes the impact has reached beyond individual prisoners to include the jail’s culture.

“In 2016 we met Jimmy,” Dick recalls. “Jimmy came to an Encounter early in the year and at the end asked if he could come again next month. I said yes. After Jimmy’s second Encounter, he was a disciple for the Lord! Over the next months, Jimmy pushed almost every man on his pod to attend LLJ.”

The result: they “Christianized” the pod. “A corrections officer said to me, ‘I don’t know what you people are doing but you have made that pod a different place. I worked there the other day and it was a delight.’” Kunnert attributed the impact to Jimmy’s evangelizing efforts.

“As it turned out, Jimmy spent most of 2017 in prison, but he found ways to stay in touch, mostly with Ruth,” Dick recalls. “Right before Christmas we celebrated Jimmy’s release from prison. Then through one of Ruth’s contacts in Kiwanis, Jimmie interviewed at one of Rockford’s best manufacturing companies and is happily working and putting his life in order. Praise the Lord!”

It’s jail

Sometimes Dick, Ruth and the associates who help them do one Encounter each month – it’s presented in Monday through Thursday in four 2.5-hour segments – have to remind themselves that they’re in jail. Sometimes they get little reminders.

Dick recalls a time when prisoners in the class were paired into partner groups and asked: “So you have heard our description of a servant leader; now tell you partner about a time you saw yourself as a servant leader.”

A young man recalled a time when every day after he left his job at a local grocery store he would go home through a park that was populated with homeless people. He said they always looked hungry, so he started taking bakery goods from the store and handing them out to the homeless folks. I commented we had a modern day Robin Hood in our midst. And then we did have a conversation about stealing.”

Graced moments

Another time an inmate shared a story that gave Dick chills. “A young man said he had been living with a lady who told him she had become pregnant. He is black, she is white. They continued to live together and he went to the hospital with her when it was time to deliver. When the baby is born, lo and behold it is white. The mother starts crying and begs him to be the father.”

What does he do? “He loves her and he signs the birth certificate as the child’s father – and he tells us he has stayed in the child’s life.”

You just never know where grace will turn up. But Dick says it does so regularly behind bars.

As he prepared for his 80th Encounter behind bars this week, Dick reflected on the experience.

“All 79 times I have facilitated a jail Encounter there comes a special moment where you see an inmate go through an ‘ah ha’ experience. It is different for different people. Sometimes you see people buy in the first day, with others it isn’t until the fourth and last day. Our line about servant leadership -- that it is not about us -- is so real during these events. But it is such a privilege to be present when the Spirit’s grace touches someone in your presence. “

Prisoners’ perspectives

As is the case with every Encounter, the participants get the last word when they fill out an evaluation. Here are some of their comments about what was most valuable to them:

  • “How to receive, how to forgive and to accept forgiveness;”
  • “How to become a better leader and most of all remain in God’s word, and the two parts of an apology.”
  • “If I lead like Jesus, basically nothing can stop me;”
  • “I’ve found a better understanding of the Bible and Jesus and how to live a better future;”
  • “That faith can move mountains and that I am somebody in Christ Jesus;”
  • “God was there all the time;”
  • “That I need to be a leader in my home and to lead with love;”
  • “The entire course -- it really opened my eyes and changed my way of thinking;”
  • “God moved me, I believe I received what God called me to receive.”

When asked about the course’s content, prisoners’ responses include:

  • “This is truly like what I needed for my next step;”
  • “Great ideas and principles. I like the fact everything was scripture based;”
  • “Was what young men and women need;”
  • “I’m glad I signed up for it;”
  • “I want to thank you for giving me this knowledge;”
  • “It encouraged me to follow Jesus more.”

The Facilitators get praise too, as these comments illustrate:

  • “Those two people put tears in your heart;”
  • “Too much fun – which means it is good overall;”
  •  “Very good teachers; felt they cared about us;”
  • “Was more than I expected;”
  • “Mrs. Fairchild is a heartfelt teacher, and Mr. Kunnert is great!”

Ecumenical effort

The classes in the jail use the Lead Like Jesus ecumenical materials, consistent with the form of outreach by local chaplains to the prisoners, and Dick is grateful for all the cooperation provided by Lead Like Jesus. “We couldn’t have done the first Encounter, much less 80 of them, without their active encouragement and support,” he says.

In recent years, to acknowledge that support, foster ecumenical cooperation and provide some consideration for use of Lead Like Jesus’ intellectual property, the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute has begun pay a stipend to cover intellectual property fees.

Dick is both a Master Facilitator with Lead Like Jesus and a Board Member of the Yeshua Institute, which has offered a distinctly Catholic version the Encounter since 2009.

Through it all, it’s clear he’s motivated by two things very close to his heart – his Christian faith and, most especially, his commitment to loving his neighbor.

About 1200 prisoners and former prisoners can be grateful for that.

And so can the more than 350,000 people in the Rockford metro area who benefit in countless ways whenever a Jesus-like leader emerges from the county jail.