We don’t often associate spiritual transformation with imprisonment. Lee Rader does. It’s an integral part of her work as chaplain at the Women’s Correctional Facility, Topeka, and her own personal journey.
Rader, attracted to a life of service, was actively involved in her church, but serving as a prison chaplain wasn’t in her plans at graduation from Lawrence High School in 1972. She received a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies and English from Kansas University in 1976 and accepted a full-time position with Campus Life Youth for Christ International’s Chicago office.
She enjoyed the work but missed family, then returned to Lawrence in 1980 to work as a Douglas County Court juvenile services officer.
“I loved working with young people and provided a good service but felt a deeper inner spiritual calling to work in full-time ministry,” she says.
She attended Central Baptist Theological Seminary, graduated with a Master of Divinity in 1988, followed by a one-year chaplain residency at the former Baptist Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. She served as associate pastor at a church in Scarsdale, N.Y., for three years until internal church upheaval caused her to re-assess her life’s priorities.
“I needed to take a serious timeout to discern if I could continue in professional ministry with internal integrity,” she says.
“It was an intense time of searching for me both theologically and vocationally.”
Rader participated in a year-long seminar course “Spirit of Adventure” led by the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman, scholar, and Bowen Family Therapy Systems expert.
“I was struck by his suggestion that adventures can help ‘unstick’ families and individuals in challenging situations,” she says.
She embarked on a personal adventure.
“Sailing had always captured my soul and imagination, so I signed to crew for a sailing race across the Pacific Ocean as part of a larger framework for my personal search,” she recalls.
“Sailing the ocean sounds glamorous, but I had relatively little idea what I was doing and was way over my head in terms of challenge.”
During the voyage Rader read Pinkola Estes’ book “Women Who Run with the Wolves.”
“I was struck by references to women’s spiritual growth programs at a federal prison near Berkeley, California, and thought I’d love to be involved in something similar,” she recalls.
“While sailing, I came to realize professional ministry was my vocational passion, but chaplaincy was probably a better fit than parish ministry.”
Rader returned to the Kansas City area and found her vocational niche. She served six years as chaplain at the Chillicothe Correctional Center in Missouri and is now in her 10th year at Topeka. She remains passionate about her role and continues to grow spiritually and learn from the women she serves.
“I love working in a multidisciplinary and multifaith environment with wonderful, supportive colleagues and volunteers,” she says.
“Every day is different. The environment is full of life and challenges but also full of possibilities for personal and communal transformation. I enjoy working with women to help them find meaning, healing, hope and joy through their own spiritual practices.”