Vocal prayer makes a bold assumption. It embraces the conviction that God is living, active, and present in the lives of individuals and in the life of the congregation. It holds to the belief that ours is not an absent God. It assumes our absolute dependence on this God who is far beyond us and deep within us. So, the pastoral prayer is offered to a God who is current, relational, and participatory. If the pastor is not so convicted, the pastoral prayer will not benefit the congregation’s deep yearning for the soul of God.
I was elected to the episcopacy in The United Methodist Church in 1996 and since that time have worshipped in over five hundred congregations. Most of these have had a pastoral prayer as one part of the service of worship. Some of these have drawn me into the presence of God but many of them have not. It is not difficult to fail worshippers at the point of the pastoral prayer.
Paul, a pastor friend of mine traveled to a nearby state park every Friday morning to prepare the pastoral prayer for the following Sunday morning. His preparation of the pastoral prayer grew out of his awareness of the spiritual and temporal needs of his congregation and of his perception of what was going on in the world at that particular time. He would muse prayer and write as he sat at a picnic table overlooking the wide and winding Tennessee River. He spent time in prayer before he prepared the prayer. In following this discipline he did not disregard the importance of the pastoral prayer. I have not followed his example, but I wish that I had.
My confession is that I have not taken seriously the notion that my congregations have trusted me to formulate a prayer that would enable the worshippers to be attentive to God’s presence. Sunday in and Sunday out I relied too heavily on spontaneity and vague generalities. This led to prayers that did not plow deeply into the needs of the people whom I had been appointed to serve. I would often use well-worn clichés that I read from my memory bank. As I review this part of my ministry, my public prayers were not much more than a formality and I am not proud of this.
Sunday in and Sunday out I relied too heavily on spontaneity and vague generalities. This leads to prayers that did not plow deeply into the needs of the people whom I had been appointed to serve.
Pastoral prayer is oratio: praying with words. In vocal prayer, we use spoken words to express thanksgiving and dependence on God, intercede for those in the congregation, pray for the community in which the church is located, pray for the church family, confess our sins, express penitence, and to adore God for being God.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.” (Psalm 130:1)
Vocal prayer, on behalf of the congregation, should be filled with words that come from the heart. The heart will be directed to God if the pastoral prayer comes from the depths of the pastor’s soul. If the prayer is not from the heart, it will not be sincere. The pastoral prayer that does not come from the heart cannot lift the hearts of others to God. If the oratio does not come from the heart, it will fill the sanctuary from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling with empty words that will not open persons to the presence of the Holy. If the pastoral prayer is truly from the heart, it will help the worshippers to be drawn into the presence of God. When this happens, the congregation is better able to strengthen its hold on truth, goodness, righteousness, purity, and love. Prayers that are not from the heart will not accomplish that purpose.
- The pastoral prayer should be thoughtful and well prepared. The prayer does not begin when the pastor faces the bowed heads of the congregation. It has its birth in the prayer life of the pastor. A wise rabbi was asked, “What does the rabbi do before praying?” He answered, “I pray that I might be able to pray properly.”
- It is important to give careful preparation. Words have power. Words can make this look like that. They can heal or they can hurt, build up or tear down, and they can shape reality. They can be used to point to the one who is praying or they can point beyond the prayer to that which is Holy. Well chosen words have the strength to draw worshippers into the presence of God.
- Words are not enough. We carefully choose words with the full knowledge that words are inadequate to express the deepest feelings in our hearts. In the early nineties a family in our congregation adopted a three-month-old girl. I arranged for the adoption agency to bring the baby to the sanctuary for the presentation of the child to the adoptive parents. As we waited for the coming of the baby, the family joined me in polite conversation, our eyes fixed on the doors to the sanctuary, our palms were sweating, and our hearts were racing with anticipation. Words are totally inadequate to express what I was feeling when I saw the lady from the adoption agency. She came through the doors and walked down the aisle of the church cradling the beautiful little girl in her arms. It was a holy moment. It was a moment that could not be captured by spoken language. The baby was given to the new parents with grace and beauty. The new father said, “Pastor, pray for us.” I could not find the words that I needed so I just prayed, “Thank you.” There are times when words are inadequate but we must strive to find the words that make clear what the heart knows.
- Public prayer is speech but it is not “mere speech.” It is more than the words that we use; they can mean something or nothing. In spite of the limitations the words of the pastoral prayer laden with compassion, joy, confession, and hope have an almost mystical power to draw us into the presence of Holy. Not easily, not all at once, not every time, but sometimes, the worshipper offers his or her heart without reservation because of the words of the pastoral prayer.
- The words of the pastoral prayer are not solitary words. They are meant for public worship, for the congregation, for all who are assembled to be open to the Spirit. Even those who find it difficult to pray often find an impulse to pray when they are with others. We must never forget that some will pray together who cannot pray alone. It is like two people taking a late evening walk. Each person feels stronger, braver, and more loving because of the near presence of the other. I have found that many who are spiritually weak within themselves can find spiritual strength and awareness of the transcendent when praying with others. Even those who never pray in solitude can experience the Holy Spirit when they are praying with others.
- The words that we choose should arise out of the reality of the congregation. The words should rise from the joys and concerns of the congregants whom we have been called to serve. I know of a pastor who would put a clean index card in his pocket on Monday morning. As the pastor moved through the week he would use his powers of observation and discernment to get in touch with the spiritual and temporal needs of his people and would jot down a note that might or might not be used as he formed the pastoral prayer for the upcoming Sunday. His notes would be about such things as brokenness, loss of hope, dullness of spirit, failure to reflect on God’s presence, and all manner of physical and emotional illnesses. Or his notes would be about such things as the joy of new birth, some beam of happiness, some commendable service, some dawning of new opportunity, some endowment of reason, some power of love, or some knowledge of righteousness. Throughout the week he was pondering about what might be included in the prayer.
- The words of the pastoral prayer should also share concern about the community where the church is located. In all of the congregations that I have attended I have rarely heard a pastor pray, in a specific way, for the town or the immediate neighborhood. The generalities of most of these prayers did not begin to touch the pain or joy of the very people for whom the congregation had a responsibility. I know that the pastor has many concerns in his or her daily life but one does not have to be oblivious to the transcendent things that surface within a few blocks of the church building. The pastor should also muse about world events that bring both hope and harm to all of God’s children. The congregation is deeply affected by the events and people that help to shape the reality of the world. They are affected both materially and spiritually by the wind and weather, by the tides and currents and all of the good and evil of the outside world. As the pastoral prayer is prepared the pastor should be keenly aware of those things that are running through the minds and hearts of those who come to worship. These should not be neglected in the pastoral prayer. We should not forget that for some worshippers everything has been eroded, inner forces have evaporated, and there is very little resistance to the power of evil.
In conclusion, I want to say that the pastoral prayer should be rooted in the belief that our hearts can be opened to the presence of God and His Christ. The prayer should be offered from the depths of the pastor’s soul if there is to be a sure consciousness of God’s presence. The hearts of the worshippers will be directed toward the heart of God only when the heart of the pastor is directed toward the heart of God. If we pray from the heart with well-chosen words the living Christ might choose to fill our lives with the power of love, with a sense of the beautiful, and with an understanding of righteousness.
This article is adapted from Becoming a Praying Congregation, Copyright © 2009 by Abingdon Press. The electronic edition of this title is available with a subscription to Ministry Matters.