Transforming how you pray before meetings

September 25th, 2015

I’ve been in church for most of my life, so I’m used to starting meetings with a brief prayer or invocation. One of my friends calls it “the nod to God.” In most of these, we ask God to bless our work, we invite the Holy Spirit to open and clear our minds and we mention the health problems of a couple of people who are absent.

I do not dismiss these prayers as perfunctory or “not deep enough.” After all, Jesus’ most famous prayer is short and to the point. Although he spent long times alone in prayer, he seems to have favored brevity in public.

But in small groups of disciples (12 or fewer) who meet to discuss church business, we often have an opportunity to deepen and enrich our spiritual life together in ways that affect the whole community. Several years ago I was part of a small group of clergy who learned the importance of beginning our meeting times with an extended time of personal prayer. What we found is that the amount of time it took us to actually reach decisions together was shorter when we took the time to pray for each other one at a time.

We practiced a fairly simple form of covenant accountability and intercessory prayer. There were eight of us, and we met once a month. Each would take about three to five minutes to “check in,” to talk about the things we were celebrating, working on or struggling with. After one person shared, another would volunteer to pray for them. Then the person who prayed would take a turn to share, and so on.

Clearly, this is a time-consuming process. If everyone was very brief (which preachers seldom are), it would take a minimum of forty minutes. The first time we tried it, it felt long and cumbersome. But we found that we concluded our business in about forty minutes — half the time it had taken our previous meetings.

Naturally, if someone had a significant issue in their life, we might spend much more time listening and praying for them. But we generally finished our check-in and prayer time in about an hour. We found that not only did our business take less time, but we left feeling lighter, like we had actually accomplished something. We felt good about being part of the group, and looked forward to our time together.

I’ve used these principles to transform prayer at leadership meetings ever since. This kind of check-in and prayer time does several things:

  1. It lets people be heard. For some, it may be the only time they get fully listened to that week. So many folks have few people they can talk to about the things that are really weighing them down, and almost no one does this is with a group. In group prayer, you have an automatic support system where others are rooting for you to succeed. 
  2. It creates intimacy and trust in the community. Intimacy is created when people let folks into their space, when they can be vulnerable and let their guard down. Leaders who trust each other make a better team. 
  3. It allows people to be more fully present in the meeting. I suspect that disagreements in meetings often happen because there is some unspoken burden we’re carrying — we don’t feel respected, or heard, or we are angry at a spouse or friend or coworker. Prayer allows us to set those things aside while we focus on kingdom work. Yet it often happens that something in the meeting touches on something that a leader has shared—and we see God at work connecting the business of our meeting to the things about which we’ve prayed. 
  4. It invites the Spirit to do important work. Church meetings are seldom about life-changing decisions, yet we are in the life-changing business, spreading a life-changing message from a life-changing God. This kind of intentional prayer time centers our work around what God is doing in our lives and connects it to the story of what God is doing through our church. We remind ourselves that we are not doing human work under human power, but God’s work under God’s power.

Obviously, this kind of prayer doesn’t work with groups larger than twelve — unless you are keen on meeting for several hours. But the most important meetings in churches are usually done with fewer than twelve anyway. This practice is specifically for people who are in discipling and leading positions.

But spending some time in this kind of prayer also has the effect of giving more significance to the “nods to God” we pray in larger meetings as well. Church leaders become aware that all we do is suffused with prayer, that our nods are not merely perfunctory prayers, but an acknowledgement of the presence of God that undergirds all we do.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

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