Prayerheads

prayerI am deeply distressed by the state of prayer in The United Methodist Church – at least among pastors.  As I am visiting with clergy leaders, I am asking about their personal devotional lives, and far and wide I am finding that many have no personal devotional life.  I have been asking both laity and clergy leadership about prayer, and I get blank stares.  In one visit a couple of years ago, I met with a leadership team from a small congregation with some dynamic growth potential.  As we named our hopes and dreams for the future, the following desires emerged:  we want to grow, we want to reach young people, we want to improve attendance, and we want to get more people involved in leadership.  I pointedly asked, “Are you praying for these things?”  The pastor asked, “What do you mean?”  I said, “When you meet together – do you pray for these things, specifically and by name?  Individually, as leaders in the congregation, do you pray for these things every day?  Do you raise these things in worship and invite the congregation to pray for these things?”  The pastor and key leadership confessed that, no, they were not praying for these things.  The following week, I received an email from the pastor telling me how offensive and inappropriate he – and other leaders – felt my comments were.  He felt that I created an awkward and insulting situation.  I wrote back that I apologized for nothing – if the leaders are not grounded first and foremost in prayer then I doubted that any planning process would be very effective.  I haven’t been invited back.

In a conflict situation, I challenged the pastor to be in prayer daily about the healing of the congregation.  She responded that she had been praying about the problem people constantly.  I said, “Don’t pray about people – pray for them, pray with them, pray about yourself, invite others to pray for grace, healing, humility and unity – but don’t treat others as a problem for God to solve or straighten out.”  Again, I wasn’t contacted again.

In a third setting, I advised the Trustees, Staff Parish Relations Committee, Church Council and Lay Leader join the pastor in a solid month of daily prayer and reflection on God’s will for the congregation.  I received a phone call the next morning from the pastor who told me, “You really blew your credibility with my key leaders last night.  We called you for your expertise in planning and you offered a bunch of fluffy hocus-pocus instead of practical ideas.”  When a pastoral leader accepts “fluffy hocus-pocus” as an uncontested definition of prayer, we are in deep trouble.

Airheads are those with nothing of substance from the neck up.  In a skeptical and cynical culture, it is to be expected that outsiders might look at the practice of prayer with contempt and derision. After all, Paul reminds us that what we value as strength, the world will deem foolishness.  We proudly assume the mantle of “fools for Christ” – taking on the label of prayerheads, as it were.  But what happens when the skeptics and cynics are not the outsiders, but those in the circle begin to view fundamental faith practices as foolishness, a waste of time?  A district superintendent friend of mine in Tennessee once lamented to me, “I used to pray for all the pastors in my district, but I stopped.  It never did any good — for them or for me.  I hung in there as long as I could, but finally I had to stop deluding myself.”

Do UM leaders believe in the power of prayer today?  Do we see any “practical” value in being a people of prayer – committed to daily prayer and discernment, seeking God’s input into our ministry and mission?  Many pastors report being “too busy” to set aside dedicated time for personal prayer, devotional/reflective study of scripture, meditation, fasting or worship (apart from that which they lead).  Is this not a serious problem?  How deep is the well from which we are drawing?  How are we being refreshed, renewed, equipped and perfected?  If we are too busy for prayer, are we not too busy for ministry?  Is it possible that we engage in a discipleship that is disconnected from spiritual discipline and regular practice?

There are still some mighty prayer warriors in our denomination – both clergy and laity – but I fear they are quickly dwindling in number.  It is troubling that so many leaders are unsure of the value or efficacy or prayer.  An overwhelming number of lay people report that prayer isn’t taught in their congregation — there is simply a general belief that everyone knows how to pray and that they are doing it on a regular basis.  Pastors are professional prayers; laity are all too often merely prayer-listeners.  Accountability to the membership vow to “uphold the congregation” through prayer is all but non-existent.  A majority of United Methodists report praying in times of need, stress or anxiety (and before meals), but very few report engaging in a regular, disciplined practice of prayerful time with God.  Fully a third confess that they only pray when they are in church (from a study conducted when I was at the General Board of Discipleship in 2002), and a significant number of younger, newer Christians admit that they didn’t know that they were supposed to pray — no one ever told them!

Maybe I am worried about nothing.  Perhaps prayer is an endangered species in our ultra-rational, consumeristic, simplistic culture.  But before we are ready to discard a key practice central to our very identity as Christians, perhaps we should give it one more really good, honest try.  What might happen if every United Methodist were challenged to “pray without ceasing” – to dedicate a little time each morning, midday, and evening to prayer for the church, for our leaders, and for God’s will to be understood and done.  I think it is well worth a try.

24 replies

  1. Thank you Dan…your comments served to remind me that I have always been well pleased with the prayer life of the congregations I have served over the last 27 years. Those praying Methodists (excuse me…United Methodists) were praying long before I got there – and will be long after I left (and will leave). I think that I have often failed to take note of that in their lives and to celebrate it, but it’s true. In a very personal aside – when our son had brain surgery back in 2008 I was visited by several clergy (including my district superintendent) and not one of them offered to pray with us. But the people of our congregation when they visited – did. I remember 18 years ago asking three of the persons in our congregation in South Bend to share stories in worship one Sunday of what it meant to them to have the people of the congregation praying for them on a regular basis (one of them has cystic fibrosis, another HIV-AIDS, and another lupus)…I still am reminded of how powerful a Sunday morning worship experience that was. I also want to celebrate the lay leaders in the congregations I have served – in one instance the lay leader offered to come and pray with me ever Sunday before worship. It was a time when I was not feeling like I was offering much – in fact, I was concerned that I was harming the ministry of the people – she came and prayed with me for several months and got me through that time. I was blessed to serve there for 11 1/2 years. And in many ways I count her prayers as giving me that tenure…that ministry in that place. Thanks for this wonderful reminder…

    • Thank you, Mike, for focusing on where prayer is still vital and way of UM living. We do have saints and “prayer warriors” for whom praying is not an option, but an essential aspect of who they are. I have seen many such faithful people and even congregations, though I didn’t spend nearly as much time celebrating where prayer is lived as where prayer is absent. Thank you, again, for balancing the scales!

      • These people in our congregations are a great blessing, indeed. I think that when those of us in local congregations celebrate the presence and power of it in our congregations – that it will multiply it (I find this is a good principle for most everything). I’ve read many stories in your writing about wonderful interesting things happening at the local level – that certainly have inspired and encouraged me. Thank you.

  2. Forgive me for making my replya personal journal entry for today, but I keep returning to this post, seeking to draw what I need at this moment in my own ministry – God to speak to me and, thus, my ministry team about what He would have us be and do right now, and the only way I know to hear that is through prayer and meditation.

    Your words “Do we see any ‘practical’ value in being a people of prayer – committed to daily prayer and discernment, seeking God’s input into our ministry and mission?” make me chuckle because we all know that it is GOD’s ministry and mission, yet we act like it is ours for Him to add His seal of approval. You are so right that it is only through daily prayer and discernment that God can remind of His ownership of all and use of us to carry out HIS plans. Would we find fulfillment any other way? Yet I, too, buzz about acting like I can hear Him over the fray.

    So, I am still now and I cry, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!”

    • Patty, this is a keen observation (about OUR mission and ministry) and it pressed me to think more deeply about my own evolving view. I used to share the opinion that it is God’s mission and ministry that we are privileged to participate in, but I realize (thanks to your comment) that I no longer carry a sense of division — “our” ministry is the ministry we share WITH God. Certainly, the will is God’s and the task of discernment is ours, but as the body of Christ it is OUR mission and ministry — no one else we take it up if we don’t. For me, the wisdom of your words is that we still try to do ministry FOR God rather than all God to work THROUGH us. Any attempt to do nice things for God will pale in comparison to the mighty acts God will perform through willing, gifted, committed people. Sometimes we act like God’s employees when we have been called to be partners.

  3. My heart breaks as I read this article. I’ve been UM since birth. . . up until this past November when my husband and child joined a non-denominational church, pastored by a friend of ours, who is a mighty man of God. I followed shortly thereafter, after a struggle with my UM loyalty.

    My choice to walk away from everything I knew and loved with my church stemmed from an incident with my pastor. Our church had a blessed routine of someone from the prayer team standing up in service before the pastor took the pulpit, and pray in agreement with the whole congregation, for a Holy Spirit-led sermon. On this particular day, our prayer leader was not present. No one seemed to take the lead to pray, so I stood up and asked the pastor if I could pray for him. He hesitated but said yes.

    After service, he pulled me to the side and told me that my efforts to pray for him were valiant, but not to pray for him again. He said he would take care of the praying – that my “prayers weren’t needed.” If I wanted to pray, I could join some other in praying for him in his office for about 5 minutes before service.

    I never went back. I won’t be involved with a church that doesn’t need my prayers, even if they are simple or not worthy of his haughty attitude.

    God have mercy on him.

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