I 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.