By Bishop Mike Rinehart
My mother once called and asked me, “How is that situation going at your church? I’ve been praying for you every day.” What situation? I wondered. After a brief back-and-forth I recalled the situation. A year prior I had vented about a situation at the congregation I was serving and had asked for her prayers. Diligent to the last, Mom put it in her prayer journal and prayed about it every day. For a year. I felt guilty for not getting back to her and letting her know it had resolved.
Mom was a systematic prayer. In my mind’s eye, I can see my mom sitting on the couch with her Bible, devotional books and prayer journal spread out on the coffee table. If you asked her to pray about something, she did. Every day. It focused her daily prayers. She had an other-centered devotional life. She didn’t tell people she would pray for them unless she meant it. She didn’t agree to pray for something and then forget about it. If you’re building a building or you’re going to war, you track things very carefully, Jesus once said. If prayer was an Olympic sport, mom would have medaled.
This experience got me to thinking about how I manage prayer requests in my own prayer life, and in the congregations corporate prayer life. What do you do? I’d love to hear.
Daily personal prayers
I never was very good at journaling. I had first heard about it in a class on spirituality at the Josephinum Pontifical College, where a nun expanded our ideas about prayer. I am deeply grateful for her teaching. It’s hard to imagine what my prayer life would be like today without her. Over the years, I have utilized many of the forms of prayer she taught us. She drew upon texts from the Christian mystics, modern and ancient. Journaling never seemed to take hold. I was too busy doing life to reflect on it. Perhaps this is one of the follies of youth. I tended to act quickly without substantial reflection. I’m still tempted to do so. Perhaps it’s attending so many meetings where nothing happens, I became predisposed to action and irritated with groups that just wanted to talk topics to death.
It wasn’t until my early 40s, when my prayer life hit one of its every-so-often roadblocks, that I took another shot at journaling. This time it stuck. I had attended a conference where a nondenominational pastor from Hawaii coached us on keeping our spiritual lives thriving in ministry, through prayer. He spoke quite a bit about journaling, which took me back to my seminary days. His approach was to pull out his journal every night or morning, and after a time of silence, simply begin with the word “Yesterday.” If all you write is one sentence, it is enough. As it turned out, I never wrote just one sentence. I often found myself dwelling on and praying about some point of tension in the prior day: a conflict, a hard word, or a misstep. That reflection would lead me to take some kind of action: seeking reconciliation, binding up wounds, pivoting to a new course of action. It has the added benefit of being able to go back weeks, months or even years later and then revisit these things, to learn from past mistakes.
Then something else started to happen. I would write down in the journal whatever scripture passage I had read that morning. I would write down my weight, my workout, and sometimes even my eating. The journal became a log for my spiritual and physical health. I also started writing down prayer requests. This meant I could go back and see from day to day, and week to week what I had been praying for. These days I sometimes take notes about events and have even kept links and stats for the current pandemic.
When someone offers a prayer request, it goes in the journal if I’m on point. Sometimes I make a note to check back with that person in a week or a month. Sometimes, when people ask you to pray it’s a cry for help. If it’s grief, I will mark the important birthdays, anniversaries, and death days in my calendar as a time to touch base. This is handy. When I open my calendar for a given day, it reminds me that so-and-so died a year ago, so I can say a prayer and call the survivor(s). I’m not as consistent as my mom was. There are seasons when I drift away from the practice, but I usually find myself coming back to it as I approach 60.
Weekly Congregational Prayers
Pastors and deacons, among other things, have responsibility for the prayer life of the whole congregation. As a young pastor I saw this as a Sunday morning ritual. Over the years I came to understand it as a matter of deep pastoral care. When the congregation prayed for someone or something on Sunday morning, they became aware of both celebrations and concerns in the community. It bonded us together. Very often those names, celebrations, and concerns found their way into the members’ daily prayers. As we all know, this requires great care.
As a leader in ministry, when someone brings a prayer request to you, it means some triage is required. My first response is usually, “Tell me more.” Listening is the first point of care. For those who are wired like me, there must be resistance to the temptation to attempt to fix it. Most people don’t want that. They are reaching out for spiritual community. They are sharing their lives in a very authentic way.
After listening, ask if this is a prayer request just between us, or for the whole community. Sometimes they’ll ask just for the staff to pray. We never add someone to a public prayer list without their permission. If they do grant permission, then we must get clarity on how much of the situation to share. We never share diagnoses unless the requester asks for it. There is a fine line between sharing concern and sharing gossip. It’s okay for prayer requests to be vague. God knows. And if people really want to know more, they can call the requester. This can actually be one of the other positive outcomes of communal prayer. People check in with the requester. Those who make prayer requests are often deeply touched, and pleasantly surprised at the number of people who genuinely care about their situation. When people pry me for information, I say, “Give them a call. They would be touched.”
Prayers on Sunday morning are sometimes by first name only. Worship is public, and visitors are present. Some congregations share full names in communications that go only to the membership. In small town in rural communities, where pretty much everybody knows everybody else, and what’s going on in everybody’s lives, there is sometimes less importance placed on privacy. In those communities, if they want it private, they typically won’t submit it as a prayer request for worship at all. What gets printed in the bulletin requires great care. Some don’t mind telling all, but it’s important to be sure.
Another way to collect prayer concerns is through worship registration. Whether people fill out a book, a slip, or card that they drop in the offering plate, a place can be included to write in prayer concerns. This lets people know the church is not just concerned about nickels and noses, and but the very real lives and concerns of the people in the community. Putting a prayer request on a slip of paper is less personal, however it may be easier for some people to do this than to pick up the phone. Also, those new to the church may not be aware that a prayer list is a thing unless it shows up in the bulletin or worship registration.
During this pandemic, you could start an email worship registration. This may take some of the guesswork out of figuring out how many are watching online. It also reminds people that worship continues. Include an option for making a prayer request.
If all we do is funnel prayer requests from pieces of paper to the back of the bulletin in the intercessory prayers, it may be enough, but we will be missing an amazing opportunity. Several other things can happen. Form a prayer team that meets during the week, that can pray about these concerns. Are those who made these prayer requests in choir, in some Bible study or small group, or on a committee? Can that group be invited to pray for them? Is there a pastoral care team that tends to the people who are in the hospital, in the nursing home, and on the prayer list, to make sure that they are not forgotten? This period of quarantine and physical distancing might be the perfect time to launch a prayer team if one doesn’t exist. Those who are at risk, sitting at home, wondering how they can help, may find a way to offer care by prayer and caring phone calls at this time.
For some people, not all, a prayer request is a cry for help. It may not be “fix it“ help, but rather a desire to not feel alone in the midst of the crisis. Those who tend to the sick and people in other crises need to be trained. In a very small congregation, the pastor can do most of the care, but as a congregation grows, it becomes increasingly impossible for one person to do a good job of tending to dozens of people. We are meant to do church as a team. Even Jesus needed a team. Jesus did not say, “When I was sick, you hired a pastor to come and visit me.”
Even in a small congregation, care should be done as a team. In every congregation there could be a team of people that prays, while overseeing hospital visitation, homebound communion and calling all who offered per request. If someone offers a prayer request, I believe it is absolutely critical that someone calls and talks to them about it before the following Sunday. If notes are taken, care can be systematic and thorough.
Different kinds of congregations, in different kinds of communities, will require different ways to structure prayer and care. You would likely have to design something that fits your context. I and other Synod Staff are always available to brainstorm and conspire with you about how to set up prayer and care ministries in your congregation that outlast your tenure or capacity.
Circling back to the beginning, it all begins with our own personal prayer lives. We cannot teach what we do not know firsthand. The best guides are intimately familiar with the path. This is a blessed path. A disciplined prayer life will be a foundation for joy, a catalyst for deepening spirituality, and nourishment to sustain us in a long journey of ministry.