Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pastoral Prayer

I recently was the guest preacher for a congregation without a pastor for two Sundays. Their order of service, following the sermon, called for a “Pastoral Prayer.”

The first Sunday I was there, I filled that slot with a series of bidding prayers à la the “Prayers of the People” in the Book of Common Worship (1993), complete with brief instruction about the introductory phrase and congregational response following each one.

Because the responses of the people to the Prayers of the People were hesitant for many and non-existant for quite a few of the folks, I decided the next week to go for a more “traditional” pastoral prayer. Looking out on many gray heads convinced me that they and I would be more comfortable, and perhaps more prayerful, with what might be for them a more familiar form.

The pastoral prayer has always been a focus of misunderstanding in our churches, mainly because “pastoral” has not been clearly defined.

There have been, and probably still are, plenty of people who think the pastoral prayer is the sole property of the pastor. I remember painfully more than one occasion when some congregants would talk to me about “that thing you do” in reference to the pastoral prayer. “Pastoral” in their minds meant “pastor’s.” Which gave them latitude to tune out, and accept no responsibility for the commitments implicit and explicit in the prayer.

Now I know well that a wandering mind during a lengthy liturgical prayer can be a prime opportunity for the Spirit to lead a soul. A good pastoral prayer will touch individual lives in ways not necessarily calculated in advance by the pastor. At the same time, the pastor knows (or should know) the people, and therefore is able to frame and shape the prayer in such a way as to be hospitable to the people in the pew.

The true definition of “pastoral” has to do with the spiritual care of a congregation. The one who has this overall pastoral responsibility brings together in the pastoral prayer, not her own concerns, but those prayers in the hearts of the people seeking to be spoken aloud by the one who cares for them.

Behind the pastoral prayer, the prayers of the people, is time spent by the pastor visualizing and praying for every person for whom he has responsibility for spiritual care. This should be a part of the daily prayer schedule, using the models of morning and evening prayers of thanksgiving and intercession.

I realized that this was exactly my problem as a guest preacher. I wasn’t the pastor. I knew two people in the congregation, one of whom I hadn’t seen for years. So, to some extent, I was flying blind in putting the pastoral prayer together.

I was not entirely without pastoral understanding, however. There was a list in the bulletin of people for whom concern had been expressed. I had known previous pastors of the church and had some sense of their pastoral concerns. And, of course, I brought to the prayer my own understanding of the human condition and the common needs in all of our souls.

I was mindful also of the presence in the BCW of rubrics that supply an outline that one like myself might use to create a worthy pastoral prayer (see the rubrics below). This outline is very useful as a map for an ad lib prayer. Extemporaneous prayers (my own and those of others I’ve heard) tend to be highly selective and forget to touch on significant and persistent concerns. Furthermore, such prayers often wander afield and lack coherence. Following a guide is helpful discipline and education.

We’ve changed the terminology: from “Pastoral Prayer” to “Prayers of the People,” which is a good change. Yet we should not forget that the prayer by whatever name requires considerable pastoral sensitivity in reading the unspoken prayers of the people and giving them voice.

How “pastoral” are the prayers of the people in your congregation? Do you rebuild the models offered in the BCW, or use them “as is”? Do you make use of the rubrics for ad lib prayers?

From the Book of Common Worship (1993), page 99:

The congregation prays for worldwide and local concerns, offering intercessions for:
the church universal, its ministry and those who minister,
including ecumenical councils, churches in other places,
this congregation;
the nations and those in authority;
peace and justice in the world;
the earth and a right use of its resources;
the community and those who govern;
the poor and the oppressed;
the sick, the bereaved, the lonely, all who suffer in body,
mind, or spirit;
those with special needs.
Those who have died are remembered with thanksgiving.
The prayers are to be offered in a manner that engages the people in prayer. They may be prepared by the one leading the prayers, and offered in a free style. Or one of the forms that follow may be used. In using any of these forms, appropriate petitions and concerns may be selected, and others added. Or similar prayers may be prepared using these forms as models.


  1. I've been in exactly the same position -- preferring, that is, to use bidding prayers with responses, but finding that my congregation was really more comfortable with a prayer that I alone spoke, and spoke pastorally. I too have responded often by giving the congregation that which made them comfortable.

    However, I do so with misgivings. My misgivings derive from my still-vivid memories of the time when I was "in the pew," and being bored to tears with traditional pastoral prayers -- even dozing off.

    Instead, I think some responses are called for by the congregation to prevent zoning out, as well as to encourage the prayers of the people to actually be prayers in which the people may be seen and heard to participate. If the responses are the same every Sunday for some period of time, and if they are announced before the prayer begins, I think the congregation may both be comfortable and actually share in the prayer, instead of catching up on sleep.

  2. Having been a musician in Lutheran (ELCA) and Episcopal in addition to PCUSA congregations, I always appreciated the time given by the leader for the people to offer silent or spoken prayers of their own, for example, the names of those with special needs, those who have died, etc. The practice seemed to make the prayers a shared experience of the entire community.


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