During Sunday morning worship service, should we expect a prayer led by the pastor? Over the years, worship has changed. My husband and I have noticed that often the pastor does not lead in a prayer during worship. Either a layperson leads, or there is no corporate prayer time at all. Corporate prayer is for the people. According to the worship notes at the church where we attend: “Prayers of the people is a moment in our worship when we have an extended time of prayer together. [They are not] merely the prayers of the pastor. Be encouraged not to let this time go by without actively investing your mind and heart.” We surveyed several ministers, and they offered their opinions and observations on pastoral prayers. One missionary pastor wrote, “Prayer has become more important, because it is an essential aspect of worship while building the church community in their love of God and for each other.”
Should We Expect Pastoral Prayer
Our first question: Should we expect a pastor-led prayer? It seems the early church did: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42, NIV). Prayer is linked with preaching, fellowship, and Holy Communion. Jesus led the disciples and others in prayer (see Matthew 6 and John 17), and the letters of Paul often end with prayers and benedictions.
Prior to my husband Bill’s entrance into the ministry, he observed that every minister he knew included a prayer in the worship service. So, when he started pastoring, he followed the pattern of praying during worship. Bill expected it and felt the people welcomed it. During these moments, the pastor has the opportunity to share issues of concern with the congregation. Hearing their pastor pray canfi ll a need in a congregation’s spiritual development. “We know this habit [of pastoral prayer] reminds people that God is able to care for them regardless of the situation,” one minister wrote.
The Significance of a Pastoral Prayer
Why is a pastor-led prayer important? First of all, corporate prayer involves the church community in worship. The pastoral prayer during worship gives everyone opportunity to connect. It can be a focused time when we express our trust in God’s provision together. We express corporate concern about the needs of others. The pastor, as Jesus did, can model prayer for those under his or her care.
The pastor is often intimately acquainted with the needs and concerns of those under his or her care. When someone is hurting, sick, or grieving, this kind of public and corporate support is important. People can participate in petition for a member’s need by offering prayers together under the leadership of the one who is called to shepherd them. They do not even have to know the person’s specific needs in detail, but can trust that the pastor likely knows and is voicing this concern on behalf of the congregation. Prayer unites people, and the pastor’s invitation to pray for one another gives focus and direction to that prayer.
There’s no greater way for the pastor to express his or her love and concern for the people than to lead them to the throne of grace to bear one another’s burdens: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). One minister offered: “It’s also possible that visitors hearing the pastoral prayer might recognize that church members care about each other.”
Preparing to Pray
Opinions and practices differ among the ministers interviewed, but most prepare their prayers, even writing them out before time for the service. For Bill, the preparation of the prayer was as important to him as offering it. He set apart time to be in tune with the Lord and the church body. During the week, he might gather notes for prayer, but the writing happened in one sitting, usually in his office before anyone entered, while he was alone with God and mindful of his responsibility of shepherding the flock God gave him.
One retired minister emphasized that he needed time to think through all of the needs before going to the pulpit. Most worship times only last an hour, so pastoral prayer should be carefully prepared. He went on to say, “The pastor is both priest and prophet: the priest represents the people during the prayer time; the prophet speaks God’s Word in the sermon.”
Some write out the pastoral prayer ahead of time. My husband believes that the pastoral prayer is important enough to invest the time in preparation, just as he does with his sermon. The people are important enough to hear a prayer that’s been prepared ahead. An ex tempore (ad lib) prayer, may cause the pastor to forget important details and go off on tangents. This often results in lengthy pastoral prayers that lack substance. Prayers written out can be timed and fit into the worship service appropriately. One minister wrote, “Extemporaneous prayers are fine for some occasions, but preparation shows the importance of giving thought to remembering the community’s concerns, current events, the nature of the God we serve, and the proper use of language addressing God.”
One minister responded: “For me, notes allow some flexibility and also prompting of the Spirit, for needs may arise that morning before I step up to pray.” Another responded: “It helps those attending to realize that their pastor is in touch with what’s going on in the world and that he sincerely cares about the needs of others worldwide.”
What is Included in a Pastoral Prayer
Most prayers usually begin with praise and thanksgiving, then include the concerns for that week, and close with o ering the people to God for His direction in worship. An encouraging portion of a hymn, a book, or a scripture passage may also be added.
It helps to avoided complicated words or phrases. The prayer is for all people, all ages, and all backgrounds. It is not a place to show o one’s education.
One minister said that he avoids too much detail about physical illnesses due to privacy concerns: “Don’t use the prayer as the church bulletin board regarding hospitalizations, surgeries, etc.” Another minister agreed: “Discretion should be used when including specific names of people in the prayer. In times of bereavement, I would de nitely pray for a family by name regarding the loss of a loved one. Those sick and/or hospitalized could best be included in a more generic manner.”
Other additions can include spiritual needs of the congregation and community, including prayers for those in religious and political authority.
The church appreciates being united in prayer during worship. Often parishioners would ask Bill about a particular reference in prayer. Because his prayer was written, he could share what was requested. One woman frequently asked for a copy of his prayer to take home and use both for her private worship and for her children, whom she homeschooled. Sometimes when a person heard about a particular need expressed in prayer, he or she would ask how they could help. At these times, God used the prayer itself to help facilitate an answer to the prayer!
While few people may express thanks for the pastor’s prayer, churches recognize the sincerity of the concern of the pastor through his or her public prayers for them. With a smile, one pastor said, “I think people paid more attention to my pastoral prayer than my message.”
Note: Assistance with this article came from written responses from pastors Barry Bostrom, Henry Date, Charles Lake, and Bill Vermillion, along with others.