There is no one right way to write a pastoral prayer. Methodists have a long history of extemporaneous praying, and this has influenced the form and function of the pastoral prayer in United Methodist services. The following is how I do it and insofar as it has worked for me think of these as tips on how you can develop your own process. The following is based on the assumption that you are writing the prayer in advance. Paul Kern, one of our retired pastors, gave good advice in the clergy session when he said in his retirement speech, ‘You should give as much attention to the preparation of your pastoral prayer as you do your sermon.’ However, if you have to give one off the cuff these tips will serve you well in praying on the spot.
- Review all the liturgy, music and scripture readings in the service for that Sunday to get a sense of the key theme and major images. Use key words from other parts of the service in your prayer which will help promote continuity and flow in the service. At times, the pastoral prayer should use contrasting or alternative images in order to provide more diversity and balance in the worship service. For example, if a service is dominated by masculine images in the music, then use feminine imagery in your prayer to create richer variety.
- Examine the Hymn of Prayer for ideas for your pastoral prayer. If the hymn comes before the prayer, as it does in our service, then using some key words from the last verse sung in your opening lines forms a good bridge from the song to the prayer and helps the listener to see singing as a prayerful act. If the hymn comes after the prayer then do the same thing at the end of the prayer to transition to the hymn. Some hymns offer good outlines for the prayer. All hymns give you key phrases and ideas to play with in the prayer. At times, you can weave the verses of the hymn with the pastoral prayer forming something akin to a litany. If done this way, it needs to be explicit and easy to follow in the bulletin.
- Outline of the Prayer. There is no one right way to organize the prayer. As stated above, the hymn may suggest a good outline. Here are two ways to organize it, according to sections:
- 1. Praise for who God is; 2. Petitions for others; 3. Pledge of commitment; 4. A doxological formula
- 1. Acknowledge our needs; 2. Pledge of commitment; 3. Thanksgiving; 4. A doxological formula
Sometimes it is effective to play off the hymn by turning it into a question or statement that expresses honesty about our doubts. For example, if the hymn is ‘Open My Eyes, that I may See’ then you can start by praying, ‘O God, our eyes are not open and our hearts are often hardened….’
The bulk of the prayer is petitions for others. I organize the prayer requests into categories. For example, social concerns in one paragraph and personal concerns in another; prayers for those who are physically sick and then prayers for those who are mentally ill; organized geographically from local concerns to national and then to international concerns.
- Remember it is an oral art form. They are listening to, not reading, your prayer. To help the listener stay focused on the prayer use
- concrete images
- simple and direct language
- diverse titles for God
Because it is received orally, it means that a long prayer is often less effective. People have a hard time staying focused.
- Remember to pray for the world. One essential role of the church is that we are a priestly people who make intercession for the entire world. Too often pastoral prayers are a laundry list of concerns within the parish and the only time the world is prayed for is when it is a big media event. How sad that our servanthood for the world is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to CNN. Instead, always include social issues in your prayers. Look at the headlines on Sunday morning to get ideas (One warning: Do not turn this into a weekly rundown of the headlines of the week). Use a resource like the UMW Prayer Calendar to regularly pray for other places in the world. In particular, pray for other Christians around the world. My father-in-law, Richard Cushman, included the United Nations in his pastoral prayer every Sunday.
- Be in touch with the congregation. Knowing the variety of pastoral needs and life stories among your parishioners is essential. There are nuances and a variety of needs that run under the surface of a congregation on any given Sunday. On the one hand, the prayer must give voice to their felt needs and help them find the words to express the complex and often contradictory feelings and ideas that we all carry. On the other hand, the prayer should avoid, when possible, expressing things that will cause further pain in their lives. This can happen when issues are dealt with in a one-dimensional manner. At the same time, the prayer should help the listener become open to seeing God and reality in new ways through the hope of Jesus Christ.
- Don’t use the pastoral prayer to preach. You are praying for all the people, which includes people of diverse persuasions. This does not mean make it wishy washing and vague. Nor should you avoid praying about controversial issues. It does mean that you are praying on behalf of all of them and must acknowledge the range of feelings and opinions that exist. Then, let the sermon be the time in the service in which you defend and explain a controversial stance.
- Don’t offer lazy prayers. Hallmarks of a lazy prayer:
- Traditional sounding religious jargon
- Vague images
- Passive voice
- No references to the larger world
- Same old titles for God (‘Father, we just….’)