By Chris Caldwell
Question: What’s the second-most-important thing a pastor does every Sunday?
Answer? The pastoral prayer.
Even so, while most pastors spend hours on sermons, many of us merely jot a few notes down for the pastoral prayer — or, worse, simply “wing it.” In the first half of my 25 years in ministry, that’s what I did. A few years after my friend Don Musser challenged me to do better, however, I began spending 30 minutes to an hour composing my weekly pastoral prayers. No decision has had a more positive effect on my ministry.
Members of the congregation I serve, Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., have asked me periodically to explain the process of creating my pastoral prayers. What follows is my response.
In terms of their origin, pastoral prayers, like all prayers, emerge from the intersection of one’s experience and God’s presence. In a sense, each Sunday worshipers see a public outgrowth of my private conversation with God through the week. But pastoral prayers are not just my prayers; they are also our prayers. As a part of our congregation’s ongoing conversation with God, they can’t merely reflect my thoughts; they need to reflect our thoughts.
Their public nature also means that pastoral prayers need to capture the attention and stimulate the minds and the souls of those listening and praying with me. I have found that a unifying theme helps others to enter into the prayer. Themes frequently come from a Scripture, most often a Psalm, or from the choral Call to Prayer or a phrase I have heard or read through the week. Recently I heard a quote from Desmond Tutu: “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.” This is the sort of quotation that can provide a theme and framework for a pastoral prayer. In such a prayer I would offer concrete images of good/evil, love/hate and then conclude by trying to express what victory and God’s love mean for us in the here and now.
From sources contemporary and ancient, I have learned the power of visual images in the pastoral prayer. From the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., but also from Ronald Reagan and others, I learned the power of putting a human face on an idea or concept. Here’s a recent example: “God of compassion, open our hearts to the pain of Haitians sleeping with no roofs over their heads, soldiers sleeping with no family in their tents, crack-house denizens sleeping with no hope in their souls.” The power of parallelism combined with simple language is something I learned from the Psalmist, from my study of poetry and from African-American preaching.
Often entire prayers are spawned by something I observed during the week, such as a prayer that began, “God of the hospital nursery, God of the intensive-care unit….” In the following example, the first person is someone who had told me that week about her good fortune searching dumpsters. The other two are extensions of the theme of searching: “Lord, hear our prayers for the retired woman searching dumpsters for frozen dinners so she can replenish her freezer; for the lieutenant searching the roadside for bombs so he can protect his platoon; for the businesswoman searching her contacts for prospects so she can save her job.”
Finally, while I work on crafting prayers and try to enhance their power by making them in some ways poetic, I try very hard to be sure these elements serve the purpose of the prayer, rather than the prayer serving my need to impress people with language. If someone’s primary response to a prayer is, “What a beautiful prayer,” then I have failed. If the prayer has drawn people in and thereby drawn them closer to God, then the pastoral prayer has succeeded as a vital part of congregational worship.