PRAYING FOR YOUR PEOPLE
By: Norman C. Pavey
Within the past few years I have developed a new discipline: I seek to pray regularly, by name, for every man, woman and child in
my congregation. This relieves me of some of the pressure to call or contact everyone in need, since by praying for them I have put
them in the hands of God. I have also found this discipline improves my outlook and my mood. I feel happier, brighter and more
fulfilled in my work as a minister. Finally, it has improved my relationships with my church members.
I got this idea from Louis Gunnemann, who had served as dean of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. At the time of his death I found out that for many years he prayed for each person who had graduated from United or its predecessor, Mission HouseSeminary. He knew by heart the names of all members of the classes 1935 to about 1975. He knew their spouses’ names, too. Before he went to sleep each night, he would pray for each of us by name. I felt completely overwhelmed and humbled when I heard of this loving and faithful discipline.
I have noticed that the longer I serve a church the greater grows the backlog of people who need pastoral care: people whose spouses I have buried, people whose marriages have been troubled, people who have been divorced, people who are changing or losing jobs, people facing problems raising their families, people in ill health. By praying for each member of my congregation, I do something significant and important for everyone.
I recommend this practice to my colleagues, but suggest they also seek the guidance of a spiritual director. When I first started praying for each of my members, I found myself starting to make notes as I was praying: I’d jot down names of people I should call to follow up on. This in itself became a new burden. My spiritual director suggested I seek God’s guidance about this. I asked God to help me place my people in God’s hands and trust that they were well cared for. After doing this, I felt relieved. I no longer
interrupted my prayers with note-taking.
I have also discovered that Sunday morning is a particularly good time to practice this. Just as when I greet people as they enter
the church as well as shake their hands afterward, praying for everyone on Sunday helps me remember worshipers’ names. I know I feel genuinely happy and joyful to see them. Over time I have developed the following system to my prayers: after exercising and dressing for the day, I begin my prayers. (I do not eat before I exercise or before I begin my prayers because I have found out that food slows me down and makes me much less alert.) I begin with 20 minutes of centering prayer. I find this extremely valuable; it helps prepare my mind and heart. Then I take a copy of the church’s picture directory and, while looking at each family’s picture, I pray for them. If I were praying, for example, for the Adams family, I might say, “for Jackie and John and their children, Lynn and Rick.” If I knew of a particular need of theirs, I would briefly mention it, such as, “help them to live
together more harmoniously.” Then I would go on to the next family on the page. When I reach the end of the page I pray, “God have mercy.” Sometimes following each family I pray “God have mercy”.After praying for the other parishioners, I pray for my own family. I pray for the church staff. I pray for the conference staff, the national church staff and for any other concerns on my
heart. I then pray for the day ahead and the people and tasks I will face. I conclude by lifting my hands together above my head
and saying, “I lift myself to you,” and then I spread my arms wide and say, “and to the world. Amen.”
This time of petition usually takes 15 to 20 minutes. Afterward, I usually read from the Bible or some other devotional source for
about 20 minutes. I also sometimes write in my journal at the conclusion of this time. This devotional exercise, from the centering prayer to the reading, takes about an hour.
When I first began this new discipline, I intended to do it every day, just as Gunnemann had. However, I found that I am not as
disciplined as he was; I was able to do it two or three times a week. I felt a great deal of guilt about this. However, my spiritual director suggested that two or three times a week was adequate and that I needn’t feel guilty.
This hour has been difficult to work into my schedule, and I’ve found it hard to convince myself that it is time well spent. It
means that I get to the office later than I used to. However, the more I practice this discipline, the more assured I become that
the time spent praying for the congregation is one of the most important activities of the day. A colleague of mine recently said
in a sermon that prayer is the most important and the most difficult thing that the church does. I believe he is entirely correct.
I heard a story about some Americans who visited the Trappist monk Thomas Merton when he was living at a rural monastery in Southeast Asia. They were very impressed with Merton’s obvious intelligence, warmth and ability. One man said to him, “What is a guy like you doing in a place like this?” Merton replied, “I believe in prayer.”
I, too, believe in prayer. I believe our ministry is a reflection of our prayer and our faith.
(The above material appeared in the March-April 1993 issue of The Christian Ministry.)
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