The School for Prayer

prayer in community

 

[Church is] where you learn how to pray. Of course, prayer is continued and has alternate forms when you’re by yourself. But the American experience has the order reversed. In the long history of Christian spirituality, community prayer is most important, then individual prayer.         -Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

The foreward of Peterson’s Book, The Contemplative Pastor, consists of an interview with Rodney Clapp, associate editor of Christianity Today. In it, Peterson speaks about private prayer versus common prayer. He says that, in common prayer, we learn to be “led in prayer.” It is an exercise in humility.

In my private prayers, my tendency is to just launch into whatever is on my heart and mind. This makes my prayer all about me, about my wants and needs. Humility is not a factor! These prayers may not align with what’s on God’s heart and mind, and are apt to be met with silence.

I worship in the Anglican tradition. Our worship is liturgical in form, and our prayers are rooted in the Book of Common Prayer. During our times of worship–praying in community–most of our prayers are responsive. In other words, their content is not initiated by me. Take Sunday’s appointed Psalm, for example. Instead of someone just reading it, the congregation is invited to join in the ancient prayer uttered by countless Christians before us. We pray it responsively by half-verse.

At another point in the service, we pray the “Prayers of the People,” a litany of petitions from the Book of Common Prayer. After each short prayer in the litany, we respond with one voice, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” The emphasis is not on me, on my wants and needs, but on each of us aligning our heart with God’s heart as he speaks to us in community.

Prayer has to be a response to what God has said. The worshiping congregation–hearing the Word read and preached, and celebrating it in the sacraments–is the place where I learn how to pray and where I practice prayer. It is a center from which I pray. From it I go to my closet or to the mountains and continue to pray. (emphasis mine)

The second point that Peterson makes about praying in community has to do with feelings. He points out that individual worshipers are not asked what they feel like praying about when they enter the church. Our common prayer isn’t predicated upon, or evaluated by, my personal feelings. If the efficacy of prayer is dependent upon my capricious thoughts or fickle mood, it may well be a lost cause!

Peterson concludes this segment of the interview by pointing out that it’s virtually impossible to learn self-differentiated prayer apart from community.

But if I’m in a congregation, I learn over and over again that prayer will go on whether I feel like it or not, or even if I sleep through the whole thing.

Want to pray more effectively? Cultivate humility through praying in community–prayers that do not have their origin in your thoughts, feelings, or desires. Then take what you learn there into private prayer.

 

 

Watch Your Step!

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.   -Acts 6:1-6 [ESV]

This passage is often cited in reference to the establishment of deacons in the church. It has long been a favorite passage of mine–appropriately so, since I am ordained a vocational deacon. But I remember years ago reading this passage and how it left a bitter taste in my mouth! Before I gained an understanding of spiritual gifts and calling, I thought the twelve were exhibiting no small amount of arrogance by insisting that it wasn’t right that they give up preaching the word of God to “wait tables.” I wanted to shout, “Watch your step there, fellas! If Jesus washed your feet, who are you to think that you are too good to wait tables?”

The more we progress in our ministry, the easier it is to step into the trap of believing that we (clergy) are above doing the seemingly menial tasks of ministry, particularly if the priesthood of all believers is not one of our fundamental values. Gifting and calling applies to every believer, not just the clergy–and all ministry has value. There are times when we need to be willing to serve by doing whatever needs doing, whether it’s below our “pay grade” or not! There is no room in the church for a spirit of entitlement–not from clergy, staff, or ministry leaders.

(Before I go any further, I want to be clear that arrogance was not what motivated the apostles–obedience was! They were being obedient to the calling that Jesus had placed on each of their lives to preach the word of God.)

As equipping leaders, we can set the example by occasionally helping out with tasks that are outside of our gifting and calling. My senior pastor and I decided to give our facility team a “summer vacation.” All summer we’ve been coming earlier on Sundays to set up and staying later to put away. I confess that I’ve grumbled a few times, but it’s given me a deeper appreciation for the ministry of this particular team! I also encourage our ministry team leaders to schedule themselves in their team’s rotation, serving alongside the team members they lead.

I once heard a bishop remark that his consecration as bishop was not a move up the ladder of success, but rather a move step_downdownward into deeper humility. What an exhortation! If it is true that an organization can rise no higher than its leadership, then let’s be leaders who side-step the spirit of entitlement and instead journey downward into deeper humility, that every member of our church will be truly humble, serving others according to their gifting and calling so that we all rise to the example set by Christ!

Meeting Phobia: The Cure

I began my last post with the admission that I have a healthy respect for well-facilitated meetings, unlike most people I know. But please notice I did specify that I appreciate meetings that are facilitated well. Sadly, many are not…which is why so many folks suffer from meeting phobia.

There is a direct correlation between meeting phobia and the abundance of leaders who have neglected to hone their facilitation skills. Those of us who appreciate face-to-face communication can overcome the resistance by consistently leading efficient and effective meetings. There’s one critical key to doing this well: be considerate of those who will participate in your meeting.

1. Create an agenda

  • Be realistic about what you can accomplish in the allotted time. Next, subtract one thing from the agenda.
  • Share the agenda with participants prior to the meeting so that they have time review material and come prepared

2. Control the flow of the conversation

  • Introduce the concept or problem, then allow the participants to interact with it.
  • Create space for people to think, particularly those who tend to craft their speech carefully.
  • Listen. Let me say that more emphatically: be quiet and listen to what others are saying. Their idea or solution may be better than yours!
  • Don’t be afraid of conflict. It’s healthy to wrestle with concepts and problems. It goes without saying that verbal abuse is off-limits.
  • If the conversation gets off-topic, suggest putting the distraction in “the parking lot.”* Come back to it later or make it the agenda for a future meeting.

3. Be sensitive to time

  • Simply put, start and end on time. No excuses.
  • If an exception has to be made–e.g., the group has nearly accomplished its task/purpose and can complete it in a few more minutes–ask if everyone agrees to extend the meeting 15 minutes.

4. Summarize

  • If a decision has been reached or a problem solved, re-state the decision or solution to be sure everyone leaves the meeting with a clear understanding.
  • If action items have been established, review them at the end of the meeting.
  • Follow up within a few days with a written summary of the meeting.

In speaking of Christ’s humility, Paul wrote to the church at Philippi:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.   -Philippians 2:3-4 [ESV]

Every one of the bullet points above requires the leader to consider the time, thoughts, and feelings of the meeting participants ahead of his/her own. It’s definitely a challenge–especially when you have a great idea to share or a perplexing problem that must be solved quickly–but doing so will go a long way to curing meeting phobia!

good meeting

*This concept is taken from Death by Meeting, by Patrick Lencioni. It’s a must-read for anyone who regularly facilitates meetings!