Pastoral Ministry and the Practice of Prayer

“Lord, teach us to pray.” This request from the disciples (Luke 11:1) is quite puzzling. These were Jewish men–men who from the time they could speak were taught how to walk and talk with God. They knew the Psalms–the prayer book of Israel. Perhaps not all the disciples had them memorized like the religious leaders of the day. But they knew them. They loved them. They sang them. If anyone knew how to pray, it would be these Jewish men who were instructed in the way of the Hebrew scriptures.

Because of this reality, the question is also quite humble, quite profound. It was a blow to the ego to ask for help.

In my short time as a pastor in a local congregation, I have found that many people, like the disciples, are saying, “Lord, teach us to pray.” It makes good sense, of course. If the disciples, who spent time with the Incarnate Son of God, needed to be taught how to pray, we probably need it, too. Many people find themselves at a loss when it comes to conversation with God. It may be because they don’t know some basic things about God. It may be because they are not immersing themselves in the Scriptures. It may be because they were concerned about having “bad theology” when they pray. It may be because they don’t make time for it. The list goes on and on.

Whatever the reasons, I’ve come to see that one of my primary roles as a pastor is to be a praying man and help others pray. It’s been a grace-wrought burden for several months now. I’m still learning how to pray; yet at the same time, I want to lead like Jesus and help others pray.

I first felt the weight of this when I read The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson last summer on vacation.  Peterson writes about how his perspective on helping people pray changed when he moved from seminary into the pastorate:

My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor.

And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all of my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, which chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating precedence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.

Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as a pastor was to teach people to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content  of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors (p. 89).

Indeed, my task is much different than a seminary professor. So in the coming days/weeks, I hope to write several posts reflecting on the intersection of pastoral ministry and the practice of prayer.

In the meantime, whether you are a pastor or not, ask yourself, “How vital is prayer to my life with Christ? Am I doing as Jesus did and leading others toward a life of prayer?”