Mailbag, Prayer

The Mailbag: Help! Our ladies’ prayer meeting is a disaster!

 

I am married to a pastor of a small SBC church. Every Sunday evening I have a 30-minute prayer time for the ladies of the church. It feels like a disaster! Women ramble on and on with “prayer requests” that really seem to be either gossip or current news events. When it comes time to actually pray, I’m the one who is praying and everyone else is completely silent. Recently, the women were so out of control with talking that they didn’t even notice when I said it was time to pray, so I canceled the prayer meeting until further notice.

I know praying together as sisters couldn’t be a bad thing, but what do I do if it seems like no one else is actually praying? Am I giving up too soon? And just to be clear I’ve tried different “formulas” for the meeting (having specific scriptures that we pray, having a specific theme for the prayer, etc.).

Oh dear sister, I’m so sorry for your frustration! I have led a few ladies’ prayer groups myself, and I know it isn’t easy. If I could offer you one word of encouragement, though – your ladies are showing up! One of my dilemmas was having ladies who didn’t see prayer as important enough to even come to a prayer meeting. You’ve got them there – that’s a huge hurdle that’s out of your way.

But once you’ve got them there, what do you do with this gaggle of gals? Let’s see if we can figure that out together.

A few things I’m surmising from your e-mail:

First, I’m guessing you’re a sweet, younger lady and that at least some of the ladies in your group are 10+ years older than you are. (Even if I’m wrong, I’m going to go with this for a minute because there are probably some ladies reading this who are in that dynamic.)

Trying to lead ladies who are older than you are can be intimidating, especially when you have the added pressure of your husband being the pastor – you want to reflect well upon him and not be the cause of any issues he would have to deal with. If your personality is very easy going and less assertive, that’s going to add to the challenge and result in things like the ladies ignoring you when you say it’s time to start praying.

Another dynamic that’s probably affecting your group is that at least some of the ladies are there mainly because you’re the pastor’s wife, and they either feel a sense of duty to be there or they want to support you with their presence because they love you, or both. Neither of which are bad things, because it’s getting them to show up (and, hey, a little love and support never hurts, right?). But it may mean that prayer isn’t the primary reason some of them are there.

The way you describe the ladies’ talking, behavior, and “prayer requests” leads me to believe that they probably don’t know how to pray in a corporate prayer meeting, especially one that’s not an “organ recital” (all the prayer requests revolve around people who are sick, having surgery, etc.). Sadly, this is pretty typical for SBC churches in my experience.

The extensive conversing may also signal that these ladies are starved for meaningful fellowship with one another.

So taking all of that into consideration, here are a few thoughts I had:

🙏 I think taking a hiatus was a good idea. It will give you time to regroup and reorganize your approach. My counsel would be that as long as you have ladies who are willing to attend, it’s too soon to give up (assuming, of course, that your husband is in agreement with that).

🙏 Set aside a block of time to talk this through with your husband and ask his advice. Just by virtue of being a man, he has a different perspective than you do, and probably has some helpful ideas and suggestions. As your pastor, he likely has additional insight on the ladies in your group, as well as some leadership strategies and experiences that could be beneficial to you.

🙏 When you start the group up again, you might want to consider, if it’s possible, having your husband lead for a couple of months. It’s just a fact of life that people act differently around pastors than they do around others. My guess is that your ladies will sit quietly and attentively for your husband. If you can develop that habit in them over the course of a couple of months, it will be easier for you to step in with more confidence and assertiveness when you resume leading the group.

🙏 Find an older godly lady who has experience teaching and leading women’s classes and ask her to mentor you. 

🙏 If that older godly lady is one of your church members, and you and she are both willing, maybe it would work for her to lead the group for, say, six months to a year while you attend as a participant. That could be helpful in two ways: a) You could learn by observing her leadership, and, b) You could model for the other ladies what it should look like to be a participant in this group, and they could learn from your example.

🙏 It sounds like these ladies need to be discipled regarding what prayer is and how to do it. Instead of immediately diving back into praying when you start the group back up, consider taking a few months to study prayer together first. The day I received your e-mail, 9Marks introduced their new book on prayer called Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes The Church. I haven’t read it (it’s in pre-release right now), but from the description, it sounds like it could be a good book to go through with your ladies. You’re also welcome to use any of my articles on prayer (I’d recommend this one and this one in particular.) And be sure to check the bookstores at GTY and Ligonier.

🙏 It also sounds like your ladies need more structure and guidance. One thing you might want to do is dispense with the verbal sharing of prayer requests as it’s traditionally done and restructure that aspect of the meeting. There are several different ways you can do this:

⇒ You decide the prayer focus (praying for the lost, missionaries, revival, an upcoming church event, etc.) for each week. Write down specific things to pray for – nearly verbatim, if you have to – on an index card or piece of paper and hand one to each lady as she comes in. For example, if you’re praying for missionaries, give the name of the missionary and a few needs he has.

⇒ Homework assignments. At the end of each meeting, tell the ladies what the prayer focus will be for the next week, give each one a card with a different aspect of that topic, ask her to be praying about it during the week and to come prepared to pray aloud about it at the next meeting. For example, if you’re going to be praying about VBS next week, the cards might say things like leaders, teachers, students, gospel presentation, safety, etc.

⇒ “Conversation prayer“. This works really well with children and people who are inexperienced with corporate prayer. Basically, what you’re doing is replacing prayer request time with praying for the request as it’s mentioned. You open with a brief prayer. After that, the floor is open for anyone to pray about anything they would ordinarily have mentioned as a prayer request. The only catch is, they have to keep it to three sentences, max (You’ll want to stress this rule and remind them of it often). This keeps the prayer time from being dominated by long-winded people, and it introduces an idea others can build on in prayer which encourages more people to participate. Additionally, it takes the pressure off of those who are nervous about praying out loud. For example, one person might pray, “Lord, please comfort and strengthen Sally in the death of her husband,” which might prompt the next person to pray, “Please provide for her material needs now that she’s without George’s income,” and the next: “Please show us ways we can minister to Sally.” There are going to be long silences at first. That’s OK. Wait it out. When it’s time to wrap up, you lead the closing prayer.

⇒ Guided conversation prayer. Same as conversation prayer, but more structured. You choose a few areas of prayer focus and let the ladies know what they are before the prayer time begins. Open in prayer, introducing the first topic. The floor is now open for anyone to pray up to three sentences on that topic (and, of course, people can pray more than once if they want to, but only three sentences at a time). When it’s time to move on, announce the next topic or pray a brief prayer introducing it.

⇒ Small group prayer. If you have enough people, break them into groups of 2-4, and assign each group a topic to pray about. When the groups start getting quiet, hand them another topic to pray about. (Be sure you’re giving them plenty of time to pray, though. I’ve been in prayer meetings using this method where the leader hops from one topic to the next so fast that the first person in the group doesn’t even finish praying before the topic is changed.) For a 30 minute meeting and groups of 2-4, I’d recommend no more than 3-4 topics for each group.

🙏 If you think lack of fellowship might be a factor in the ladies’ behavior, there is nothing wrong with making the last “prayer meeting” of each month a low key fellowship – a “three weeks on, one week off” kind of thing – where they have the unprogrammed space to just sit and talk (and snack – gotta have snacks!). Fellowship is vital to the life of the church, and, believe me, as they get to know each other better and bear one another’s burdens, they will bring more things to the table to pray about during the three weeks of prayer meetings.

🙏 Most importantly, you pray. Pray for patience and confidence as you lead. Pray for each of the ladies in your group. Pray that God will grow them in maturity in prayer. Pray that He will help everyone stay focused. Pray that those who are timid will be emboldened and that God will rein in those who have a tendency to dominate. Prayer is an area of spiritual growth, and only God can produce that growth. Ask Him to.


If you have a question about: a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.

9 thoughts on “The Mailbag: Help! Our ladies’ prayer meeting is a disaster!”

  1. Great great GREAT advice! She also might want to consider that in needing more fellowship, these ladies might benefit from having a separate weekly fellowship time, rather than just once a month. It could be attached to the prayer time by visiting and snacks for 30 minutes first. Then 30 minutes prayer time. If that doesn’t work because the 30 minute prayer time is already all the time they have on Sunday nights, then maybe they could get together at another time once a week to fellowship. Also, I wonder if it might be of benefit to ask the ladies what it is that THEY would like, or expect, out of the prayer meeting. Either get them together and ask them each to respond verbally, or hand out a survey and let them write it down. Some of the answers might indicate that they really do expect for there to be a huge amount of sharing, indicating that they really are expecting this to be a fellowship time.

    Also, regarding the conversational prayer idea – there was a good book years ago that speaks to that. It’s an easy read – called “Prayer, Conversing With God” by Rosalind Rinker. It is about praying in that manner. She might want to get that and if she likes it, get one for each of them to read. I loved your idea about that, and also keeping it to 3 sentences. That might be all these ladies need to get them going. Also, there is the possibility that she is doing all the praying because she opens the prayer time and covers most or all the prayer requests in her opening prayer, and so no one thinks there is anything left to pray for and that’s why they don’t pray. (Again, I would recommend Rosalind Rinker’s book here to combat that). She could ask one of them to open in prayer, tell them we’ll go around the circle this direction, ending with the last person closing the prayer time. With her not being the opening or closing person, so as to put more responsibility/opportunity on them. If you don’t want to force them to each pray, then you can also tell them if they don’t want to pray when it’s their turn, simply tap the next person on the arm so they know to go on. However, it can be helpful to encourage them to EACH pray. If they are new to corporate prayer, they might be really intimidated by praying in front of others. The 2 or 3 sentence conversational prayer idea really does go a long way in helping people get over their hurdles.

    One other thing – using the ACTS method can help. Saying to them – first we are going to go around the circle and all give one or two sentences of ‘adoration/praise’ to the Lord. Then ‘confession’ (though this one is harder to do corporately, so maybe they could have a silent couple of minutes when they are guided to confess silently). Then go around the circle and each give a sentence or two of ‘thanking’ the Lord for something, and lastly ‘supplication’.

    Another help can be to have them write their prayer requests down on a clipboard when they first arrive at the prayer meeting, rather than giving them verbally. Then, when the meeting starts the leader just simply reads them off the clipboard and they then go right into prayer time, hopefully eliminating all the discussion and gossip. And she may need to bring up that we only have 30 minutes and we need to keep our prayer requests brief, so we can have time to pray, and let’s save any discussion of the prayer requests for after the meeting is over.

    And also a helpful thing can be to give a hand-out when you start up this prayer group, and whenever a new person comes (always have these on hand for each meeting, as every new person should always receive one), and periodically give it out again to remind the group. Or have one sitting out on the table every time the group meets. The page should say what the purpose of the group is, and have bullet points on what the rules/reminders are. Reminders such as ‘everything that is shared here is confidential and should be told to no one else – this place needs to be a safe place for people to share their prayer requests’. A reminder about putting others before self (in other words, don’t take up all the time talking, be brief so you can give others a chance to talk). A reminder about not gossiping while sharing requests. Whatever reminders and rules she thinks would be good for her group. Of course, they should all be worded with love and gentleness. At the top of the page could be a few verses that she thinks are important reminders – a verse about prayer, about our speech, about our tongue, about esteeming others better than ourselves – whatever she thinks is good encouragement.

    Lastly, she may need to bring up the gossiping part of all this when the group starts up again, and give a little sermonette to them in the first meeting, and try to help them see the difference between sharing prayer requests and gossiping.

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    1. Great ideas, Susan! Quick question about the Rinker book- I looked it up on Amazon. Not much info there, but I’m concerned that she’s describing prayer as a “dialogue”. Maybe that’s just worded a little sloppily? Does she teach the idea that we should be listening for God to speak back to us in prayer?

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      1. Hi Michelle, it’s been a gazillion years since I read Rinker’s book, so I can’t say for sure if she was saying that God speaks back to us in prayer. That certainly wasn’t what I got out of it at the time, but then way back then I would not have been noticing that. Mainly her points are, we do not need to do all this sharing of prayer requests with each other, then officially sign on to talking to God about them, and repeat them all to God again. ANd when we converse with other humans in a group, we usually do it by topic – one person brings up a subject and others make their comments on that topic, before we move on to another topic. One person doesn’t just take the floor and cover everything they want to say about every topic and not let others join in on adding their comments to the discussion before changing topics. At least, that is how polite conversation goes in groups. So she is saying why do we not do the same thing with the Lord. She is basically saying there is a dialogue / conversation with everyone in the group and God – everybody on the same page on the same topic, making their comments ( in this case saying their prayer), as if God is sitting there being in on the conversation. Sort of like the same polite rules we use in society to talk to people when there are several of us standing around, why throw those polite rules out simply because we are talking to God – why does it make sense to have one person go on and on covering every prayer request, and then the next person now is expected to pray about them all again, etc. That it makes more sense to treat the prayer time as a conversation and also to realize that God was there hearing every prayer request before we even officially started talking to HIM, so why not skip the prayer request time, and just start the conversation with God and bring up the topics/prayer requests while we are praying, after everyone has already finished a topic and there is a lull and you feel moved to pray about another topic. BUT, if she is recommending the ‘hearing from God thing’, too, then of course that’s a huge problem and we shouldn’t be recommending her book. I’m sorry, I don’t have access to it now, but you may well be right about that. Perhaps there are other books that explain conversational prayer, rather than hers. I really mangled my description here, trying to explain to you what her book says – she said it so much better!

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      2. And also, Michelle, Rinker had a point about the conversation/topic at hand being stuck to until all were done with their prayers, some will pray more than once on that topic. But that if we’re sticking to one topic until it’s done, then people are more likely to actually be tuned in and listening to the conversation/praying, rather than being busy planning in their heads what they are going to say when it’s their turn to pray, and not really paying attention to what all is being prayed at the moment.

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  2. Another idea that we used at PBC to keep prayer groups on track was to have everyone pry their own requests with no pre-sharing. That communicates a persons prayer request, leads to more time in prayer, and here effectively killed “prayer request gossip.”

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