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.

Prayer

Throwback Thursday ~ “Can We Talk?”

Originally published, February 9, 2012

“Thanks for meeting with me, today, Dad,” said the tow-headed six year old as he strode across the study, arm extended for a firm handshake.

Smiling, the father grasped the child’s hand, assuming a hug would follow. When none did, he stood, somewhat dismayed, as his son took the chair opposite the imposing mahogany desk and motioned for him to take his accustomed place behind it.

Oh. This was going to be one of those conversations.

“I only have about five minutes,” said the boy, briskly, as he clicked open the latches on his caramel brown leather brief case and withdrew two copies of a neatly typed agenda, “so let’s get down to business.”

“First, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, I’d like you to get me that big shiny motorcycle I’ve been wanting. And would you please hurry up about it? I’ve been asking for that bike for a long time, and I don’t understand why you haven’t given it to me yet.”

Again with the motorcycle? Doesn’t this kid get that he’s six? There’s no way he could handle a bike that large and powerful, and I love him too much to see his guts splattered all over the pavement. Yeah, that’s gonna be a big, fat “no.”

“Next,” the boy hurried on, “I’m kinda in a jam. You see, there’s this big spelling test tomorrow, and I haven’t had time to study for it. Could you sit by me in class tomorrow and give me all the answers?”

Haven’t had time? Yesterday he played video games for two hours, and the day before that I heard him throwing a tennis ball up against the side of the house all afternoon!

“And finally, Sparky seems to be limping around lately. Could you take a look at his paw and fix it up with some of that special cream?”

Well…sure. You know I’m always glad to help, but…

“Thanks for everything, Dad,” the boy chirped as he hopped off his chair and headed for the door, “I’ve got to run. See you later!”

Bye…Son.

 

I can just see that Dad standing there, forlorn, missing his son. The son who lives under the same roof with him. The son he watches play ball, play with his friends, and achieve the great feats of six year olds. The son who never really talks to him.

The father longs to have an intimate, “Daddy’s home!” relationship with his child. To have his son run up, give him a hug, and jump in his lap to tell Dad all about his day. He wants to share his child’s joys and sorrows. He wants to hear his heart.

And if the child really thought about it—or even knew such a relationship could exist—he’d want the same thing.

We can have that kind of joyous relationship with our Heavenly Father. It really is possible.

But how?

Well, think about how you relate to the person you love the most in the world. Because you love that person, you want to spend time with him. You’re relaxed around each other. You enjoy being together. You share everything—your deepest secrets, your regrets, your hopes for the future, your concerns for others, your frustrations, your joys, your sorrows, even the mundane, day to day happenings of life.

You’ve probably never read a book, taken a class, or attended a lecture on how to talk to that special someone. And you’ve probably never made a list of conversation topics for your next get-together with him. This is a friendship, not a business meeting.

Now think about how our connection to God is illustrated in Scripture. He’s called our Father (Matthew 6:9); Jesus is our brother (Matthew 12:50) and our friend (John 15:14); the church is the bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7). These are the most intimate relationships we know, and they’re used to describe a bond of love and friendship with God.

So, why do we have so much trouble talking to Him? Why is it that, so often, what’s supposed to be a heartfelt conversation with God feels like a one-sided recitation of a laundry list of prayer requests?

In some ways, we’ve done it to ourselves. There are thousands of books, Bible studies, and other materials on how to pray. Preachers preach on it. Teachers teach on it. There are acronyms you can follow, lists you can make, prayer calendars, even apps and on-line prayer organizers. None of these things are inherently bad, in fact, some are excellent—I’ve used and recommended some of them, myself.

But, I think that, sometimes, when faced with all of these resources and methodologies, one of two things can happen. First, you can become paralyzed by all the choices, not know which one to choose, and give up on prayer because you think it’s too complicated. Or, you might try to use too many prayer resources and become overwhelmed because they don’t work for you or you can’t keep up with all of them. Second, you can fall into the trap of thinking you have to use some sort of prayer resource or methodology. You can become enslaved to the structure, and that stands between you and intimacy with God like a brick wall.

May I make a suggestion here?

Throw out the lists. Put away the prayer calendar. Turn off the app.

Just talk to your Father. Talk to Him like He’s the person you love most in the world. Pour out what’s on your heart to Him.

If you’re not sure how to do that or what to say or whether you might be doing it wrong, tell Him about that, and ask Him to help you. It’s OK to ask God to show you how to talk to Him. The disciples did, and Jesus gladly obliged (Luke 11:1-13).

Don’t become paralyzed by the number of prayer requests you think you have to keep up with, either. I know that some churches have prayer lists a mile long, plus prayer calendars for missionaries, and you have friends and relatives asking you to pray for certain things. Sometimes, our prayer time can feel like we’re the office flunky armed with a long list of orders being sent out to pick up lunch for everybody. “Get those orders right! Don’t forget anything!” But prayer is not about completing a checklist of everyone else’s concerns. It’s about you and God, and it should be governed by God, not ruled by a list.

Wait a minute. This is starting to sound selfish. Aren’t we supposed to pray for others? Well, yes…and, no. What we’re supposed to do is to submit ourselves and our prayer time to God’s word and the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

That sounds great, but what does it mean in practical terms?

  • Study God’s word before you pray. As you do, He’ll begin leading you to the things He wants you to pray about.
  • Ask God what to pray about. Often, I’ll open a prayer meeting by praying that God will lead our prayer time and that He will put all the things on our hearts that He wants us to pray about.
  • Resist the list. Trust God to lead you to the things He wants you to pray about, and let your conversation with Him flow freely from your heart. Don’t worry about forgetting something on your prayer list.
  • Prayer time isn’t self-contained. Usually, my praying for others is done throughout the day rather than during my set prayer time. When someone asks me to pray for something, I’ll stop right then and do it. There are certain missionaries and other Christian ministries that I pray for when I receive an e-mail or Facebook update from them. Most of the time, unless God lays something on my heart during my personal prayer time, I only pray for requests on the church prayer list during the prayer meeting in which I receive them.

Relax. Just talk to Him.

“…the prayer of the upright is His delight.” Proverbs 15:8