Leading with Prayer

The picture that accompanies this note has hung in my husband’s church office for many years. Do you know what it depicts? It is the elders of a congregation praying with their pastor before worship. In this picture it looks like it is probably the pastor who is praying, but in my experience, it is usually an elder or other leader who does the praying.  I got to experience this phenomenon when I worshiped at Pullman Church a few weeks ago. The clerk of session, pastor, administrative assistant, and I gathered for prayer before worship. Have you ever been involved in this activity?

When I have been a guest preacher I have sometimes been asked to let the elders pray for me before worship, or someone will offer prayer for the whole worship team—someone who is not the pastor. In congregations where this is their custom, they are kind of shocked that they have to chase me down or remind me that this has to happen before worship. They are so accustomed to it and it is so much a part of their Sunday morning routine that they do not realize that not everyone does this. I find it very comforting. It reminds me of one of the first congregations my husband and I served as co-pastors. It is a very rural church near Monmouth, Illinois. In the days we were there, Sunday School was before worship. They had a person whose title was “Sunday School Superintendent.” This is a role that is left over from the beginnings of Sunday Schools when they were not attached to worship in a congregation but were held off-site where unchurched children could be found. There needed to be someone in charge of that enterprise and in some congregations the office has stuck. At the beginning of Sunday School, everyone gathered in the sanctuary for opening exercises, birthday pennies, announcements, and prayers. This leader of the Sunday School would always pray for the pastor and for the leading of the Spirit in the worship service. 

What does it say about our theology to have the elders or others pray for the pastor before worship? (And in a kind way, not the “Oh please don’t let her get lost in the middle of the sermon again or preach for 40 minutes!!) One of the things of which we are reminded is that the worship service belongs to the session. It is their responsibility to provide for worship every week. It also reminds us that there is something beyond the pastor to which we are pointing in worship. Although many people will greet the pastor at the sanctuary door after worship with a compliment about the sermon, the point of worship is not the pastor’s performance. It is a good sermon if it has made the worshipers think more deeply or in a different way about their faith. It is a good sermon if it has moved listeners to take some action that reflects their faith. It is a good sermon (even if the pastor stumbles or goes on a little long)if at the end of it, people who have heard it thank God once again for salvation and what it means for them and the world.

What traditions does your congregation have with regard to helping the pastor and other worship leaders prepare for worship? Do you expect the preacher to be available to talk about problems in the preschool and the leaking radiator until one minute before worship starts? (Maybe not really very helpful. . . ) Do you help to provide a clear path between the pastor’s office or robing room or the bathroom or wherever the pastor finds her or himself just before worship so that they do not get side-tracked? If your pastor is an extrovert who wants to greet everyone before worship starts do you help the pastor bring that to a close so that worship can begin? Maybe those elders in that picture have drawn the pastor aside to help avoid all of those distractions—and the pray for the wisdom of the Spirit so that this worship service will indeed become a beacon of hope in the name of Jesus Christ.

Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago