A Letter Written to Students Preparing for the Pastorate: On the Preparation of the Pastoral Prayer
I know that one of your primary concerns as you consider your calling to the pastorate is sermon preparation. And this is right. But you must not relegate the preparation of the pastoral prayer to a lesser place.
Dr. James Fowle, one of my predecessors at the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga, was “accused” of having spent more time on the pastoral writing and Biblical research of the “long prayer” than he did on his sermon! But those older folks who told me that also told me that with a smile and a fondness for that pastor. He loved them. He must have known and believed what I have also found to be true: that the preparation of the pastoral prayer is in some ways the culmination of your weekly pastoral work.
The rhythms of ministry bring you in and out of the joys of weddings and births, the good news of business successes, and the joyful sight of new friendships springing up. These are things that would make any father smile (as you are the pastoral “father” of the Father’s flock). Yet you will also walk the cancer wards, and sit beside families going through death vigils. In the same week that you counsel a happy young couple with their bright future ahead of them you will also be present at that most dismal and horrid place of our generation: the family court. Here is where the past years of marriage are undone. Property and children and rights are divided up with one lawyer on one side of the court lobby and another lawyer on the other and you are in-between them with tears and pleas for reconciliation. You will bring the comforts of Christ to that which will not be mended on earth.
You will be there for the child’s first birthday party of the family for whom you prayed through their adoption process, and you will be there with the couple mourning yet another miscarriage. All of these things come to the one who has heard deep in his soul, “Feed My lambs. Tend My lambs. Feed My sheep. Follow Me (John 21:15,16, 17, and 19). And so you must. But remember, my beloved in Christ, you go with the means that Christ has appointed unto you: Word, Sacrament and Prayer.
It is prayer that I want to speak to you about now. You must, as a core and essential Biblical job description of being, give yourself to prayer as well as to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4), as ποιμαν poimēn, pastors of the Lord’s chosen. Through these “ordinary” (quite extraordinary) means given by the Lord Himself, you will discharge the duties of your office and you will also see the blessings of God. The growth of the congregation in grace and knowledge of God as well as in fulfilling the purposes of God in the world are all linked organically, Scripturally and supernaturally to these means.
Thus, your pastoral prayer in the service is of primary use for the blessing of the people of God as you come to the Lord on their behalf. We think immediately of the best models of this in the Word of God with Moses, with Christ Jesus in John 17, or with Paul’s tender reminder to his congregations of his prayers for them. So considering that you would agree that this prayer, the “long prayer” as our fathers often called it, this “pastoral prayer” as we are more likely to call it, ought to be shaped by the following rubrics:
1. The pastoral prayer should come out of the pastor’s heart for the people and his calling as a pastor. No pastor can truly pray with unction of the Spirit who is not called to pastor, nor called to pastor a certain people, nor has tasted of the divine fire of the altar of God in his own devotional life. Therefore, the pastoral prayer emerges out of the pastor’s devotional life that is spiritually connected to the people of God.
Such a pastor has been at the bedside and has interceded there first before ascending to the pulpit to pray on the Lord’s Day. As a pastor you stand with your face to the Lord and your back to the people at one place in the pastoral prayer, and yet you turn to face the people with God’s promises and assurances in another place in the prayer. You are the pastor who has wept in the secret of your car on the way home from a visit with a man who has refused God. You are broken by the sin of mankind in general and your people in particular, broken by the suffering of mankind in general and your people in particular, and broken in your own heart and life over your inability to grasp the incomprehensibility of the Lord, the mysteries of God in salvation, in healing, in saving, and in His timing of all of these things. You may thus turn to the Lord in your prayer, and cry out with the heart of Jesus beating in you, “My God, My God!” The people know that their pastor is with them in the fields and is thus for them in the pulpit.
2. The pastoral prayer should come out of the meditation of the Word of God. I ordinarily would never enter the pulpit to pray unless that prayer in my heart is symbiotically connected to some passage in the Bible. I may or may not carry notes on the prayer into the pulpit, although my files are replete with pastoral prayers written over the years. As I am preparing even now to offer a pastoral prayer at a church, I am studying John 17. I am concerned that when Jesus says that He is praying not only for Himself (the first part of the high priestly prayer), and for the disciples (the second part), but also for those who will believe through their testimony, I am focused on how to pray this to the Lord in such as way as blessing is also rained down upon the quenched souls of those who feel alone and distant from God, or feel as if no one could reach their prodigal children. I am praying, as it were, with my back to the Lord and my face to the people, and my prayer is structured upon Jesus’ prayer in this blessed passage. Yet, I turn to the Lord and remember that the unity that Jesus prayed for, through the witness of His disciples, needs to be in the life of the congregation. This unity needs to be visible between husbands and wives, and children and parents, in the relationship of the elders and the pastors, and in the deacons and the elders. It needs to be in the heart and mind of the one who feels alone and abandoned by God and man, perhaps the widow in the nursing home, but also in the twelve year old girl who, that morning, may feel betrayed by another girl seated two rows behind her.
In other words, having exegetes the passage, I now offer expository, intercessory pastoral prayer to the Lord in the power of the Spirit who breathed out the Scripture. I am concerned as I move through these intercessions, that the Lord who prayed that through the unity of the people, in unity with the apostles and prophets and martyrs and saints who have gone before and who worship across the face of the earth, is also the Lord who prayed that through their unity the world would believe that the Father had sent the Son (John 17.21); that the world would know of the glory of the Son in the glory of the Church, that others not yet in the congregation would come to be saved and placed by God in the Assembly of the faithful.
Thus, my meditation upon this text has led me in my intercessions from considering Christ and His disciples, to those who sit before me, to considering a plea for unity in the families and individual lives of people who need to be reconciled to each other. But now I am disturbed in my spirit, and thus praying out of that divine discontentment, that more would come to know Christ, that more would come to share in the glory of being a son or daughter of God! My prayers, started in Scriptural meditation, have climbed the stairs of Biblical truth to seek divine remedy for the people with a crescendo of: “Oh God, save Thy people!”
I have prepared notes, written out full manuscripts, and prayed not only without any rubrics to help me, but prayed out of my soul moved just by looking upon the flock before me. I have sometimes prepared a prayer and then let my eyes move across the congregation before the services began or perhaps during a hymn, and the Holy Spirit has convicted me that I must pray in a different fashion, from a different passage of Scripture, or with a different focus. This is of the Lord and I am not seeking to be mysterious or super spiritual, but acknowledging that if you are saturated with the Word of God and with prayer in your life for your people, coming from having actually been with them, then such phenomena will happen. And I know this will happen to you.
Don’t be concerned about the prayer that you prepared, but the prayer that the Spirit prepared in you to pray for His people. Remember we shepherd His people. We feed them on Word and Sacrament and Prayer. But among the ways that we pray, none is more precious to the people than when their pastor prays for them, out of love, out of personal experience of their trials and joys, and out of the abundance of the pastor’s time with God and His Word. In this way, then, the pastoral prayer cultivates the hearts of the people to receive the balm of Heaven in the sermon, and opens up the heart of the pastor to receive the Spirit of God in His Word.
I could not preach if I had not prayed. More specifically, I could not have preached God’s Word to them unless I had prayed God’s Word for them.I am thinking of you, students in the study of the pastoral ministry whether it be on the mission field or in the local church or as an evangelist planting a church, and I am, on this Lord’s Day, praying for you.
Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.
President and James M. Baird Jr. Professor of Pastoral Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina