Pastoral prayer and spiritual growth

This week Anne Sardeson, our synod training officer, came to run one of a series of sessions she has been delivering to the elders at Potters Bar. These have been going for a while but this was the first since I arrived. I was looking forward to it, since although I’m new to the synod I already knew Anne and expected good things. I was in no way disappointed.

The theme for the evening was pastoral care and in particular this aspect of the elder’s role. We looked at the various aspects of pastoral care in a Church context and especially at how it relates to spiritual growth. We touched on the historical development of this part of Church life and at its relationship to discipline (on which I have previously written here). We thought about the general issue of how to combine “managerial”, “pastoral” and “spiritual” leadership in the collective body of the eldership.

This led me to reflect on what has been, to me, the most surprising part of my formation for ministry, the place of prayer within it. Until quite recently (say within the last five years) prayer made no sense at all to me. My Christianity began with ideas (as explained here) and progressed to participation in the Church community but the kind of direct personal relationship with God required (in my view) for prayer came late. To address oneself in speech of thought to God seems to me to necessitate confidence that there is somebody there to hear.

Without this confidence prayer can feel or seem inauthentic (I sometimes hear public prayer that appears to me actually to be addressed to the assembled people rather than to God, the “Dear God help us to ,,,” model of intercession as sermonette), I could never reconcile myself to this and so repeatedly refused to lead intercessory prayer in my congregation where lay participation in this part of the service was a well established practice.

I began to learn how to pray first through making the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises (something I’m surprised to note I’ve not written on before). This discipline of prayer (which I undertook on retreat for the first part, praying for an hour five times a day for a week, and in daily life, praying for an hour daily 5-6 times a week for a year with some breaks of a few weeks) made a huge impact on me.

Initially one learns and practices a variety of techniques that enable listening to God and the address to and conversation with God is something to which one comes gradually and carefully. This worked wonderfully well for me. My sense of faith as relational developed and grew using these techniques and under the guidance of the director or companion who helped me through the process. Doing the Exercises made prayer (and discernment) real for me.

This meant that as I began my formation for ordained ministry my prayer life had reached a point where I was able to lead public prayer with feeling fraudulent (although I can’t really say, of course, whether my prayers have always seemed real to others). The practice of regular prayer in worship helped me further. As somebody who values the liturgical tradition I have always tried to fit my prayers to the classic Reformed orders. Approach and confession, thanksgiving and intercession. These four great movements of the Reformed liturgical pattern structure and discipline my public prayer and I love that great movement and pattern.

What seems like a great breakthrough came, though, late in my training, during my final placement. One of my fellow students told me about his experience with his supervising minister. This minister placed a strong emphasis on prayer throughout the life of his church and especially always included prayer during pastoral encounters. This will probably seem obvious to many people but as I was told about it it came to me as a revelation. This is what distinguishes the pastoral work of the Church from that of, for example, a school or a commercial organisation. We are committed to the idea that when we meet together God makes a third. Prayer is our acknowledgement of this.

In discussions of pastoral “work” in the Church I have often heard puzzlement and frustration expressed at how to “add a spiritual dimension”. I used to wonder about this myself. Now it seems obvious and unproblematic to me. The answer is prayer. I now always offer prayer as part of my pastoral encounters (or when I, occasionally, don’t regret it). This, often very short, shared prayer is for me the centre of the event, although temporally it usually comes at the end. In prayer we come together before God explicitly stating his presence as the condition for our meeting.

All this came fully into focus for me through our very open and powerful discussion of both the joys and the difficulties of the role of pastor (ordained or lay). I had, myself, a strong sense of the Spirit at work among us, leading us into a new phase of our life as a congregation and especially as its leaders. I anticipate both challenges but also opportunities to deepen my own prayer life as I explore it with the people among whom I have been called to serve. Together I believe we can all journey further into our relationship with God and discipleship to Christ.

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