It is customary throughout Protestantism to include a pastoral prayer in the Sunday worship service. In this, the pastor draws together the concerns of the gathered community and offers them up to God. It is a priestly function.
My hunch is that in many cases the pastoral prayer is the least prepared part of the service, perhaps because its importance is not grasped by pastor or people. Or the pastor may consider the prayer a spontaneous act of worship and pre-planning might limit the moving of the Spirit.
In reality, the pastoral prayer serves two functions that counter the danger of formality: Since all worshipers cannot individually offer the prayers of the worshiping body, the pastor is expected to gather up those concerns and — serving as the body’s representative — offers them before God. The caring pastor should know better than anyone else what the needs and aspirations of the congregation are.
Thus, careful preparation is more likely to lead the worshiping body into the Presence. Here are the elements that can shape the pastoral prayer — though all elements need not be included in one prayer:
1. Adoration. In this we offer our praises to God not for what he has done but for who he is. Our God may not need to be adored, but for our good we need to pour out our praises. “I lift up my eyes to you,/ to you whose throne is in heaven” (Ps. 123:1).
2. Confessions. There should always be a place for confession in public worship because, in the presence of our Holy God, we know that at our best as a congregation we have fallen short of his glorious ideal – with sins, stumbles, hurtful mistakes, oversights and omissions. “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
3. Petitions. In this we ask for personal blessings: daily bread, strength for our tasks, wisdom in our dealings. Jesus taught that nothing is too trivial to bring to God’s attention. Petitions are for grace to meet our needs. “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
4. Intercessions. This aspect of prayer is for the needs of others — in the congregation, community, nation, and church in other lands. If pastoral prayers do not include thoughtful and far-reaching intercessions they may become predictable rounds centered on who is in the hospital — as important as that is, but nothing more. “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Eph. 6:17).
5. Thanksgiving. Sometimes when praying seems to be difficult or a crisis threatens a congregation, the spell of discouragement can be lifted by an outpouring of thanksgiving. Giving ardent thanks sounds the joy note in our prayers. “Praise the Lord O my soul,/ and forget not all his benefits” (Psalm 103:2).
Since the pastoral prayer is on behalf of the people, the congregation is expected to be engaged as if the prayer were their own. The collective nature of this prayer is also manifest in two ways.
First, pastoral prayers are always offered with plural pronouns: (We pray; we ask; we give thanks). The congregation is praying together with the pastor. If a pastor is not aware of this and prays in the singular (I pray; I ask; I give thanks) it may seem to some that the pastor is conducting private devotions in public. Pastors serious about their calling train themselves to use plural pronouns in public prayer.
Second, since a pastoral prayer is a congregational act of worship, there is place for congregational response. The “Amen” belongs to the congregation. It should at least be heard at the close of the prayer if not during it. Amen means TRULY or YES or we AFFIRM.
During my pastoral days I used to go to the church early on a Saturday morning when the building was quiet. I would review the week, think about the congregation’s individual and corporate needs, and plan my pastoral prayer on an index card. It was not a prayer to be read. But it was planned so that the pastoral prayer would not become repetitious and predictable.
Is all this worthwhile? Across my years of ministry a carefully and prayerfully prepared pastoral prayer seemed to draw the congregation into a deep and meaningful act of worship.