Teach Me How to Pray
Last year I was ordained to the ministry at Grace Fellowship Church. Since then I went on-staff as a part-time pastor and, more recently, as a full-time associate pastor. Needless to say, this has given me great opportunity to closely examine the calling and task of the minister. At its heart, this task is very simple. “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Prayer and Bible; praying for and with people and teaching them the Word of God. If the job description is so simple, why is it so hard to do?
Of these two tasks, I feel much more confident and equipped when it comes to teaching. Words come easy to me. While I may labor over a sermon for many days, I am at least confident that in the end the words will come and the result will be adequate at least. But I find prayer far more difficult. While I feel the desire to pray and while I often long to pray, I find myself especially frustrated in organizing my times of prayer; often times I find myself giving up, or at least wanting to give up, because of the frustration involved in remembering all the things I want to pray for and in actually bringing them before the Lord.
To that end I have turned to a few pastors I know to ask them how they manage the task of prayer and in the days and weeks to come I plan to share some of these with you in the hope that you will find it helpful. The first man I turned to is Tim Kerr, pastor of Sovereign Grace Church here in Toronto. Tim is a dear friend to our church and a man who feels a special burden to pray. I asked him how he prays, and here is what he sent me.
Over the years I have tried many "systems" for prayer but have settled on a very basic pattern that keeps things uncomplicated. I use a pattern that incorporates both a simple plan (categories) and spontaneity. I am not a naturally disciplined person, so the planned side keeps me from neglecting important items that I need to be praying about.
The system I use reflects the particular prayer assignments I believe God has given to me so they may or may not be helpful to others. My prayer life primarily revolves around a list of people that I keep in a prayer journal (mine is leather as a simple reminder of its importance).
- First I pray for my family by name. I try to do this every day, and since I love them and care for them, it is relatively easy to keep doing this. My requests for them are based on what I observe as well as requests they share with me. Beside each of the written requests, I write a promise from scripture that speaks to the issue directly. I find praying God's promises back to Him adds a lot of leverage to prayer and increases my faith as I pray.
- Next I pray for pastors (This is a category that I feel a special burden for) Right now I have 26 pastors I pray for regularly. 18 of those are Sovereign Grace pastors. I don't have a formula for praying for these men. I pray for as many as I can as often as I can. I don't obligate myself to pray for certain names on Monday, others on Tuesday etc. This may work for others but it hasn't worked for me. When there are special needs, I spend more time praying for those men in particular. Many years ago I heard a message by John MacArthur on Col 1:9 that made a lasting impression on my practice of prayer. He taught that the preceding verses spoke about a group of believers that are doing well and this becomes the motivation for Paul to pray for them (note beginning of verse 9). Paul didn't just pray for believers with spiritual problems, he also prayed earnestly for believers who were doing well spiritually! Shortly after that I started praying more for leaders, the faithful "core" of the church, and pastors outside of our church.
- I also carry a burden for pastor's children. This is especially true of those who are not believers yet or who are wandering away from the Lord. Some of my most agonizing praying has been over children of pastors who are in "a foreign land" (Jer 31:16-17). For years I was one of those children and a small group of godly senior believers begged God to bring me back to Himself. All but one are in heaven today and I guess I feel I need to be one of the ones filling the gap left by their absence.
- Next I pray for the people I pastor. Since I pastor a small church this is possible for me. I realize that many pastors could not do this with the size of their congregations. But maybe they could pray for their fellow pastors and small group leaders. Our family often prays for different families in our church after the dinner hour when we read scripture together. But I do this privately as well.
- I also pray for special needs. For example, I have prayed for various single women to find godly husbands etc.
- Finally I pray for the nations. I see this as a huge theme of scripture and as an act of obedience to Jesus' command in Matt 9:38. There are so many promises about God's heart to reach the nations with the gospel! We use Operation World as a guide in our family worship and I regularly pray for a particular team of church planters working in an unreached part of the world.
Well, that describes my basic list. I do have other items and people that I add to it, but these categories cover the main themes of what I seek to pray about.
The other dimension of my prayer life (that intersects with the above list) is praying spontaneously throughout the day with offered words of trust, gratitude, and SOS's as needed (both for myself and others). This aspect of my praying is done according to the leading of the Spirit and the burdens he puts upon my heart. Many times when I pray this way, verses come to my mind that I take to either be verses to direct my praying for those I am praying for, or verses that I need to share with them for their encouragement, usually by email.
[I asked Tim one follow-up question about the actual system he uses, or what his prayer journal actually looks like. He replied as follows:]
I don’t have columns. I usually group people by families (except singles of course). I write down their names and one or two requests beside their name (usually but not always). Sometimes I will write out a full promises & other times I will write a reference beside the request (I usually know the reference so the verse comes to mind when I come to their name). Most of the requests are usually long term requests that don’t change from week to week (conversion of a son, someone learning to live more by faith and less by feelings, that God would put the fear of God in their hearts, for courage to share Christ with a co-worker, for ongoing encouragement and “sightings of God” in the Scriptures in a crisis etc). I do try to pray as specific as possibly and will often pray for specific manifestations of the general requests to display that God is at work (for example a son coming and confessing sin and asking for forgiveness will show conviction of sin—an encouraging sign if I am praying for the son’s conversion). I have found that most people are poor at keeping you up to date on requests and answers, so I chase them down in emails or in person and try to find out how things are progressing. In pastoral ministry, I have found that one of the things that endears us to our flock is to do home visits and together share the encouragement that comes from answers that have come from our prayers for them!
My thanks go to Tim for sharing what for all of us is a rather intimate part of our lives. Our hope is that other Christians, and perhaps pastors especially, will benefit from it.