Regarding ruling elders: a monthly series for spiritual leaders

Offering Prayer

January 16, 2018

ruling elders

He prayed for us. Harry came over and prayed for us. It was a small, extraordinary act of kindness, for which I am still grateful today.

Not too many years ago, my husband and I were in the throes of uprooting from our apartment in San Francisco to a small rural town in the foothills of California because he had been called to a church as its transitional pastor. And it had all happened so quickly. After a thorough and thoughtful phone interview, my husband hoped that he would hear back in a week. It was more like an hour later. And he said yes.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Ask permission to pray, and know that your offer may be declined.
  2. If you are granted permission, take a moment to center yourself, asking for the Spirit’s leading.
  3. Whenever possible, listen to where the other person is, first, so you can be sensitive, as Harry was—and also because someone’s feelings may change day by day, especially in the case of illness or grief.

So, in our own mini-version of Abraham and Sarah, in our early sixties, we moved ourselves and all we owned to a house in a small town, not knowing what to expect or what would come after that. There was excitement—and anxiety—for us.

And in the weeks before we moved, Harry had called to ask if he could drop by. His visit felt pastoral. He asked questions, listened well, and was kind. And then he prayed for us. I don’t remember a word he said. But what I do remember is how I felt afterward.

I felt temporarily washed of all my anxieties. I felt blessed, and held in God’s hands. Both my husband and I were stunned by God’s caring for us that day.

Maybe this doesn’t sound all that remarkable to you. Maybe your pastor has done this for you on more than one occasion. But what if you were the one who did the praying for someone else? What if praying out loud was one of the ways in which you helped other people?

As mainline Protestants, we are not always comfortable praying out loud for each other. Church experts trace this trend to the middle of the last century, when the value of psychology and counseling was on the rise, and the value of personal piety was given less credence. Praying out loud became the realm of the professional clergy. It was a great loss. But it doesn’t have to be.

As a believer and ruling elder, there will be occasions and opportunities to pray for, or on behalf of, others. You visit a longtime church member in the hospital. A friend contacts you, having just received life-changing news. Or you’ve been authorized to bring communion to a shut-in. There is nothing like prayer for comfort and caring.

You don’t need any kind of structure or form for doing it. You have the Spirit within you. All you need is honest caring for the person before you. Set aside your own agendas and distractions, and be fully present. You just need to love him or her in Jesus.

And a word of caution: everything that you have ever heard about what not to say to a grieving person applies here. Do not use prayer as a time to preach to someone, correct their theology, or try to “fix” anything. If circumstances are rough, then don’t try to gloss over it. Keep your prayer honest, simple, and caring—and grounded in God’s love for us all.

Years ago, I went to the hospital to check on a church member who had been admitted. Bethea was a feisty, Scottish Presbyterian of much faith and a good heart. But when I got there, her housemate pulled me aside and said that she was none too happy about being there.

We talked for a while, which probably consisted of her housemate and myself trying to explain why she had to stay there. And then I offered a prayer. I don’t remember a thing I said. But I do remember that Bethea became really quiet—and peaceful.

Her housemate told me later that Bethea had been riled up for hours before I had gotten there. And that she herself could feel the peace that descended on all of us.

This is what we can do for each other. We can hold each other up in the light of God’s love in praying out loud, and then we can see what God’s does.

Your simple prayer may make all the difference.


The Reverend Dr. Diana Nishita Cheifetz is a spiritual director, serving lay leaders and clergy in the San Francisco Bay area, the U.S.A., and internationally. Her website is www.spiritualdirectionforpastors.com.

For more about the information provided here, please contact Martha Miller at martha.miller@pcusa.org and browse the Ruling Elders website.

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