By Megan Torgerson
I can feel the restlessness in ministry leaders accustomed to the action of regular pastoral care. We feel the deep anguish of communities suffering from the dual sicknesses of COVID-19 and racism, but we face enormous risk if we enter hospitals, homes, or even protest gatherings. We all recognize the need to pray with and comfort the saints as central to our calls, but we struggle to find space for that when we’ve always conflated prayer with physical presence. Now that caring for bodies means staying distant, whether due to social distancing or curfews, caring for souls can feel hopeless.
Fortunately, we have a tool that’s always been at our disposal as the church rallies to give voice to both anger and hope. While it is difficult or even impossible to pray side-by-side, we can still pray. Prayer offered in private as part of a personal discipline means just as much as prayer in a worship space, a hospital room, or a rally. Too many of us didn’t set aside time for this important work before our offices relocated to our homes. Now, in this new season, one that demands our words of confession and reconciliation, God invites us to reclaim the role of priest and pray on behalf of others.
Surely, you insist that you do that already. I believe you. But admittedly, many of us depended on the regular, public-facing prayer that our work called out of us. We have an excellent habit of being the formal voice offering prayer for the gathered people of God. It often means we forget the inward-facing work of prayer brought as both petition and meditation. This work has no deadline and no immediate feedback. You can easily fool yourself into thinking it accomplishes little, but in the stress and challenge of ministry today, this work can give you the renewal you need. Personal prayer is meaningful action to address systemic injustice and public health. It’s also the continuing discipline you need to face those dual crises in your community.
Write It Down, One Way or Another
One of the easiest things you can do for yourself in preparing to engage in regular intercessory prayer is get a notebook. Every time you find yourself saying “I’ll pray for you” or “God be with them” or “it shouldn’t be like this”, get your notebook out. Write the request down. Put in some details: name, situation, time of request, hopes and fears, and important future dates. Keep your notebook close at hand. Don’t over think. Just write down the prayer need.
Gathering the prayers is only half of the practice. Actually praying them is the real work. For some, setting a time each day for prayer will make the most sense. Habits build well when attached to existing habits; consider scheduling your prayer time right after you brush your teeth or right before supper. However, for some, it will prove more effective to break old habits by replacing them. Consider every time your reach for your phone, ready for a mindless five-minute social media scroll, give yourself only enough time online to see what needs your prayers today. Then, reach for your prayer journal. Take thirty seconds to breathe, grab your pen and journal, and pray through your list, taking notes as you go.
It’s possible that you don’t want to carry around more stuff, and a notebook and pen will simply get lost. Consider using the tools already in front of you. Since you already have your phone in hand, use it as an ally in the work of prayer. There are apps out there that help you collect, organize, and track the things you need and want to pray for. On an iPhone, my favorite one is called Echo. You simply enter your prayer requests whenever you like, allow the app to randomize them, and use whatever minutes or hours in your day you have to focus in on the work of prayer. Consider adding items in that will demand your continuous prayer: the dismantling of racism, the courage and determination of protestors and advocacy groups, our elected leaders—like them or not—who need God’s wisdom.
Consider Praying Online
If these options seem still too removed from the work of public ministry, take advantage of those 21st century options that have brought new life to the church and wider voice to the work of social justice. Using options like Facebook or Instagram Live, you can make yourself available to friends, family, and congregation alike for a dedicated time of prayer.
- If you’re going to have a live prayer time via social media, make sure you announce it on your page at least 24 hours in advance, and be very specific about what time you’ll log on and for how long.
- Invite people to submit requests in advance if they can’t be there at the prescribed time. And then, when you start the live feed, get ready to read scrolling requests very quickly.
- Consider having some devotions or Bible passages ready in case people are slow to respond. Feel free to bring prayers for what currently weighs down your heart.
- Do the research and find voices from BIPOC whose insights and spirituality can ground your own prayer. Gather these resources with the prayers people offer throughout the time online. Ultimately, it’s a discipline like any other: set the time, do the work, serve God and neighbor with the gifts at your disposal.
Value this Work, Even As It Looks Different
You bear the presence of the church with you through the work of socially-distanced prayer. You dedicate yourself to planning it out, just as you would have before. You ensure you find appropriate, meaningful times to bring these prayers, just as you always have. You understand that God has called you to this work of petition and conversation for the sake of all the saints, just as you will always do. No matter what action items you choose to support those struggling to breathe, whether because of coronavirus or racism, you do God’s work in the world. Your personal prayer simply elevates it. The world has changed, but the call remains. Your prayer practice can only deepen.
We trust that our petitions rise to God, who will answer these prayers according to God’s wisdom. But we sell prayer short if we think prayer merely intends to bring something to God’s attention. A discipline of prayer changes the world because it changes you. When you devote yourself to regular prayer for the sick, you become more attentive to the needs of those who suffer. When you devote yourself to regular prayer for justice, you become more vocal and engaged in community advocacy. When you devote yourself to regular prayer for reconciliation, you become more actively involved in healing the sin of racism. The discipline of personal prayer doesn’t just restructure your use of time and your perspective on your ministry. It reforms you.
Some of us will protest, others will write letters to elected leaders. Some will donate food and diapers, others will write checks and send money through an app. Some will make masks for friends and strangers alike, others will make sure donation sites have working hand-washing stations. Some will pick up brooms and garbage bags to clean up neighborhoods, others will change their shopping habits to support black-owned businesses. Some will do all of these things, others will pick just one. All these actions serve God and your neighbor who needs you. And along with these and any other actions you choose to safely be church in a time of pandemic and protest, you can also pray. The work drives you to prayer; your prayer drives you to work. God and neighbor are served.
As you move forward in this quarantide season, fighting for justice and tending to the sick, changing as the world changes, I will pray for you as you adapt in your work and devote yourself to personal and professional prayer. I will pray that your heart turns ever more towards God’s will and your eyes open more to the needs of your neighbor. And yes, I’ve already written that prayer request down.
About the Author
Megan Torgerson is a pastor in the Twin Cities, a speaker and writer, a former Miss Minnesota, and a cheeseburger aficionado. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook at @pastortorgerson
Photo by Luis Quintero