Prayer and the Ordered Life

There’s not too much doubt about it. Painful as it may be to say it, some pastors are not the most organised people in this world. Now this is not meant to be an unkind swipe at dedicated people who give themselves tirelessly to others. It is an observation, a conclusion arising from the hunch that there are those who are not super gifted with basic planning capabilities.

Presenting Reasons for Haphazard Living:

There are endless, plausible reasons for this apparently haphazard approach to the task of ministry (may be even to life itself)….

  • The needs of people cannot be predicted. A phone call, an unexpected visit, a cry for help will inevitably throw the best laid plans into disarray without any warning. Plan A becomes Plan B or even Plan Z depending on the shape and size of the next drama.
  • It’s hard to manage time anyway. So much of what is described as “ministry” has to be built around the time frames of others, especially those who must work to more predictable patterns. So the pastor is often on the job at odd hours which can be very wearying quite apart from the dislocation which this often brings to personal and family pursuits.
  • Arising from this is the difficult hunt for balance. If there is to be a measure of sense prevailing, time has to be taken out for reflection and relaxation. Somewhere in the cut and thrust of serving Jesus, we need to be able to stare at the wall, navel gaze or engage in whatever happens to renew enthusiasm, restore perspective and reduce the inner tensions which can drive us so unmercifully.
  • Surprises do arrive. Like many other aspects of ministry, moments of inspiration arrive without warning too. An idea for a sermon, or a Bible study, or a solution for a thorny problem can land without ceremony and other tasks are put aside for this creative burst to be duly saddled and directed.
  • Working from home as many pastors do creates its own set of pros and cons. On the one hand there is the huge benefit of a much greater proximity to partner and family not to mention great savings in time which would otherwise be spent on travel. But on the other, there are the huge distractions too.
  • Self-discipline (or the lack of it). If a pastor lacks even moderate discipline, it won’t be too long before the demands of ministry and the needs of self and family are hopelessly entangled with a resultant busyness which lacks focus, direction and order. A related problem is that the pastor is increasingly distanced from the pressures which lie so heavily on many in the congregation: early departures from home, long days, late home comings, limited family interaction.
  • The absence of understood routines and demands. While a person employed in the secular work force is subject to the rigours of set times, professional or vocational requirements, set procedures, and other clear expectations, there are often no real equivalents for the pastor. If a pastor is without a capacity for even moderate levels of personal organisation, there is the high danger of wasting time, working in short spurts, being distracted and filling up a day with non-essentials, all of which might be quite demanding in their own way but not at all related to the exercise of leadership or even the care of the congregation. 

The Impact of the Pastoral Example:

Congregations have a remarkable capacity to gauge the organisational skills of their pastor. It is not too hard to understand why….

  • Our people really appreciate attention to detail. Being prepared for meetings, preaching thoughtful sermons, making timely visits, the consistent checking out of leads, the simple matter of being around when congregational activities are in progress all kick goals.
  • But they are mightily frustrated by the opposites of these. Slap dash approaches to the pastoral task convey impressions of lethargy and laziness. If the pastor cannot arrive on time, what’s the problem? If sermons are poorly crafted, why bother trying to stay tuned? If the pastor cannot find the time to plan, what kind of encouragement is this to volunteers who willingly give their precious hours in service? If there is an also or bereavement and the pastor is a no show, what are the pastoral priorities?
  • Surprisingly some pastors are wonderfully creative in defending their lack of system. Their disordered lives with minimal outcomes can be protected with super spiritual explanations. The Lord is often presented as the reason for the dereliction of reasonable duty: “The Lord has not laid it on my heart to do this yet…. He has told me to be careful about this initiative …. He has not given me a real peace about proceeding”. These offerings are only one step away from a hot line spirituality which claims insider information on all divine transactions.

The Connections between Prayer and Ministry:

  • Most of us would benefit greatly by giving a little more thought to the way we function. Life may actually be easier and more effective into the bargain. The truth is that we need a basic order, a functioning structure or shape in our lives if there is to be any real reward and satisfaction. Nothing great will be achieved if life remains basically a morass, a meaningless collage of busy activities all without relation to an underlying order or foundation for being.
  • There is one thing we ignore at our peril. It’s the connection between the practice of prayer and the ordering of the total experience of life itself. The foundation of the prayerful life is the very means for establishing order and meaning in the pastoral role.  It is one of the givens. Now the real problem is that we may happily affirm the principle of prayer but not actually pray.
  • The disorganised pastor is a clear candidate for being a hit and miss pray-er. Dislocation in one area of being often suggests a general dislocation across the board. If this is true, there is a need to take some urgent steps to discover and implement shape and order. Our spiritual health depends on this.
  • Take charge of unrestrained busyness. This is the quiet, subtle enemy of genuine interior growth. It needs to be unmasked for what it really is. It is not the sanctified endeavour of a committed life but actually the cunning stalker of the spirit often keen to lead us into depression, anxiety and feelings of total inadequacy.
  • Prayer is our priority. Whether a pastor may see themselves as highly organised or totally laid back, the exercise of prayer is the primary discipline of the pastoral life. It is the centre point, the destination of the heart, the anchor point of the soul.       It is the cleft in the rock as much as it is the call to the onward journey.
  • Our lack of prayer has a price tag. The unrequited hunger for meaning, for purpose and for God Himself will ultimately lead us into the corridors of darkness and danger. It is all too easy to lose the plot simply because we have failed to pray.

Prayer as a Way of Being….

  • But prayer is not just something which we do. It is a way of being, of living, of choosing how we spend our moments and our days.  It is a response to the work of the Spirit within us, of genuinely altering our focus.
  • It is about the presence of God. His being within us and around us overrides the many good things which we hope to get done if we could only find the time. The reality is that we need to give up our daily meanderings through the many duties of ministry to the much deeper encountering which arises from the practice of prayer. It is here that we discover the reordering power of prayer. We actually begin to get in touch with what God is desiring of us in the day He has given to us. Our overriding heart’s desire is to give God the opportunity to connect with us above and beyond our plans or lack of them.
  • But this new structuring of our being can only arise from a willingness to deliberately quieten our minds, our hearts, our souls. It is a choice to abandon our many words for the possibility of receiving guidance through the silence of prayer. It is not simply a matter of showing up with our list of intercessions, of to-do lists for the Lord, or other pressing requests for the attention of the Almighty. Rather it is a matter of endeavouring to receive from Him His promptings, His short list of people needing our prayers, His identifying of situations requiring our attention, His concerns for His world and the ways He wants to engage with that world.
  • The implications are profound. Of course, it will always be appropriate for us to express our pressing concerns and anxieties in prayer. That is part of the exercise. But an openness to God’s agenda for needy people (as an example) opens up a vista of ministry of extraordinary proportions. While we will be practically aware of many who need our prayers, there is the additional dimension of tuning into the divine concern for people, those deemed by the Lord Himself to be needing our encouragement, our nurturing, our engagement with them. Their names may not otherwise have entered our heads. As a general rule of thumb, a person who continues to be in our mind may be there because the Spirit is actively placing that name before us. It is not just a call to specific prayer for them. It is also a call to action: a mobile call, a text, a visit.

Prayer as an Adventure:

  • This is all part of the adventuring with God in prayer, of learning fresh ways to deepen our fellowship with Him. It is also an invitation to move away from the casual receiving of our days, of simply doing what comes to hand next. Here is the gift of a structure not arising from our incapacity to plan well but from a desire to allow God to shape our days instead.
  • For many of us this may be a new frontier but it is certainly a good one. Indeed, it is also equally a call to those whose days are tightly controlled with rigorous commitments to the good stewardship of time. May be in this instance there is a real need to back off and give the Lord the privilege of breaking into our tight schedules. He just might be able to steer us into an even more useful expenditure of our time.

So, what about tomorrow? Do you have some idea of what you want to accomplish? Is the day already full? Allow the Giver of all good gifts some space to move. You may be in for a surprise or two.  He certainly has some plans for you.

Rev John Simpson