There are many ways to fail as a pastor. Moral lapses, theological error, and spiritual apathy are just a few of the more obvious ways we can harm the congregations we serve. But there is perhaps one failure that gets overlooked. We can build successful ministries, influence people with biblical truth, and give the general appearance of faithfulness without anyone ever knowing that we are prayerless men. But this is to our shame. Do we truly believe that we can properly care for the people of God without bringing their names and burdens before Him in prayer? Our prayerlessness indicates we do. More than that it underlines the reality that we have drifted from the biblical and historical view of what it means to be a pastor.
Two stories from 1 Samuel demonstrate how seriously spiritual leaders (prophets and priests) took their responsibility to pray for the people in their care. The first comes from Samuel himself. After anointing Saul as king over the people, Samuel tells them they have committed evil against YHWH by asking for a king to rule them (1 Sam. 12:12–18). The people recognize their sin and say to him, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, so that we may not die” (12:19). Samuel’s response is telling, especially when he considers his role in their future obedience: “Far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; but I will instruct you in the good and right way” (12:23). For Samuel, prayer for the people is such a vital part of his role that to abandon the practice is unthinkable. More than that, to neglect this prayer is “sin against the LORD”.
A second story comes later in the book after YHWH has rejected Saul and chosen David as king. David was on the run from Saul and came to Nob where Ahimelech the priest gave him the consecrated bread for food and Goliath’s sword (1 Sam. 21:1–10). When Saul hears that Ahimelech has aided the fugitive David, he sends for all the priests and interrogates them on the charge of treason. In his paranoia, Saul accuses the priest of giving David food and arming him with a sword, as well as having “inquired of God for him”—that he sought to determine God’s will and seek His help for David’s mission against Saul. Ahimelech’s answer again demonstrates how essential this prayer was: “Did I just begin to inquire of God for him today? Far be it from me!” (22:15). Ahimelech’s intercession for David was not unique, but rather a normal part of his role as priest that he was bound to carry out.
Turning to the New Testament, we again see the central role of prayer when we examine the Apostle Paul’s relationships with the churches to whom he wrote. He tells the Romans, he “unceasingly” mentions them in his prayers (Rom. 1:9), as he does the Ephesians (Eph. 1:16) and Philippians (Phil. 1:3–4). That these prayers are made “unceasingly” indicates the importance Paul attributes to them—as if they are essential for the churches’ growth in Christ. Beyond Paul’s personal example, we have the instruction in James for the elders to pray for the sick that they might be healed (Jas. 5:14). The prayers of pastors for their people are essential to God bringing about His healing purposes in their lives.
With this quick biblical picture in mind, it is no wonder that, “For the majority of Christian centuries most pastors have been convinced that prayer is the central and essential act for maintaining the essential shape of the ministry to which they were ordained.” Indeed, Derek Prime and Alistair Begg argue that it is the “principal and main work” of pastoral ministry since it is the first way we exercise care for our people and the first step toward an effective teaching ministry. If Scripture and historical practice tell us prayer for our people is central to fulfilling the ministry to which we’ve been called, it is truly a scandal when we neglect it. Far be it from us that a day should come when we fail to lift up the names and needs of the people entrusted to our care. God help us all be men of prayer.
- See Ryan Fullerton, “A Call for Pastors to Pray for Their People,” 9 Marks Journal (Spring 2016): 7–11. I am indebted to this article for prompting my reflection on this topic. See the journal for other helpful articles on making prayer a priority in your life and church, https://9marks.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/9Marks-Journal-Spring–2016.pdf. ↩
- Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, vol. 7, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 229. ↩
- Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 26. ↩
- Derek J. Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004), 65. ↩
Paul Miller is helping me understand how God uses prayer in the context of the larger story of our lives. In the fourth part of his excellent book, A Praying Life, he explores the way our prayers, especially those that appear to be unanswered, integrate with God's purposes for us. For the couple of years or so, I've been praying around one specific theme in my life. It's driven simple requests for patience and love that God's answered by giving me opportunities to practice those virtues. However, it's also stimulated larger requests that have (frustratingly) remained unanswered. And I've struggled with that. Maybe you can relate.
But when I simply take a step back and reflect on the larger arc of my life, the requests that have remain unanswered give me a glimpse of what God wants to do in me, rather than around me. God isn't ignoring my requests because he doesn't love me. Instead, he leaves them unanswered because they don't fit in with the story he is weaving in my life. Maybe he's doing that in yours too.
If so, I highly recommend A Praying Life, it might help you get the same perspective I got.