Acts 1:14 “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.”
Have you noticed the tension between prayer and position that you regularly feel in spiritual leadership? While the topic “leadership” is being written about and spoken about all around us, very little of it mimics the turn-the-world-upside-down leadership that we see modeled in the first half of the Book of Acts. These chapters chronicle a group of people who were not intrinsically gifted leaders but ones who were empowered to lead as they “gave themselves to prayer.” As one author recently asserted, “Prayerless Christianity is practical atheism.” We have way to many practical atheists attempted to lead the bride of the One in whose name we are commanded to pray. Oh that we would see a return of that caliber of leadership in our churches and families today! This sweet progress can only be realized if we first identify the resistance to prayer that is common to every minister.
In his book, Liberating the Leader’s Prayer Life, T.C. Muck intuitively unpacks this tension that we must navigate:
What frustrates Christian leaders about prayer? Perhaps it has something to do with the differences between leading and praying. When a random sample of people was asked what the term leadership brought to mind, they responded with words like authority, decisiveness, confidence, and power. The word prayer, on the other hand, evoked words such as humility, pleading, and powerlessness.
The difference illustrates a conflict Christian leaders face. As leaders, they preach, counsel, and organize with efficiency. Leaders must see that things get done. They plan, decide, act, and evaluate. In most people’s minds, leadership means the ability to solve problems…. Men and women of prayer, however, operate in a different sphere, where feelings of inadequacy and helplessness must predominate. Those feelings sometimes conflict with the tasks of ministry. Jeff Ginn, pastor of Noelridge Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, notes: “We all want our ministries to have results. We see our work schedule as a time for production. If I have to choose between my quiet time and a meeting with a young Christian, often I’ll choose the young Christian because that meeting will produce something tangible in my ministry.”
The attractions of a non-praying life—busyness that fills up the hours, distractions that divert attention, temptations that distort priorities—block our efforts to increase praying time. Many of these blocks are not unique to the Christian leader. Laziness, impatience, rebelliousness, and unconfessed sin plague everyone. Lifestyles that include jam-packed schedules, jangling telephones, raucous radios, and fast-paced television programs don’t offer quiet opportunities for reflection….
In addition to the common pressures, Christian leaders face three that are unique to their vocation:
One is the expectation placed on them by historical roles.
Modern church leaders still labor under clerical traditions traced back to the fourth-century monastic movement when clerics began to be viewed as professionals separated from the laity. Monks established specific hours of prayer—seven or eight times a day set aside for on-the-knees devotion. Had this remained a monastic practice, all would have been fine. But soon it became generalized for all clergy, whether withdrawn from the world or not…Thereafter in the history of the church, whenever clergy reform became necessary, it was accompanied by a call for increased participation in prayer. There was nothing wrong with that in itself. We need frequently to be called back to our knees to pray. Unfortunately, the form suggested was usually realistic only for the full-time religious…
Even though the pressure of this was mitigated somewhat (in recent history), the trend it set for clergy expectations remained. The heritage today can be seen in the question often asked the pastor, “But what else do you have to do all day besides prayer and study?” Usually this criticism is unthinking rather than vindictive. Most laymen, if questioned, would recognize the heavy administrative responsibilities of modern church leadership. Most would agree this makes spiritual work difficult. But subconsciously, the expectations remain. And it loads our Christian leaders with intense guilt about their prayer life.
Guilt also comes from the expectations of church leaders themselves.
Many assume leadership roles in answer to God’s call. Too often, though, the call is interpreted as a responsibility to personally fulfill the entire Great Commission. The faulty logic runs like this: “Saving the world required a perfect sacrifice: Christ. Since I’m not perfect, I must work even harder to save the world.”
One pastor said: “The greatest relief of my young ministry was when I finally realized God could get his work done without me. That freed me to do even more for the Kingdom without loading myself with guilt for what I couldn’t do.” One’s personal prayer life can suffer horribly from a self-induced messiah complex—or even an honest workaholic ethic fueled by popular maxims like “Wear out, don’t rust out for Christ.”
A third source of guilt is the natural bent of most church leaders toward rational methods of learning.
Analytic thinking works for most areas of Bible study and theology. But the experience of prayer extends beyond the rational. Listen to people who want to talk about prayer. They start enthusiastically, but the words don’t last long. The enthusiasts soon discover prayer is too central, too much a part of the core to be reduced to a series of convincing syllogisms. So they end up talking around it. They talk about great answers to prayer and their troubles in being consistent in prayer. But the experience itself eludes attempts to verbalize.
Prayer is a very private experience. One pastor whom several people suggested as a model of powerful praying noted that studies of other people’s prayer lives run the risk of invasion of privacy: “There are areas of Christian experience, like marriage, that are almost too sacred for research. The ‘how-to-do-it’ books on prayer can show us the direction to the secret place and help us find time for the closed door, but who is the person who will attempt to define, delineate, and demonstrate what takes place there?”
For the rational, straight-thinking church leader, this can be a frustration. Why can’t prayer be attacked like any one of a dozen problems solved this past year? We repaved the parking lot, helped Al Aronson work through his depression, and I planned my speaking engagements for the next year and penciled in preparation time for them all. But prayer …
In spite of these apparent contradictions, leadership responsibility and prayer are not incompatible. Many Christian leaders have successfully wedded the two and enjoy the marriage. The offspring is a fruitful ministry. But the marriage works only when leadership and prayer are seen as a private partnership instead of jealous brothers competing for God’s time. The conditions of the partnership are not difficult. In fact, they are really rather ordinary. The key is to match God’s terms with the ordinaries of life.
What blocks to prayer would you add to this list that you feel are uniquely challenging for the spiritual leader? What approaches are helping you overcome them?