It’s common practice for ministers to pray over their parish rolls, recalling individuals and families by name, lifting up cares and concerns, known and unknown to the Lord.
Recently, however, as I was doing this, I found that I didn’t really know too much about my parishioners’ cares and concerns. In part because these things take time. In part because intercessory prayer has become pro-forma as in “Could you please add Bert to the prayer list?” “Bert” (more often than not) is not even a parishioner, but an acquaintance of the one asking.
I’ve long suspected that “adding someone to the prayer list” was less about actual prayer and more about feeling like you’ve “done something.”
I wanted more than that.
In fact, as I prayed over the parish list anew this new year, I found myself contending with (and for) my parishioners.
Contending with because there were many names I barely knew and others of people I hadn’t seen in some time. When I say “barely knew” I mean I barely knew the state of their hearts, the condition of their souls. Were they born again or not? I couldn’t say. So, I started to contend for them.
“I’m not sure you’re saved,” I’d pray over a name. “I’d like to see you more in church,” over another name.
I found myself angry over some names, grieving over others, and happy for the rest.
Paul warns us not to “grieve not the holy Spirit of God,” (Eph. 4:29-32) and so it dawned on me that perhaps the Spirit was sharing some of His grief over my flock with its pastor.
That gave me a new and fresh approach to my daily pastoral prayers. Surely if I were grieved over my perception of a lack of saving faith in someone or frustrated over another’s irregular attendance, then how much more did the Holy Spirit grieve?
And so, when I had nothing else to pray about for some of the names on my roll, I found myself simply “contending” for their souls.
“Get to church!” I’d pray for one.
“Let that sermon sink in. Its message was for you!” over another.
And so on.
Would you believe it if I told you that more than a few have showed up in church these past few Sundays since I began praying over them?
And their faces light up when I’ve been able to tell them, genuinely and in all sincerity, “I was just praying for you! I am so glad you’re here.”
Does this make sense to you? Have you tried something similar or had an experience like this? I’d love to hear from you.
The Rev. Jake Dell is the Priest-in-Charge at St. Peter’s Lithgow, New York, and a member of the EFAC-USA board.