Longhurst: No glib prayers

During this time of pandemic, many Christians are turning to prayer. But what to pray? It can be especially hard for worship leaders, who wonder how to find the words that speak honestly to God on behalf of their congregations about fears, anxieties, concerns and hopes.


That’s where Carol Penner, an assistant professor of theology at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., comes in.

On her blog, Leading in Worship, Penner writes prayers for churches that get to the heart of challenges facing many people today.

“My job is to equip and prepare people to lead churches in worship,” she says. “To find the right words for the right situations.”

During the height of the pandemic in March and April, that posed a unique challenge when people suddenly found themselves unable to gather physically for worship services.

“There was no blueprint for that,” she says of how worship leaders had to pivot quickly to online services. “Who could have imagined it?”

Among those changes were finding the right words to say at things like funerals, when people couldn’t gather in person, or for online services for births, weddings and other transitions.

“No resources existed for these kinds of things,” she says of how she started to imagine ways to help worship leaders navigate the change. “And yet we had to do it, and in a new kind of way.”

For Penner, that meant writing prayers, calls to worship and benedictions that are appropriate for that context — naming the fear, boredom, uncertainty and anxiety people are feeling, along with praying for those on the front lines, such as health-care workers and those in essential services.

She also wanted to include parents of children or teens trying to juggle work and home responsibilities and adults worried about their elderly parents in personal care homes.

“Our prayers need to be real, not just platitudes,” she says of writing about the pandemic. “They shouldn’t be glib. They need to have real emotion and anguish. They need to name what we really feel and what is happening.”

They should be the kinds of prayers that show the writer hasn’t taken the easy way out.

“People can tell if you have wrestled with the prayers you write and say,” she says. “They can also tell if you threw it off in two minutes.”

In addition to prayers on her blog, which churches are free to use, Penner also tweets out shorter micro-prayers on Twitter.

“There is so much negativity on Twitter,” she says. “I want to provide some moments of reflection and gratefulness, something quickly and easily scanned.”

One of the hardest weeks for her was Easter, the most significant day on the Christian calendar.

It was much easier to write prayers for Good Friday, she says. That day resonated with people this year.

“It was hard to write prayers about being joyful and happy for Easter when so many people were in a hard place,” she says. “It was hard to talk of new life and hope.”

Since the pandemic promises to go on longer, there will be a need for more resources for worship services. “Sadly, there will be a lot more [difficult] prayers to write,” she says.

Find Penner’s blog at carolpenner.typepad.com/leadinginworship.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer and communications and marketing consultant in Winnipeg, Man.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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