I’m a pastor.
I am also filled with great anxiety when I’m praying as part of a group, “prayer circles” in particular.
I’ve pondered why this is for a long while, and I think it comes down to how draining these groups feel to me. Not because I don’t feel welcome, because I know I am. Also not because I think prayer is a waste of time, I recognize prayer is part of how we breathe in God’s world.
So why does the prospect of praying in a group with other believers fill me with anxiety? For several reasons.
First, so many times when Christians gather to pray there is no time of transition. We bow our heads, someone speaks, and off we go. During “normal moments” my brain tends to flitter around between multiple ideas, so this sudden change in gears create an almost physical pain as I wrestle to pay attention. Most times I end up feeling awful that I’m bouncing around in my head while everyone else seems to be settled in to their groove just fine.
The second reason is a general lack of structure. I know a great many Christians who are invigorated by having no structure to a community prayer time. They feel this is freeing, and lifts from them the burden of restrictions they don’t want. But I’m not wired that way, I find myself feeling more free when I’m within a structure which assists with the processing of weaving ourselves into the tapestry of prayer. The different personalities and styles of those who are part of the prayer group still shine, but no one person overwhelms the others.
Third, I’ve noticed a tendency to treat prayer as though it was really preaching at God, which winds up treating our fellow prayers as an audience. We value the quality of the words said in prayer, and the amount of information included, and this allows stronger personalities to dominate the shared space. Too often I’ve seen these circles devolve into a sub-conscious desire to “out-eloquent” each other — like some sort of strange “prayer slam.” As such, when I find myself in a free-form prayer circle I tend to say hardly anything at all out loud 1.
Now, none of this means that free-form prayer groups are somehow bad. They just come with pitfalls I’d rather avoid. For those who may of had struggles similar to my own, allow me to offer some thoughts on the type of prayer groups which calm my heart.
Allow time to “center down”
Don’t get everyone seated and then say, “OK, go!” Instead, create a division which helps people make a mental, physical, and spiritual shift into a new mode. This practice is known as “centering down,” and the form of prayer which encourages this process is known as “centering prayer.”
I tend to lean toward a Quaker practice known as “palms up, palms down.” People in the group sit in a comfortable posture with palms placed up to the sky, usually resting on their knees. With palms up, participants are encouraged to name things which are either troubling or distracting them. Having named a trouble or distraction palms are then flipped down, signaling with the body that this has been turned over to God. The process is then repeated until people feel they have unburdened themselves enough to be centered in the moment, finally leaving their palms down as they rest in God’s presence.
Create a structure for both narrow and broad concerns
Liturgical traditions have the “prayers of the people,” which leads worshipers through a series of foci which range from global to personal. I find mapping out such a structure for a prayer time helps participants both share their own concerns and plead on behalf of the wider world. There’s great wisdom in this type of structure.
In order to reduce the sub-conscious waging of “eloquence wars,” I’ll often set length limits on prayers which can be spoken. These will often be one sentence 2, but can also be names or even single words. This helps to level out personalities, and frees more reticent participants to feel like they can offer prayers even if they don’t feel eloquent.
The irony about having structured brevity in prayer circles is I find it helps people to prayer longer. As the pressure to sound deep and spiritual is removed, people wind up participating more, and are often shocked at how much time has passed when the gathering is over.