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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ask the Matriarch: A Service of Healing

Our question this week comes from a colleague who would like to try something new with her congregation and is wondering how best to go about it. Read on.

I was feeling overwhelmed with the many needs of my small congregation, which seems to have many people suffering with chronic illness.  The Holy Spirit brought to me the idea of doing a healing service, during our regular worship.  Services of Healing are a part of my tradition (United Methodist) and there is an order of worship prescribed for the service.  I have attended one service like this and felt very moved.  I inquired as to whether a service like this has every been done at our church and the answer was no.  I would like to incorporate an altar call, with anointing with oil, and I would like practical suggestions for explaining the Biblical tradition of anointing and oil as well as what vessel to put the oil in and how to apply it. My questions are, 1) How do I prepare the congregation for this new service? 2) How do I welcome people to come forward without pressuring them? 3) What do I do if no one comes forward? and 4) What do I do after the service for follow up care?

Jennifer writes:
I don't have much personal experience with services of healing, but we sponsored a series one year during Lent. The services were held mid-week, in the evening, and we happened to hold our services in the chapel of our local retirement community and in the chapel of our local hospital. Our worship planning team liked the idea of more intimate spaces than our sanctuary and at a different time, so that folks knew that they were intentionally attending something different. We included folks in the planning of worship who had special gifts for music, prayer and healing (we're blessed to have a massage therapist who has a lot of knowledge of essential oils and their properties for healing.)
We prepared the congregation with write-ups in the church newsletter as well as verbal explanations in the context of Sunday worship.

We invited people to attend for themselves or on behalf of someone for whom they were concerned for healing. We had two or three stations of  healers/prayers, so that folks could choose who they wished to approach, and so that people didn't feel as though they were being observed while they came forward. One person would anoint and the other would listen to the person's need, and then pray for/with them. Because these were intentional services of healing, we always had folks come forward, but if no one had come forward, there would have still been music playing (we had instrumentalists and vocal music on different weeks) and a worship leader would offer a general prayer for healing after some time and some music. I don't think it would have felt awkward.
We handled follow-up care in the same way as we would any pastoral care issue. We called several days later, or whenever we felt it was appropriate, to ask about the person and to see if there was anything we could do to be helpful.

You're to be commended for seeking to find a compassionate and helpful way to respond to the needs of the congregation you serve. As always, enlisting the support and talents of others in the congregation seems to strengthen a congregation's acceptance of and positive experiences with something new...

+Muthah offers:
I would introduce a new rite during the service only after trying it out at a non Sunday service.  Get some of your bible study group, or explain to your youth group that you are trying out something new.  Or offer it as a special healing service on an alternate day.  Then get those who do attend that service to share their experiences either in a note in the Sunday bulletin or in the newsletter.  Coffee hour and “parking lots” often help getting this special service out of the scary into the place where it is inviting. 

Also, I hope you are already anointing people when you visit in hospital.  The remembrance of that type of care will help those who have chronic illnesses to come forward.

On the Sunday that you do decide to introduce this rite into your service, have some people whom you have already gone through a smaller experience and make sure that they are there.  In other words, ‘salt’ your congregation with those who will step forward.  It will be those intrepid few that will get the ball rolling.  Make sure that they know what they are supposed to do and what to expect when hands are laid upon or oil is used.  Have some tissues available because who know where the Spirit will blow!  I have also used those in the health professions to lay hands on with me.  Doctors, nurses, physical therapists do this everyday.  And when they see the sacredness of their work, and how to use their faith in their own profession it expands their ministry too. 

Several parishes I have served had never done the washing of the feet during Holy Week.  I talked about it both in and out of the service encouraging those who had never experience the rite.  It worked splendidly in CA but in Upstate NY, I couldn’t get folks to part with their soxs in March or April!  Know your folk well enough to know where you can lead and where you can’t.  Also if you have a need for healing, make sure that there is someone who will anoint you during the service.

I have used a cruet—a small pitcher with the oil in it.  After anointing (or administering ashes )  I always have a slice of lemon and some paper towels, and/or cotton on hand to keep from driving the Altar Guild nutz.  The lemon cuts the oil and keeps the oil out of good linens.  You can also use an oil stock.  I personally am too cheap to buy an expensive oil stock so I buy a keychain pill container, put some cotton in it and soak the cotton with blessed olive oil.  That way I can have it on the altar or carry it with me in hospital at all times.

Follow up care should be informal.  The same way that you would do for anyone who is ill in the congregation—a phone call, a comment when you greet them at the church door.  If they have something spectacular to tell you, they will!

And Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming, responds:
It’s always good to hear about pastors wanting to introduce a healing service to their churches.

My advice would be to try to get a small group interested in this – so that it is seen as a ministry of the church and not just ‘your thing’. It might be good to do some teaching/preaching on this in a planned way to as many of the community as you can, then ask for a group to form to discuss/plan/pray, then ask for this group to be involved in the service itself.

In one church where I was involved in a healing ministry, we (the team of 3 leading the service) would, at the start of the time to come to the altar, each in turn kneel and receive prayer from the other two. This helps to ‘break the ice’ and models what to do, but more importantly shows that we are all in need of healing, and that it is the body of Christ which offers it, not any one individual.

It also helps to tell people they can just remain in their seats – and mean it! - coming forward really isn’t for everyone.

As for follow up – some people will simply be happy to have been prayed for in the service, but you could have cards to drop into a ox/the offertory plate for those who want either further prayer or a pastoral visit.

I hope the congregation get behind this good idea!

A healing service is such a great idea, and these are such wonderful pieces of wisdom from our matriarchs on how to introduce this new service. Do others of you have experience or thoughts you'd like to share? Please do so in our comment section. We'd like to hear from you!

And, as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, please send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. Great stuff here! To add even more safety and richness to the experience I would 1)definitely have more than one station and invite laypeople with a gift for intercessory prayer/compassion to anoint, not just clergy. I have done healing services with a small group where everyone who chooses is invited to lay hands on those seeking healing, which is tremendously powerful. In a large service the same dynamic is possible by making people welcome, if they choose, to come up with a friend/family member who participates in the laying on of hands. 2) make very clear that people can come for prayer for any kind of healing--emotional, spiritual, etc. as well as physical. 3) Give people permission to share what their issue/need is or not, as their comfort level dictates--this is especially relevant with mental illness, trauma/abuse issues, etc. God knows what their needs are and will meet them regardless of whether the ministers do.

    As someone who has frequently sought and been greatly blessed by healing prayer for emotional issues, including childhood and clergy sexual abuse, I would suggest being very, very careful about follow-up questions, calls, etc. Frankly I would be furious if someone, lay or clergy, brought it up at a future time with me or shared it with anyone else on the pastoral team or other healing stations who hadn't been part of that prayer moment--just as I would if something shared in confession, the other healing sacrament for those of us in sacramental traditions, were. The moment is very sacred and primarily about prayer and the person's encounter with God, not conventional pastoral care. If it's a one time obvious physical issue--operation coming up, or broken leg or such, follow-up might be appropriate.

  2. All this information is really good -- just a couple of thought to add. Included in our healing service is letting folks know that they can come forward and be anointed as they pray for OTHER people, friends and loved ones who are hurting, that it doesn't have to be for personal healing.

    Also, I've found that olive oil (even blessed!) tends to get rancid fairly quickly, so I've gone to using scented or unscented jojoba oil which will not age like olive oil. It is usually found in herb bar type places, or Whole Foods in the cosmetics/body lotion area.

  3. One of the things we did at our first service with anointing was to offer the anointing at the same time as communion. Everyone walked forward to receive the bread and wine. Some chose then to walk past the anointing while others were anointed. Since everyone was coming up at that time, it was less obvious who was choosing to be anointed. It worked well in our setting at least, but it depends a lot on how/when you celebrate communion if it could work for you.

  4. We have been doing a service of healing in the Advent season as close to the longest night of the year that we can. I don't use oil, but I do borrow a kneeler and do the laying on of hands. I got our worship committee's buy-in, and they agreed to come forward in the beginning to help the congregation see that it was nothing weird. Afterwards, we shared communion and lit candles for the dark places in our lives where light needs to shine.

  5. I started a healing and wholeness service in my last congregation. I simply started doing it on the fourth Sunday because I knew there would be flack and it wouldn't happen unless I did it. I didn't salt the congregation. I explained what it was--we weren't going to be doing Benny Hinn (no I didn't say that but explained the Presbyterian perspective on healing). Some folks came forward. One opponent said she still didn't like it, but she could see how moved some were in the service. I used the rubric in our Book of Common Worship.

    If your congregation opposes everything you try, just do it. If not, then some of the suggestions for slowing introducing it are helpful.

  6. common practice here to have anyone desiring anointing with oil for healing [scriptural directive] to cross their arms over their chest at the time they've come forward and celebrated the eucharist. this is too important to relegate to one church season. our need for healing is continual. it's our place to offer it in the scripturally Christian manner. oil is available through order or at your local Bible bookhouse/store. beautifully scented with frankincense & myrhh, it speaks long after the laying on of hands or sign of the cross..
    so glad you're considering this valid & necessary ministry...

  7. We had teams for private prayer and for annointing and also tealights (we made a foil covered display area with a cross in the center) so people could light candles and pray. We had Taize music playing to give those who stayed in the pews another way to pray.

    Our first healing service was on a Sunday evening during Lent. We had done a Lenten series on spiritual practices, so most of what we offered was at least familiar.

    Another congregation I know introduced healing services at a special service right after the last Sunday service. It was a breif time of prayer, worship and annointing. It worked very well to introduce healing services to that congregation


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