Visit our new site at

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ask the Matriarch: Writing Prayers

Prayer Bells

Today’s question comes from a pastor who writes her own prayers. One of her questions is about working with someone who may not share the same theology and assumptions about prayer. She also would like to hear from others who write their own prayers.

Dear matriarchs, 

I am an intern-minister at a small congregation in Vancouver Island in Canada.
I've recently found out that when I write prayers myself for each Sunday worship, especially Call to Worship and Opening Prayer (or Prayer of the Day), it can really touch people's heart and communicate something greater than when I borrow someone else's very well-done prayers. 

I think it may be mainly because my own prayer contains the element of locality, the congregation's emerging issue and the day or the week's concerns and shows a kind of common spiritual culture or landscape we share as a congregation.

English is my second language, so I am helped by a congregant's volunteer in editing. Sometimes I find that she may misunderstand and may not always fully reflect what I originally intended to say. Her understanding of prayers may be different from mine, and so our theologies are. But I begin to be convinced, nevertheless, that I receive and share great benefits if I keep writing my own prayers for each Sunday worship service. I got very good responses, sometimes. I am very glad to discover that this practice is very rewarding and great. It helps me redefine and refine my spirituality, theology and languages; but at the same time it does take time, leading me to wrestle with languages, of course more time than native English speakers would need.

I'd like to ask seasoned ministers and worship leaders who write prayers for each Sunday worship about what is the greatest strength they have found with this practice and about whether they would recommend this practice, no matter what. If yes, then I'd really like to hear why.  

Dear matriarchs, would you like to help me to get some responses from this wonderful circle of sharing wisdom. 


Several matriarchs responded that they didn't have advice this time because they don’t often write their own prayers for public worship.  Here are two thoughtful responses from RevGal matriarchs who offer encouragement from their experience in writing worship prayers.  

Rev. Red offers this advice:

Your questions have taken me on a journey back to the beginning of my pastoral ministry.  One of my fears as I started out was that my prayers would not be "good enough".  Some weeks I spent more time writing my prayers than I spent on my sermon.Writing the prayers also helps me focus my sermon when I was having a hard time developing it's thesis.  The result was and has been that my prayers have ended up being a strong part of my ministry.  I often have people, both men and women, comment that my prayers touch them because of the language and images they use as well as their relevance to the current moment. I no longer spend as long writing my own prayers and other liturgical elements as I did at the beginning of my ministry, but the time spent then helps me today. I have both overcome my fear and also built a strong spiritual base and language for those times when I am asked to pray with little or no advance notice.   I believe that writing our own prayers and liturgy do help us to reflect theologically and frame the whole worship service with them.  I hope that you will continue to take time to write prayers and liturgy.  I know that it will bless you both now and in the future.

Shalom,  Rev Red

Jennifer also writes her own prayers:

Good for you for adopting the practice and the discipline of writing prayers and having them translated!  That’s amazing and wonderful! What a gift to your congregation!  To be sure, it is also a time-consuming process, and it sounds like it’s worth it.

It sounds like your translator may be offering some interpretation in addition to translating. I wonder if that’s a conversation to have with your volunteer. It may lead to a closer translation and to the intended words.

I’m a writer of my own prayers, too, and I encourage others, when they are joining in worship leadership to consider writing or praying their own prayers. I think there’s something special about hearing an authentic voice, and as you mention, the references to what’s going on in a community’s life.
Would I recommend it? Of course!!  Would I recommend it, no matter what?  I think the next best thing is to adapt the prayer of another, still striving to offer words that seem natural and authentic from the one leading the prayer. I’d be sure to give credit for such in the bulletin.

Whatever your practice around prayers and liturgy, I’m sure that the practice of preaching in a second language is arduous, too. May it all continue to go well for you and the congregation you serve.


Thank you, Rev Red and Jennifer!

Do you write your own prayers?  What advice can you offer the rest of us who might like to?

And, do you have any experience with “mistranslation” or unfortunate editing?

Please let us hear from you in the comments!


  1. One of my seminary professors commented once that you can learn so much about a person's theology from her prayers -- so true! In seminary I saw that many people always begin with the words "Father God" (not something heard in my home church). I almost always begin with words that address God in some way related to God as creator of the universe or as one active in relationship with us.

    I do write the Call to Worship and Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon most weeks (although I have also found via Textweek a couple of liturgists of whose work I am very fond), and the Pastoral Prayer every week. I tend to base the first two on the lectionary passages we aren't reading before the sermon -- the psalms tend to turn themselves into calls to worship, and the letters of Paul are an excellent springboard for confessions and pardons -- but the other passages usually work as well.

    I try to follow one of my professor's words of advice: Don't use the pastoral prayer to work in what you forgot or didn't have room for in the sermon.

    But no matter what I am using, I think that my emphasis on God's mercy and our belovedness, and on the need for us to be attentive to the needs to the world and the call for God's justice for the beleaguered and oppressed always comes though.

    The "editing" for me tends to come in the form of the time just before the pastoral prayer, when people state aloud their own joys and concerns, which I then incorporate into the already-prepared prayer. There is one person whose theology differs considerably from mine and I have to work hard to include her concerns without her language, which tends to be of the "sheep and goats" variety.

    1. Oh Robin, I can so resonate with this -- I grew up in a venue where the sermon was all scolding, and the pastoral prayer was the scolding inadvertently omitted from the sermon...kind of soured me on both, for a long time!

  2. I lead worship (and preach) in my second language as well. (French) I'm in a non-liturgical church (baptist) so I write pretty much all my prayers (though I have been known to slip in something from the liturgy - shhh don't tell anyone). I'd really encourage you to keep going with this, and keep working on the language. Simplicity is a great asset in public prayer, and I've had comments that people like what I do because they understand all of it. (I was really pleased when one of our teens told his Gran that he'd come with her because "Alison's preaching so I know I'll understand what she's talking about.") Try reading poetry in English, and paying attention the rhythms and structure. Also read the Psalms outloud for yourself in good contemporary translations. And try not to get intimidated by people who want language from the pulpit to be "fancy", because often "fancy" is a barrier to understanding.

  3. I am from a liturgical tradition that allows us to write our own prayers or use pre-written. I tend to split the difference--because writing prayers is tough! I almost always base the call to worship on the psalm, and sometimes use pre-written confessions from the book of worship, especially if they work for the liturgy of the day. I always write my own pastoral prayer. Sometimes I write all of them!

    When I was first starting out in writing things, I learned by starting with prayers others had written, and editing those to work with the week's liturgy. Liturgical language has a bit of a rhythm to it, so starting with other people's words (just so long as you pick other people who are good) was a nice way to start. (you just recognize that writer or book as "adapted from" in the bulletin) Over time, I was editing more words than I was keeping and I was able to kick off the training wheels!

    Good luck to you, and keep with it!

  4. I am from a tradition that encourages use of pre-written prayers and liturgy (and provides in a variety of ways), and also allows for and encourages one to write one's own prayers.

    I have done both with regard to the call to worship, prayer of confessional, and pastoral prayer (or prayers of the people). In recent years, I have pray spontaneously for the pastoral prayer, using images and ideas from the sermon and joys and concerns expressed by folks in the congregation. Recently I have spent more time writing the call to worship and confession, and will begin to do so with pastoral prayer.

    I am of mixed feeling about using pre-written materials. Often I love the language as it is more expressive and eloquent that I am, but I have encountered those who appreciate the "plain" words I use.

    Which I do depends on two things: 1) how much time I have ;-0
    and 2) often I can't find things that fit with where I'm going with the sermon.

  5. Like many others here, I usually use the Psalm to create a Call to Worship. I often use a pre-written Prayer of Confession, which I simplify, so it can be read in unison easily.

    But I wanted to pass along the most helpful advice I know about doing "Prayers of the People". If you write them out ahead of time, you can edit them which is important. Strike out every use of "we pray for". You are already praying. You don't need to say that.

    Begin each sentence with a strong verb. I have actually created lists of good verbs for different kinds of prayer. Praise verbs. Thanksgiving verbs. (Confession is covered in a separate prayer) The most difficult ones, in my opinion are the prayers of intercession or petition -- because they often come from within the congregation that day -- usually for people who are ill. So to add these prayers in the moment (which is important to people), I like to have other strong verbs in mind. For example:

    build up

    bring solace to
    ease suffering of


    You can create your own list and add to it over time.

    Public prayer has been a powerful part of my ministry. I think you will reap great rewards from your focus on this now! Blessings on your efforts!

    1. Wonderful list and what a great idea. I'm going to start my own collection forthwith !

  6. As a female Catholic priest I come from from a liturgical tradition with copious pre-written prayers--most beautiful in essence and theology but phrased in severe sexist language, i.e. for humans as well as God, and occasional theological issues. And I serve people on the spectrum from moderate (fine with Father God but not mankind) to progressive (want some Mothers in for balance too) to radical (add Sophia to the mix, and delete all or most Lords even for Jesus). So I do a lot of altering prayers, with simple changes made verbally and more comprehensive ones in writing--whether for a particular litugy program or in my series of Sophia prayer books reclaiming the psalms, morning and evening prayer, scripture passages and rosary. (For the record, I am fine with Lord for Jesus though not 24-7!) For most liturgies I go for balance of feminine and masculine God language and lots of creative diverse images "Lover, Beloved, Spirit of Love" etc., though I especially enjoy communities which request all feminine, and whenever my daughter and I pray or speak of God at home we use feminine to balance out the pain we both feel in church at overhwelming masculinity of pretty much all liturgies even led by female pastors (who generally inclusivize only by adding in some neutral language with leaves lots of masculine in scriptures and hymns even if not their own composed words).


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.