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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ask the Matriarch - Creating a Prayer Vigil

As clergy, it is our privilege to enter into some of the most difficult moments in a person's life and be present with them in grace and hope. Those of us serving congregations have the awesome responsibility of helping congregations move into those moments together as well. Our question this week comes from a minister who has been asked to create a prayer vigil for a dying member.

A long term member of my congregation who has been fighting cancer for the past 6 months has just been told that the cancer has spread and that further treatment will be palliative.  We are a tiny congregation, and very close and some members have asked that we hold a prayer vigil for her.  Of course, I said yes, but being from a strongly liturgical tradition, I have no idea how to put this together.  I don't want to hold out false hope, yet on the other hand, I don't want to make it a pre- funeral.  I'd be grateful for any ideas.

Jennifer responds:
It’s such a hard thing when anyone is given a prognosis that difficult and with a short amount of time attached to it. I feel sure that you, as her sensitive pastor, have asked your church member’s (the patient’s) permission to hold such a prayer vigil for her.
Will she be in attendance at this service? Does she have family who will be in attendance?
What is your theology around such services and the prayers they contain?  Will you be praying for comfort and strength and peace, for a miracle (what might that means?) healing (and if so, what do you mean by healing? What does your tradition say about such?). These are interesting questions and can certainly contribute to how you shape a service.

You’ve asked for an outline for a service, perhaps.   
Would it include music and hymns?
Would it include scripture and a time of prayer for anyone who has a need, in addition to your member around whom this is centered? (This is a good practice, so that you don’t get into a scuffle about a prayer vigil for person x but not person y.  
I think that all are appropriate, along with a time for silent prayer.

It occurs to me that now is the time to have some good conversation with those who are asking for the service to be held. What would provide them and others in the congregation with comfort and peace?  What do they sense is the purpose of the service?

I hope I haven’t made this seem overly complicated. I think the intention of your congregation members is lovely—and a prayer service can be a wonderful well from which to draw strength and assurance at a dreadfully difficult time. Put together with sensitivity toward your patient and toward your congregation, I think you can provide a safe liturgical space in which people can lament, and thoughtfully consider the power of God’s love even (especially) in the midst of suffering.

Best to you as you seek to strengthen and comfort God’s people in your midst.

Heidi offers:
Jennifer's response includes the majority of significant questions around your issue.  I just have one more.  The congregation wants to respond to what has happened to their loved one.  Are the individuals making the request, asking out of their desire to "do" something or are they feeling a need to gather in prayer around this person?  I know that may sound harsh, but so often these kinds of requests happen in part because in the face of pain and brokenness, we want to try and make things better.  Being in conversation with the member will help you honor not only her feelings but those of the congregation.  After discussing it with the person at the center of things, you may find that a prayer vigil isn't what is needed most at this time.

And Muthah+ adds:
I too come from a strongly liturgical tradition.  The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has a litany for the dying that I have found very helpful over the years.  

Thank you, dear matriarchs, for these good responses. Are there others of you who have experience or wisdom to share? Please join our conversation in the comments section. And, as always, please send your questions for us to discuss to askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com. The queue is empty; we'd love to have your questions!

This is my last column as co-editor of Ask the Matriarch. I am stepping down due to increasing demands on my time from my own ministry and studies, but I will look forward to continuing to serve as a matriarch. I have so enjoyed these last four years of serving as co-editor. For most of that time, I was working alongside revhoney, to whom I remain grateful; Martha Spong also provided tremendous support and help along the way. The matriarchs themselves are an exceptional group to work with. Thank you, dear women all, for your selfless service to this community of sisters. 


  1. Thanks you, earthchick! You're the best!

    1. Aw, thanks, Jennifer! And thank you for your wise and faithful responses all these years!

  2. Many thanks, Earthchick!!

    Agree with the need to watch for "setting a precedent."

  3. Thanks for all you do for us and with us, Earthchick!

    About the prayer vigil, I like the idea of clarifying the purpose (need being met) of the people asking for this. As others have said, that may help to clarify what is actually needed.

    I think it's healthy that they are asking for something, even if they don't know what it is yet, instead of keeping their pain or lostness to themselves.

  4. Thanks, Earthchick, for your wisdom.

    Agree with consulting the individual at the center.

  5. I use the Methodist liturgy from my pocket prayer book (at the moment it's in my desk at the hospital). I would ask the patient, though, to be sure it's something they are comfortable with doing or having done.

  6. Thanks, all, for the good comments and the nice words! :)


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