Shaping the Pastoral Prayer

A Short Primer on How to Pray in Worship

Forces have been working against the pastoral prayer for quite some time, and these attacks come from across the liturgical spectrum.

Take, for instance, the style of worship in many congregations that consider themselves contemporary or modern. In many of those settings, the lead pastors simply do not pray at all. They may come to the stage after the worship leader guides the congregational singing, following announcements made by another staff member. The first words the pastor speaks are the introduction to the sermon. Most often, if there is any intercessory prayer at all, that moment is led by another member of the staff, perhaps even by a layperson who is the congregation’s worship leader. If the pastor prays at all in a contemporary or modern service, it is usually limited to brief moments prior to and following the sermon.

Then there are congregations with more sacramental sensibilities. In many of these services, what once was the pastoral prayer has moved to a version of “Prayers of the People.” These prayers are a great way to involve laity in various aspects of the liturgy, inviting a variety of voices to lead the congregation in a time of intercession. Indeed, the involvement of readers and liturgists is a welcome change, helping many congregations move away from pastor-driven services that leave all spoken and embodied leadership to a single ordained person. But that leaves the pastor’s role as one who prays somewhat up in the air.

Of course there are many congregations for which the pastor is still the main leader of prayer. But even in these settings—sometimes, but not always, in services called “traditional”—cultural pressures are working against the pastoral prayer. We might blame the perceived problem of shortened attention spans, or we could point to the rise of broadcast services that emphasize singing and preaching. Nonetheless, the days of long pastoral prayers are nearly over, and COVID-shortened services—whether in person or online—have only exacerbated a trend toward shorter prayers that was already in motion prior to the pandemic.

Given all these pressures, how should pastors prepare to pray? How should they lead congregations in a weekly moment that includes confession, petition, and intercession? How can they take seriously the priestly aspect of their office, offering up the concerns of the people as a gift to the Lord? How does all this happen when time is short? This article will answer some of those questions, which also apply to any person—lay or clergy—who is charged with leading prayers that are both meaningful and worshipful, heartfelt as well as insightful.


The Collect

Thankfully, the church has long used a form of prayer that is both theologically rich and succinct, thus meeting the needs of worship planners who are short on time. The collect (pronounced KAH-lekt, not kah-LEKT), as its spelling implies, is a structure that allows the pastor to gather up and offer to God the needs of a congregation. Learning the five moves of the collect can help a leader pray faithfully on behalf of the people.

The collect does its work in five pieces:

  1. Address
  2. Remembrance
  3. Petition
  4. Result
  5. Closing

Each of these five moves can be lengthened or shortened depending on the occasion, the format of service, or even the vocal style of the one offering the prayer. The first and the last components—that is, the address and the closing—are easy enough to grasp. Most people know how to form these parts instinctively. Open the prayer by addressing and naming God in some way: “Almighty Father,” or “Gracious God,” or “Lord Jesus Christ,” or “Come, Holy Spirit.” Finish with something like “In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” The three middle pieces might require a bit more shaping, but it is there that the leader collects and synthesizes the essential aspects of a prayer: attributes of God as revealed in Scripture, the cares and concerns of the people, and the hoped-for outcomes of an eschatological community.



Flowing from the opening address to God, the second part of the collect invites us to remember something about God that is revealed in the Old and New Testaments. These moments of remembrance can take multiple forms, including an aspect of God’s nature, a past action of God’s faithfulness, or perhaps a reminder of one of God’s covenant promises. This part of the prayer invites the one praying to gather meaningful descriptions of God from the Scriptures. Hopefully there is at least one scriptural theme in the day’s service that can serve as an anchor for this move of remembrance. Consider using one of the following pieces of the liturgy: the primary Scripture text for the sermon, a verse given as a call to worship, a section of the psalter said or sung as a congregation, or a lyric from a hymn or chorus.

Throughout the remainder of this article, I am going to imagine a worship service based on Mark 6:45–52, in which Jesus walks across the Sea of Galilee. Let’s imagine that the preacher’s sermon topic focuses on verse 50: “Take courage! It is I.” A move of remembrance in that day’s prayer could go something like this:

Holy God, you created the cosmos by speaking your Word, a Word of order and peace. Likewise, your Son, Jesus Christ, spoke words of peace to his disciples in the midst of a storm . . .

By including a move of remembrance to a prayer, the congregation leader is doing more than adding a memorable allusion to the sermon or Scripture reading. Instead, an even deeper work is taking place. Remembering is a fundamental aspect of worship, and our forebears, especially those who were more attuned to the Greek language, talked about the anamnetic aspect of liturgy. All worship should be deeply rooted in the act of remembering, especially when it comes to the Spirit-filled work of God in Christ. Naming a specific instance of God’s work in the Scriptures therefore allows a congregation to fulfill this historic and deeply spiritual aspect of corporate remembering.



This third piece of the collect is when the one praying gathers the needs of the congregation. This can be adjusted to meet many different contexts. The traditional collect form contains just one petition, usually worded in a general way that will apply to everyone in the congregation. If there is only a short amount of time available, then one short petition may be all you can work in, perhaps along these lines:

  • "Prepare us to worship you and hear your Word proclaimed."
  • "Keep us from evil intentions and unjust acts."
  • "Protect us from the attacks of enemies, either spiritual or physical."

A longer time for prayer, however, would allow the congregation to lift up several needs of the congregation and concerns of the wider community. If a church is small enough to take prayer requests directly from the congregation during the service, this is the time to weave those circumstances into the prayer, including, when appropriate, the names of those involved.

If listing specific prayer requests is impractical or impossible, consider arranging your petitions into broader categories, moving from congregational needs to those in the community, nation, and world—or the opposite direction. You could pray something like this:

Let us pray for . . .

. . . all those in our congregation who suffer illness.

. . . everyone in our local community who is hungry.

. . . those who are grieving.

. . . our government leaders—local, state, and national.

. . . our world, especially victims of famine, floods, and other natural disasters.

The person praying may find it appropriate to pause for a significant time of silence after each category, thus allowing the members of the congregation to pray, silently or aloud, for specific persons or circumstances.

Following this pattern of prayer for the service based on Mark 9, I might offer up a petition that goes something like this:

Speak to us today in the midst of chaotic circumstances and the storms of this life that rage around us. . . .



The fourth move of the collect form invites the worshiping community to imagine a better outcome than the current circumstances might hint at. Sometimes this move is called the “so that” sentence because it uses those words (or some form of them) to envision a Scripture-inspired future. This is the part of the prayer in which the one praying paints a picture of the not-yet-revealed eschaton. Many of us are not used to praying in this way, so it might require a bit of work to form a scriptural imagination that can name some of these outcomes. Some passages of Scripture that provide language for praying in a “so that” way are:

Isaiah 40: The very landscape of the earth—mountains and valleys—will be moved to make a way for the Lord.

Isaiah 60: People will flock to the city of the Lord, and God’s own self will be the light of their inspiration.

1 Corinthians 15: The dead will rise and meet the resurrected Christ, who is himself the firstfruits of the dead.

Revelation 4–5: The living creatures and the elders lead an eternal worship service for people of every tribe, language, people, and nation.

Revelation 21: A new heaven and a new earth, as well as a new Jerusalem, will become the home for those who are raised in Christ.

Many other passages could be added to this list; there are numerous chapters and verses that remind us of God’s promises to renew creation and establish the kingdom of God in our midst.

A potential envisioning move for our Mark 9 prayer could be something like:

. . . so that, living or dying, our eyes of faith might be fixed on our Savior and Redeemer, who was raised from the dead by you, almighty God . . .


Making It Your Own

Collects have been prayed in countless settings for hundreds of years. While they are most frequently used in prayer book traditions, there is no reason why this pattern cannot be a model for any style of worship. Even in the most free-form service, where extemporized prayer is the expectation, these five moves can provide the building blocks to make your pastoral prayer faithful and meaningful.

Even if the collect form does not suit you, its principles will help you design and lead prayers that better connect the desires of the people with the nature and attributes of God as revealed in Scripture.

For the sake of seeing it all in one place, here is a full prayer based on Mark’s account of Jesus walking on the water:

Holy God, you created the cosmos by speaking your Word, a Word of order and peace. Likewise, your Son, Jesus Christ, spoke words of peace to his disciples in the midst of a storm. Speak to us today in the midst of chaotic circumstances and the storms of this life that rage around us so that, living or dying, our eyes of faith might be fixed on our Savior and Redeemer, who was raised from the dead by you, almighty God. We pray in his name and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Glenn Stallsmith is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and pastors two churches near Oxford, North Carolina. He is currently working on a doctor of theology degree at Duke Divinity School, where he is researching the role of prayer in worship.

Reformed Worship 143 © March 2022, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.