They Don’t Teach That in Seminary: 99 Prayers You Need

Post Author: Rev. Rachel Johnson

“They don’t teach that in seminary.” A minister’s whole career could be summed up with that sentence. Seminary fills a person with a lot of knowledge. But somewhere between eschatology and soteriology, the Nicene Creed and the Barmen Declaration, aspiring ministers aren’t taught what to do when a market crash wipes out a church’s savings or a tragedy brings reporters camped out on the sidewalk. Enter 99 Prayers Your Church Needs [But Doesn’t Know it Yet].

This thin but weighty book of prayers composed by Bethany Fellows covers all manner of unexpected and yet thoroughly plausible situations that a minister and congregation may face in their shared lives together – everything from a pastor waking up too sick to come in on Sunday, to a congregation deciding whether to become welcoming and affirming, to a family welcoming a foster child. As communities committed to walking alongside each other through every season of life, we want to mark significant occasions. But too often we are like the Apostle Paul, not knowing how to pray as we ought.

We all know the moments that call for prayer: baby dedications and baptisms, budget meetings and, of course, before any meal with a pastor in attendance. But what do you say when a community member is being deported? How do you come up with words when your pastor is being deployed as a chaplain? What words can appropriately convey gratitude for a major donor gift without sounding uncouth?

It is easy to assume that as long as a prayer is expressed from the heart, our words can never be wrong. But too many of us have suffered through cringe-worthy prayers to know this is not always true. We want to honor the spirit in which all prayers are offered, but if we are intentional in reflecting theologically on what to say at the graveside of a beloved congregation member, shouldn’t we bring the same care to acknowledging the loss that comes when a church staff member is fired? 99 Prayers is an invaluable tool for ministers and congregations caught in situations they never expected and never prepared for. 

More than simply a roadmap for navigating the complexities of life, the authors of these prayers are offering up a new way of being in community. This book envisions a church that our world so desperately needs right now: communities equipped to hold all that is fragile and beautiful and broken and wonderful in life – in short, all that is messy about being a human in the world. At a time when the church is increasingly viewed as an irrelevant entity, detached from the lives of too many people, 99 Prayers has the audacity to say that God’s people have a word to share when social services unexpectedly becomes involved with a family in the congregation or the pastor goes through a divorce.

Rather than church being a place where we have to present ourselves in our “Sunday best” –  cleaned up, fully put together, without flaw or heartache – the contributors of this book envision communities of God’s people who love each other exactly as we are (and just as God loves us). Pastors may go on maternity leave. Congregations can be touched by suicide. Staff may break the trust of their community ethically or criminally. In too many churches, when this happens it gets swept under the rug. We don’t talk about the uncomfortable or the sordid. Feelings of shame and guilt don’t go well with the perfect picture of worshipers serenely praying on the church homepage. Any wonder why one of the top reasons people give for leaving church is the institution’s hypocrisy?

99 Prayers Your Church Needs [But Doesn’t Know it Yet] casts a new vision for what the church can be. It recognizes that while the church may be the body of Christ on earth, it is still a human institution made up of flawed beings. People have tremendous capacity for love and generosity and kindness. We also succumb to fear, greed, and the frailty of our world. What if rather than ignoring this, church could become the place where the complexities of life are named, where the sacred is honored, and the broken is blessed?

We may not know it yet, but that is exactly the church our world needs.

Rachel Johnson is an ordained Baptist minister who has spent her career working at the intersection of faith and the public sphere. She currently serves as Executive Minister of Communications at The Riverside Church in New York. Rachel holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a MAR in Theology from Yale Divinity School. For over six years she served as Campaigns Director with Eleison, LLC, a leading faith and values consulting firm dedicated to aligning what is right with what works.

Rachel has worked with churches, non-profits, denominational groups, and political organizations to develop strategic outreach campaigns on a wide range of issues, including creation care and climate change, nuclear security, human rights, international development and peace building, domestic poverty, healthcare, and the intersection of faith in the public sphere.

Image by: Chalice Press
Used with permission
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