Note: This case study is excerpted from our resource Meaningful Prayer in Small Groups, which is a Training Theme. Training Themes can easily be used to create a one-day training event for training small-group leaders and always contain two case studies.
It was the beginning of a new year of women's Bible study, and I was excited. We had a great study guide, great leaders, and great enrollment. What could go wrong?
Then Beth, a woman new to our church, took me aside one Sunday morning. "Pat, I'm excited about being in the Bible study, but I just wanted to let you know in advance that I don't pray out loud. Please don't ask me to and please don't call on me to pray. I just don't do that."
Her look and tone of voice told me not even to try to change her mind. It was already set in concrete. I smiled and assured her there was no pressure. I told her I wanted her to be comfortable, and I was sure that she would be just fine in the group. Inside, I wasn't so sure.
I wasn't sure how to handle the situation. I wasn't even sure if it was a major issue or a minor issue. So I prayed—for her, for me, and for the group. I was concerned that if she maintained this stance, it could affect both her growth and the group's cohesion. It probably wouldn't be critical in the beginning, but it could eventually create a rift—maybe not a huge one, but certainly a crack. And I sensed that Beth would miss out on something important.
What would you do?
- Would you just let it go and hope that eventually the group member would come around?
- Would you set aside a small-group meeting to teach on group prayer?
- Would you try to manipulate the environment so group members wouldn't have a choice about praying aloud?
I realized as I prayed and talked with other leaders that this issue is not unique to Beth. There are several reasons why people don't pray out loud in a group.
- Some have no experience with it. This is especially true of new Christians and those from a religious tradition that doesn't include audible prayer or conversational prayer.
- Some find it scary. To hear their own voices talking to the God of the universe may feel presumptuous.
- Some feel intimidated. They're certain that they aren't eloquent enough to pray with those who are more experienced. This is especially true if they've been in a group where someone prayed in perfect King James English or if there are wide educational, language, or cultural differences in the group.
- Some people are just naturally shy. They not only don't pray aloud; they do everything they can to avoid speaking in a group.
Based on my assessment, I took several courses of action that I hoped would avoid discomfort for everyone.
- I assigned Beth to my small group. We had a large Bible study with several smaller breakout groups, and Beth was assigned to my breakout group. I decided that because I was the teaching leader, I should tackle this problem rather than delegate Beth to another leader. At this point, I had the most invested in her growth.
- I let everyone know that they were under no compulsion to pray aloud. Before the prayer times in my first few meetings, I casually mentioned that I understood that not everyone was comfortable with praying audibly. I affirmed that silent prayers are as effective as audible prayers, but encouraged members to join in as they felt comfortable.
- I encouraged short sentence prayers. Just in case the long-winded prayers of others might intimidate Beth, I encouraged group members to keep prayers brief and to the point, even offering them a sentence to finish such as "Lord, I thank you for …" (This helped keep the group on time as well!)
- I encouraged conversational prayer. While some people are comfortable praying in King James English, others are terrified of making a mistake or not sounding spiritual enough. Since I knew that I also had a woman in my group who always prayed in a formal, stilted tone, my co-leader and I decided to break the pattern by being contemporary, conversational, and even familiar as we prayed. I made sure to model prayers that reflected my honest feelings. When I was angry, I didn't minimize my feelings by telling God I was "bothered" or a "little concerned." I told him how furious I was. I found that being real was an encouragement to the entire group, especially Beth.
- I formed smaller groups for prayer. After Beth had become comfortable with the group, we would occasionally break into groups of three for prayer. I would let people choose their own partners or I would partner Beth with the people she was closest to. I hoped it would be easier for her to break the silence with just a couple of close friends rather than the whole group.
- I avoided going around the circle for prayer. I knew Beth would spend the entire time in terror, counting the number of people until it was her turn. And the person after her, knowing of her reluctance, wouldn't know whether to wait or to rescue her. Anytime it looked as if members were "praying around the circle," my co-leader or I would jump in and upset the pattern.
- I never called on Beth to open or close in prayer. I would either ask for volunteers or simply invite another member to do this.
During the year, I practiced these strategies while never making Beth feel out of place or odd. By Christmas, she was venturing a short prayer from time to time, and by spring she had become so confident that we invited her to become a co-leader for the following year. I was glad that I hadn't just ignored the problem, hoping it would get better. By following a deliberate strategy, I was able to mentor Beth into a new level of maturity.
—Pat J. Sikora is founder of Mighty Oak Ministries and author of Why Didn't You Warn Me? How to Deal with Challenging Group Members. Copyright 2011 by Christianity Today International.
- When have you encountered a reluctant pray-er? What did you do about it?
- What might the reluctant pray-er be missing out on by not praying aloud?
- What are some things you can do in your small group to make praying aloud more comfortable for all your group members?