The Teaching Elder & the Ministry of Prayer
The Priority & Practice of Praying

Photo Description: GRN Executive Council Members and Dr. Kevin DeYoung pray with and for Jason Helopoulos at the 50th General Assembly in Memphis, Tennessee.

The following post is part of our ‘The Work of the PCA Elder’ series. For the first post in the series, please click here.

Why does Christ give pastors to the Church? He gives pastors to pray. While not their only work – or even the work that occupies most of their time – prayer, like a train locomotive, is pastors’ first work and the work upon which all their other work depends.

The apostles prioritized prayer in their ministry to the church. As the church grew, so did the physical and administrative needs of its members (Acts 6:1). But the apostles understood that these needs, as important as they were, could not be allowed to constrict prayer and preaching (Acts 6:2-4). They ordained deacons to attend to the church’s physical needs, which, in turn, freed them up for devotion to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:3, 7). The office of deacon began, at least in part, to safeguard the priority of prayer, first in the extraordinary ministry of the apostles and then in the ordinary and perpetual ministry of elders.

Our Book of Church Order reflects this biblical priority. Before ordaining a man as a teaching elder, presbyteries examine his “acquaintance with experimental religion,” which should include prayer (BCO 21-4c). During his ordination service, he vows “to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of…duties…private or public,” which include prayer (BCO 21-5, question 7). The Presbytery “solemnly set[s] him apart to the holy office of the Gospel ministry” with prayer (BCO 21-7). And after being ordained, when he finally begins laboring as a teaching elder, what does he do? He prays “with and for the people” (BCO 8-3).

Prayer fills and empowers a biblical pastor’s work. As a teacher, he surrounds his preaching with prayer, just as Paul did in Thessalonica, where the gospel came “not only in word, but also in power” (1 Thess. 1:2-5; 2 Thess. 3:1). As a shepherd, he bathes his instruction and counsel in prayer, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication for all the saints” as they face “spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6:12, 18). And as an example to the flock, he models prayer (1 Ptr. 5:3). Pastors show their people how mature believers pray to God and how Jesus, their Great High Priest, prays for them.

The biblical and constitutional priority of prayer raises some diagnostic questions for pastors. First, do you understand your calling as a teaching elder to be a calling to prayer? Do you believe, with Scripture, that prayer is of the essence of your work, and that all your remaining work depends upon it? Churches and pulpit committees would also do well to ask if their expectations for their minister correspond with this priority.

Second, does a survey of your schedule give evidence that prayer is a priority in your ministry? What quantity and quality of time do you spend praying? How and where and when is prayer prioritized in your public ministry before the saints, in your pastoral visitation and counseling, and in your private intercession and communion with God? Your answer to the second question will help you answer the first. More fundamentally, it will also reveal the extent to which you grasp the spiritual nature of your work. A prayer-saturated ministry shows that verses like “our help is in the name of the LORD,” and “you must be born again,” and “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood” are not merely religious phrases from an ancient book, but the food, the water, the air, and the very life of your ministry (Ps. 124:8; Jn. 3:3, 7; Eph. 6:12).

Given the priority of prayer, how then should teaching elders practice prayer? The Book of Church Order helpfully summarizes this aspect of our work when it says, “They should pray with and for the people” (BCO 8-3). Jesus prayed with His disciples (Matt. 6:5-15; 26:27) and for His disciples (Lk. 22:31-32). He prayed for them in their presence (Jn. 17:1), and He prayed for them in private (Lk. 6:12; Matt. 14:23; 26:36-46). The apostles did the same, praying with the church (Acts 20:36) and for the church (Rom. 1:9-10; Eph. 1:16; Phil. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 1:3). Following the examples of Christ and the apostles, ministers pray with and for the church in public and in private.

Every week begins with public prayer with and for the people of God. In Lord’s Day worship, the minister “lead[s] the people [in prayer], humbly adoring the infinite majesty of the living God” (BCO 52-1). In addition to an entire chapter on public prayer (BCO 52), our Directory for Worship attaches prayer to myriad public pastoral duties including the preaching of the Word (BCO 53-3), the worship of God by offerings (BCO 54-3), the administration of baptism (BCO 56-6), the admission of persons to sealing ordinances (BCO 57-5), the administration of the Lord’s Supper (BCO 58-5, 7), the solemnization of marriage (BCO 59-2), the visitation of the sick (BCO 60-1), and the burial of the dead (BCO 61-1). From pulpits to gravesides, from prayer meetings to hospital beds, we pray for our people in the presence of our people. Their names and needs flow from our mouths, through their ears, and up to our Savior’s heart.

But we don’t stop praying for our people when we leave their presence. Rather, following Christ’s example and instruction, we also pray for them in secret, daily devoting substantial amounts of quality time to seek God on their behalf. While all elders, both ruling and teaching, are called to pray, teaching elders have a unique opportunity and responsibility for this work. The church provides their “competent worldly maintenance” so that they can devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (BCO 21-10, question 4). Many Christians would love more time to seek their Savior in prayer. In his love for pastors, Christ has made prayer our calling and duty.

Some pastors may find, as I have, that it is one thing to understand the priority of prayer in the ministry and another thing to put that priority into practice. In closing, consider three practical encouragements for your ministry of prayer. First, devote specific blocks of time to secret prayer for your people. You are not neglecting your work if you shut your study door, refuse to schedule meetings or visits, and put down your books for an hour each day in order to seek the Lord in prayer. You are doing your job.

Second, pray specifically for your ministry and your people. Use Bible texts to pray for your praying (Pr. 8:17; Acts 6:4), preaching (1 Thess. 1:5), and example (1 Tim. 4:12, 16). Pray for your people by name, perhaps systematically through your church roll.

Finally, remember what you are doing in prayer. When you pray, you are coming before God. He is the One whom angels praise, the Most High, the Ancient of Days, the fear of Isaac, the LORD of hosts. And wonder of wonders, He welcomes you near, with Christ at His right hand and His Spirit in your breast, and says to you, “My son, give Me your heart. Cast all your cares at My feet.”

May God bless His church far more abundantly than we could ask or think by calling, empowering, and answering prayerful pastors (Eph. 3:20).