"The Most Important Part of a Minister's Life"

Pastors usually have lots of responsibilities. There are people to be visited, sermons to prepared, events to be organised, meetings to be chaired, finances and charity compliance to administered, and lots, lots more. And in the midst of all that we want — or need — our pastors to do, it can be easy to forget that a vital aspect of his calling is something we don't see at all. 

When the first deacons were installed in the early church, part of the reason was so that the apostles could devote themselves “continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). This is the heart of the ministry of those set apart as ministers in Christ’s church: the word and prayer. But, in the Scripture itself here, it’s prayer which comes first. To be a minister of God’s Word, the pastor must first and foremost be a man of prayer. 

And throughout the ages, that’s what great pastors have been: men of prayer. Martin Luther said he had so much work to do that he had to spend at least the first three hours of every day in prayer to be able to get it all done. Lancelot Andrewes spent five hours a day in prayer, and at the same time was a beloved and effective bishop, preached to monarchs, and oversaw the the translation of the Authorised Version of the Bible. John Wesley got up at 4am every morning to spend the first four hours of the day in uninterrupted prayer. In his later years he would spend eight hours a day praying. That was’t even unique: many of the great church fathers lived a monastic life, which involved eight hours every day set aside for prayer. 

But these aren’t just unusual stories of unusual men of the past. These just happen to be men whom God used in such ways that details of their lives of prayer have been recorded for us. Yet, when we compare them to what we know of other ministers in the past, the details of their prayer lives don’t appear quite so unusual at all.

A century ago, as the Pentecostal movement was spreading round the world, a Scottish pastor by the name of William Cathcart took up the responsibility of training ministers in Australia for the Apostolic Church. And one of the most significant lessons Ps Cathcart taught them was that prayer is “the most important part of a minister's life.” Only through prayer can a minister accomplish anything at all. “The more work there is to do the more prayer is required.” If we cease to pray in order to speed up our work, Cathcart taught, “then we cease to have results. Days, weeks, months of effort are then irretrievably lost” — whether we realise it or not! In fact, for a minister to fail to give prayer its proper place would be “gross negligence on the part of God’s servants.”

Public prayer will always be an important part of a pastor’s ministry, but its specifically private prayer which Cathcart calls “the most important part of a Minister’s life.” And as it is so important, Cathcart helpfully gave his students some advice:

Private prayers should begin with ourselves in the sight of God. To enter into God’s presence on the merits of Christ alone and to confess before God our own unworthiness or any sins, faults or mistakes, is as essential as it is necessary. We must have a clear conscience before God about ourselves before we can pray for others. Having confessed we must believe that He has heard and forgiven, then we pray about our own personal future for grace and strength to avoid failures as much as possible. It is well to remember the work of God in general beginning with other Assemblies and Ministers and members who particularly need prayer. We get into a deeper place of prayer as we pray for others. The work of the Lord must be borne upon our heart and shoulders into the presence of the Lord. This will bring a flow of prayer and prayer will spend itself once the burden of prayer has been prayed off before the Lord. Private prayer is the place to pray about ministry and about messages and delivery and leadings and ministering, or about gifts and callings or anything that the Spirit of God particularly lays upon us as a burden. 

Such prayer demands time. And so, he taught his students that a pastor must set aside some hours each day for this type of prayer:

An hour a day of this type of prayer is a bare minimum, two hours is little enough, three hours is better.

Time in private prayer is also vital before preaching the Word:

Then it is always best to pray some time prior to public ministry in preaching. A message that has been received by prayer should also be delivered in the power of prayer. Often good messages are spoiled for lack of prayer rather than lack of preparation. 

Likewise, it is essential, Cathcart taught, before presiding at the Lord’s Table:

It is as good as useless [for the minister] to come to a Communion service without the preparation of heart and mind ... Every called out man should be up early on the first day of the week to seek preparation in prayer and meditation.

This prayerful preparation before presiding at the Breaking of Bread should normally include fasting from some time the night before until receiving Communion. But even when circumstances don’t allow for extended prayer or fasting before a Breaking of Bread service, Cathcart urged his students that the minister still “should see that he has at least an hour or even more, before the Lord.”

The ministry of Word and Sacrament — and all public ministry and pastoral care — must be steeped in private prayer. “Ministers must get alone with God.”