The Essential Guide to Praying in a Circle

JOHN LOCHER/REVIEW-JOURNAL UNLV football players hold hands during a prayer circle after practice in Ely Nev. Aug. 13, 2007.

Last post, I shared one of my many embarrassing prayer stories. It was basically an example of what not to do. Today, I want to be more helpful. I’ll give you a step-by-step guide to the most important type of public prayer: the group circle.

 

Basics

The hallmark of prayer circles is informality. A group of people–usually guys–gather around and pray before an event. This informality causes the awkwardness. Prayer circles can splinter any number of directions, depending on who’s in charge and what method they’re using.

I’ve assembled a list of simple rules for dealing with each of these methods.

Method 1: Everyone prays in a clockwise1 circle.

This is the best idea. Do what you can to make this happen. You may be skeptical, because it guarantees that you’ll pray. But the benefits are myriad:

  • The order is set.
  • There’s no wondering about the right time to jump in.
  • You only need to make one decision: the person who starts.

And it’s so easy to initiate it: just suggest it when everyone is gathering hand to shoulder.

But Method 1 might not work–the group gathers too fast, the youth leader suggests something else, the words catch in your throat. Or you could be like me and stand, mouth slack, unsure whether to murmur your idea as the circle starts.

In that case, you may have to follow the directions for Method 2.

Method 2: Open Prayer with a Closer

At first, this seems great–what could be more freeing than only praying if you want to? But I don’t recommend it because of the hazards:

  • Besides picking someone to lead, you need to pick someone to close. Otherwise there’s an awkward silence the two minutes after the last prayer until everyone realizes it’s over.
  • There’s a risk that everyone except you will pray. Avoid this. And also avoid being the last guy to pray before the closer–they look timid. Instead, if it looks like everyone is choosing to pray, jump in well before the end.

Sometimes, you’ll be in a situation where the circle leader doesn’t assign any roles, and the circle begins without any direction.

In that case:

Method 3: No Clear Plan

We’ve all been there. The group has barely gathered into a circle, and the leader dives into the prayer. The rest of the guys dart their eyes looking for cues to begin, forcing a smile to hide their held breath.

Don’t panic. Look to the guy to the leader’s left. He’s the key to the circle.

If he prays next, everything is great. Assume it’s a clockwise circle and go from there. If he doesn’t pray next, things are tougher. Assume it’s open prayer, but be careful–you might become the closer on accident.

If you are directly to the left of the leader, your role is clear–pray next. Everyone will thank you.

Final scenario. The circle leader does assign roles, and you’re the closer. What now?

Method 4: The Closer

If you’re praying in a clockwise circle, the closer’s role is easy. All you have to do is say “amen” with a little extra force.

But if people are praying out of order, closing gets tricky.

Say it’s a group of eight people. The fifth person finishes praying, and a silence falls over the group. How long should you wait before you close?

Better to close too early than too late. A five-beat count is probably best. Basically, you want to start praying just before the moment when heads start raising and the quiet people start blushing.

Also, make it clear to everyone that you’re the last one. Throw in a “in closing” or something. Then everyone else can relax.

There you have it: the essential steps to praying in a circle.

But that’s not all! I also have a serious conclusion.

A Serious Conclusion

Remember a couple things. First: nobody is listening to your prayers as closely as you think. When is the last time you remembered someone else’s prayer even thirty seconds afterward? That’s how everyone else feels about you.

But more fundamentally (and this is easy for us neurotics to forget): the point of the prayer should not be about making yourself look good. Get that, and the rest becomes easier.

Any other thoughts about praying in circles? Or are there any Australians who want an apology?

__________________________

1  Our Australian friends, of course, will pray counterclockwise. But seriously, specify direction. Otherwise the guys on the leader’s right and left will look at each other after the leader’s prayer, and it gets awkward.

Photo credit: John Locher

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4 thoughts on “The Essential Guide to Praying in a Circle

  1. Abby Dewsnap

    You’re not alone. Ladies TOTALLY have these problems, too (and more, if you can believe it). I don’t know about anyone else but in mixed groups, I think the ladies will tend to look to the men for direction. If I’m praying with men, I almost always let them open and close they prayer- I pray somewhere in the middle.

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  2. Phil

    I have appreciated this little series on prayer. Its honest. (I wondered where you would go with this whole ‘fed up of being cynical about evangelicalism’ thing)

    But public prayer is tricky isn’t it. Whilst we shouldnt worry about sounding perfect, and we don’t need to use special vocabulary and create ridiculous systems to make it work smoothly… But at the same time, it shouldnt be just the same as private prayer either should it? We need to speak in a way that includes the people we are praying with. Which probably requires planning and the right vocabulary.

    I don’t know the answer… But I hope you get what I’m saying!

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    1. (Sorry for the late reply–better late than never?) The point about the special prayer vocabulary is interesting. Sometimes it does get out of control. But other times it works. Example: for as long as I can remember, my grandpa has thanked God for his “watch-care” over us during public prayers. I have never heard the word “watch-care” used in any other context–it’s just a part of his public prayer vocabulary for some reason. It’s a simple thing, but I’ve always appreciated it.

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