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Kevin Snow: Administrators shouldn't lead prayer in schools

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 10:35 PM

As a Christian minister, I love prayer.

I love prayers that are spontaneous, offered up in a moment of need, and I love prayers that are planned in advance and carefully crafted. I love prayers that are shouted with passion, and I love prayers that are whispered with bated breath. I love the variety of prayers we share in worship, and the myriad prayers that we lift up at home. I love prayers of adoration, giving glory to God. I love prayers of confession, seeking to find God's grace where it's least expected. I love prayers of thanksgiving, expressing gratitude for God's presence in the world. I love prayers of supplication, petitioning God on behalf of another. I try always to give my best in prayer, and the best prayers we can offer are shaped and molded by three "I's". Our best prayers are invitational, informed and inclusive.

An invitational prayer allows another person or group of people to participate without force. When we pray in worship, it's invitational. The minister or lay person usually begins by saying, "Let us pray," or "Please join with me in prayer," opening prayer to the gathered community. Before a meal in a restaurant or in a home, I prefer to ask the other person, "Would you like to have prayer before we eat?" When I enter a hospital room or visit someone in their home, I always ask if they would like to pray. It would be rude and domineering to walk into the room and announce, "I'm here. Now we will pray, as I choose."

An informed prayer can only happen within an established relationship or after intentional dialogue. Before I pray with another person, I ask the simple question, "Is there a specific way you would like me to direct my prayer?" In many places of worship, a time of "Joys and Concerns" allows the community to inform one another about places in their life they would like prayer. If I assume the needs of another person, and pray for them without asking, or with limited information, I might overlook a greater need in their life.

An inclusive prayer allows the individual, group or worshipping body to confidently add their "Amen." Amen means, "Thus shall it be," or "Yes, I agree with what you have just said on my behalf." This can be difficult in practice, especially if I have skipped the "informed" step or am praying on behalf of a large group of people. If my prayer is too specific or narrow in worship or among a group of people, some will feel left out and will be unable to add their "Amen." For this reason, when I find myself outside of Christian worship, I do not exclusively use Christian language such as Jesus, Christ or Holy Spirit in order to make my prayer accessible to my brothers and sisters of other faith traditions.

This is why it is inappropriate to offer administratively led prayer in our public school systems. It is difficult, if not impossible, to offer our best prayers that are invitational, informed and inclusive. Prayers offered over an intercom system are not invitational. They cannot be ignored and students or faculty would find it awkward and ostracizing to somehow opt out by leaving. These prayers are not informed. While it would be impossible to argue against our children's need for a safe learning environment, maybe our children would direct our prayers in a different direction. Since we cannot ask them each individually, we are left only to assume, and pray uninformed.

In a rapidly diversifying nation and culture, it is also impossible to pray inclusively in a public school. What faith tradition would we use? Using Christian language would exclude our brothers and sisters of other faith traditions. Any prayer would also exclude and go against the beliefs of any atheist or agnostic families.

As a Christian minister, I love prayer. I love prayers steeped in the wisdom of older adults and prayers offered in the simplistic and straightforward language of our children. I love prayers that quote scripture and prayers that quote the language of our hearts' desire. I love moments of prayer that speak to God and moments of prayer that require only patient listening.

I love prayer, but administrative-led prayer does not belong in our public school system.

Kevin Snow is pastor of Central Christian Church in Huntington.

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