When Prayers Become Talks

August 18, 2009 | 53 comments
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Of all completely meaningless things that annoy me, high on the list is when Young Women is referred to as “Young Women’s.” I’d spend more time elaborating on that, but I really need to finish this post so I can get on to my Relief Society’s lesson.

Further down in the ranking of irritants is when those who have been asked to pray in a meeting confuse that to mean that they are to bear testimony, teach a lesson, or preach a sermon.

Way back in the day, one of the wisest of all apostles suggested a time-limit for opening and closing prayers in Sacrament Meeting(‘s?). I can’t readily find the source, but if memory serves it was something akin to 1.5 minutes max. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Still, if you’re called on to say a prayer in a public meeting, please reflect on the audience and consider aligning your prayer length with a reasonable approximation of the average attention span.

Parents of toddlers everywhere thank you.

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53 Responses to When Prayers Become Talks

  1. Scott B. on August 18, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    I agree. This is why, when I pray, instead of bowing my head and trying to listen to the Spirit, I stare and the clock and mumble.

  2. Alison Moore Smith on August 18, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I’m thankful for your comment here today, Scott. And hope that others who read will be able to use it in their daily lives.

  3. ZD Eve on August 18, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I’ve noticed this from time to time in other wards, but never in my current ward. We have so many young children I suspect that by the time we collectively lurch across the sacrament meeting finish line, the dull roar has become so intolerable that no one would dream of praying a second longer than she had to. (But even opening prayers are invariably short and to the point.)

    I periodically encounter objections to expressions such as “Young Women’s” or “taking out [one's] endowments,” but I confess I can’t see the harm. Couldn’t we understand “Young Women’s” a nod to the old “Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association”? (Or, alternatively, couldn’t we understand you to be emphasizing that you’re teaching _your_ Relief Society’s lesson, as opposed to a Relief Society lesson in general?)

  4. bjohnson on August 18, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    The saying I grew up with was, “Two minutes is more than enough to open any meeting and thirty seconds more than enough to close it.”

    Good advice, that.

    Don’t have a reference for it, unfortunately.

  5. Starfoxy on August 18, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Young Women(‘s) is a weird name for a group no with or without the ‘s because naming a group based on who is in it seems kind of odd. Though I will say that it would be kind of cool to be the Toddler Leader instead of the Nursery Leader.

    Your phrase about considering the audience reminds of something else that sort of bothers me. It is something I hear all the time, but my dad did it every time he prays. During family prayers he would say “We’re grateful for [Mom]…” then he’d say something about her hard work, or cooking, or something like that. He still does this when he prays with just the two of them.
    The reason it bothered me is that when you pray for a group you’re acting as voice for the group, saying stuff that everyone could (theoretically) agree on. In my mind this put my mom in the position of saying “yes, I am grateful for myself.” whenever she said amen. Perhaps she heard it as a sort of ‘darn right, you should be grateful for me.’
    I realize he was trying to show his appreciation for her in a public way, but the lack of internal consistency drove me nuts. I think it would have felt better if he prayed to bless my mom for all the hard work she did, or to help her family to better appreciate her.

  6. David H. Sundwall on August 18, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    bjohnson,

    That’s a great quote I was thinking of too.

    I remember it from this Des News article.

    The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, in his Mormon Doctrine book, said the phrase “pray always” refers to a prayer always being in the heart of the righteous and that frequent secret prayers should be spoken.

    He advises that public prayers should be short, which are welcomed words by worshippers who wonder why some blessings and benedictions last longer than sermons.

    But how long is long enough for a public prayer?

    McConkie quoted Francis M. Lyman, an LDS apostle, as saying “two minutes will open any kind of meeting, and a half minute will close it.”

  7. David H. Sundwall on August 18, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    bjohnson,

    That’s a great quote I was thinking of too.

    I remember it from this Des News article.

    The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, in his Mormon Doctrine book, said the phrase “pray always” refers to a prayer always being in the heart of the righteous and that frequent secret prayers should be spoken.

    He advises that public prayers should be short, which are welcomed words by worshippers who wonder why some blessings and benedictions last longer than sermons.

    But how long is long enough for a public prayer?

    McConkie quoted Francis M. Lyman, an LDS apostle, as saying “two minutes will open any kind of meeting, and a half minute will close it.”

  8. Dan on August 18, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    “Young Women’s” is incomplete. It refers to the longer “Young Women’s Group” or “Young Women’s Class,” or anything else like that. Same with Young Men’s. You imply a longer phrase you simply don’t want to say. On its own, it is a strange sounding title of a group/organization. Young Women.

  9. Rob Perkins on August 18, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    It might be worth pointing out that in the training for Temple workers who pray in the ordinances there, the guidelines are to limit the length of the prayer to three minutes.

    All things considered, half that amount of time is probably a very good metric for any other public prayer.

  10. ZD Eve on August 18, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Starfoxy, maybe we could rename YW/YM “Secondary” (the step after Primary) and Relief Society “Tertiary.” Or maybe we could rename YW/YM some kind of society (although I have no idea what kind of society they might rightly be considered to be).

  11. Hans on August 18, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    The change has to start from the top down. As long as GC prayers end up as another way for a 70 to give a talk, it will be hard for members to shorten their’s.

    Maybe there is another way to shorten prayers. Let’s have a ban on saying, “I’m/We’re thankful for this day.” Seriously, what percentage of prayers do you think think start with that after the Heavenly Father part in the beginning of prayers? 70%? 80%? More? If we collectively cut this line out, we just saved a few seconds from every prayer!

  12. Rory Swensen on August 18, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    I find that an occasional prayer in the style of Ricky Bobby accomplishes two things:

    1 – In an effort to compensate and heal the trauma, prayers for the foreseeable future are short and direct.

    2 – I’m not asked to pray very often.

  13. ZD Eve on August 18, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    “Young Women’s” is incomplete. It refers to the longer “Young Women’s Group” or “Young Women’s Class,” or anything else like that. Same with Young Men’s. You imply a longer phrase you simply don’t want to say.

    Probably (although I think what we really need is a linguist or two around here to make sense of our propensity to add that final ‘s). But what I don’t understand is why such an abbreviation has moral significance. (I’ll even grant that some abbreviations in some contexts are or would be inappropriately casual, but I can’t see that saying “Young Women’s” or “taking out my endowments” is.)

  14. ZD Eve on August 18, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Maybe there is another way to shorten prayers. Let’s have a ban on saying, “I’m/We’re thankful for this day.” Seriously, what percentage of prayers do you think think start with that after the Heavenly Father part in the beginning of prayers? 70%? 80%? More? If we collectively cut this line out, we just saved a few seconds from every prayer!

    I suspect this would backfire. Bereft of such stock phrases, we’d simply use the same amount of time, or more, struggling for words (at least I know I would) to the greater embarrassment of all.

  15. KLC on August 18, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    When I was a kid it seems that patriarchs held a more visible place in the hierarchy. They were always acknowledged in stake conference and were usually asked to give one of the prayers. And the ones that lived in my stake always gave long, long, long prayers.

    When they would announce that the patriarch would close the conference session my brother and I would ask my father for his wristwatch. Then we would monitor the time as he prayed, hoping for a new PR to be set. If he did we would give each other a silent high five and maybe a not quite silent “Yessssss!” which would prompt my father to give us a rap on the head for being irreverent.

  16. H. Bob on August 18, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    My grandfather, who was his stake’s patriarch at the time, was asked to speak in stake conference, and because of earlier speakers going over, wasn’t able to give his talk. The next stake conference, he was asked to give the invocation. He walked to the microphone and proceeded to give the exact same talk he wasn’t able to give the conference before–as a prayer.

  17. Jamal on August 18, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    “Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.” — FDR

  18. CS Eric on August 18, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    This reminds me of one of those faith-promoting rumor stories of Brigham Young. According to the story, one of the brethren was miffed that he hadn’t been asked to speak, and so gave the talk he wanted to give as part of the prayer. When he was done, Brigham announced that the choir would then sing the closing hymn, and the meeting was over.

  19. gst on August 18, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I’m glad that someone in the Mormon blogs finally concedes that BR McConkie was “one of the wisest of all apostles.”

  20. JrL on August 18, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Took a moment to find what was in the back of my mind … too long, given that it was just last conference …

    “Lessons from the Lord’s Prayers” by Elder Russell M. Nelson, April 2009 conference:

    “The concept of ‘too much and unnecessary’ could also apply to the length of our prayers. A closing prayer in a Church meeting need not include a summary of each message and should not become an unscheduled sermon. Private prayers can be as long as we want, but public prayers ought to be short supplications for the Spirit of the Lord to be with us or brief declarations of gratitude for what has transpired.”

  21. Hunter on August 18, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Thanks for this. Just this past Sunday we had one of those “oh-my-goodness-will-this-prayer-ever-end?!” types of prayers in our sacrament meeting. It was ridiculous.

    BUT, having said that, when else do we — as a congregation — pray for the well-being of those who are suffering through a natural disaster, for the peace of the world, for the best interest of our civic leaders, etc., etc.?

  22. Tomchik on August 18, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Amen to the OP!

    My mission president told us that the Twelve frequently tell the Seventy that the prayers in General Conference need to be shorter. Of course he would then go on to tell us that zone conference prayers, sacrament meeting prayers, etc. need to be short.

  23. Sterling Fluharty on August 18, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    I think the best church prayers are like parental blessings. They pronounce the words of the Lord to the audience/recipient and have very little to do with what that praying person would have said if left to their own devices.

    Maybe we also need to take the selection and singing of hymns and other sacred music more seriously as congregational prayers.

  24. Rob on August 18, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    We had one of the most memorable sacrament meeting benedictions in a long time here in my Philadelphia area ward this past Sunday. The orator expressed thanks “for the miracle that we experienced in our Stake this week, for the wonderful example of forgiveness that Coach Reid [of the Eagles] showed the world in giving a wayward individual [dog-fighting ex-con Michael Vick] a second chance.”

    If you’re gonna give an unscheduled sermon, at least make it memorable!

  25. queuno on August 18, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    I, for one, am always grateful for the opportunity to be gathered as a body of saints in a fine building on a fine day, and with the opportunity, yea, a blessing to be able to renew my covenants, grateful for the opportunity live in this fine land where I can worship how I want, and I’m grateful for a living prophet in Thomas S. Monson, and I’m especially grateful for the Book of Mormon, and I sure hope that the teachers and speakers are blessed with the Spirit, and I really hope I can always take their words home with me and help guide my family, and I really hope that all those who couldn’t come today could come next time.

  26. Hans in California on August 18, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    I am reminded of Mark Twain’s comments on the Book of Mormon:

    “All men have heard of the Mormon Bible, but few except the “elect” have seen it, or, at least, taken the trouble to read it. I brought away a copy from Salt Lake. The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so “slow,” so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print. If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle–keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate. If he, according to tradition, merely translated it from certain ancient and mysteriously-engraved plates of copper, which he declares he found under a stone, in an out-of-the-way locality, the work of translating was equally a miracle, for the same reason.

    The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel–half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by the contrast. Whenever he found his speech growing too modern–which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.” – from “Roughing It”

  27. John Buffington on August 18, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    When i find a prayer is going too long, instead of “amen!” I say “enfin!” at the end, which is french for “finally!” If you sorta mumble it, you can get away with it.

  28. Mark D. on August 19, 2009 at 12:17 am

    One thing that annoys me is when the person saying the prayer repeats something trivial that God knows, the person praying knows, and everyone in the room knows. Of course there are important exceptions…

  29. WillF on August 19, 2009 at 9:07 am

    I recently saw Webelos Cub Scout written as Webelo in our ward program. Oh the ignorance.

  30. Rameumptom on August 19, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Alison,

    I’m glad you have no problem with “Young Mens”…. ;)

    BTW, Elder McConkie’s talk is found here:
    http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/daily/prayer/prayer.html

    “It is not necessary to offer very long and tedious prayers, either at opening or closing. It is not only not pleasing to the Lord for us to use excess of words, but also it is not pleasing to the Latter-day Saints. Two minutes will open any kind of meeting, and a half minute will close it.”

  31. Mark B. on August 19, 2009 at 11:18 am

    The best, bar none, of prayer-sermons (if “best” means longest, most uncomfortable for everybody there) was offered by Sis. Barbara B. Smith, general president of the Relief Society, giving the talk she really wanted to give but was denied the chance, at the BYU convocation celebrating its 100th anniversary. She recounted the entire history of the university in that “prayer” and only the general quiescence of the studentbody (BYU is famous for that, isn’t it?) kept people from either booing or walking out.

    It was awful. October 10, 1975. A black Friday, indeed.

  32. Hans in California on August 19, 2009 at 11:35 am

    My favorite opening prayer; Hugh Nibley’s invocation at the 1960 BYU Commencement which began:

    “We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood…”

  33. Vader on August 19, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Primary … Secondary… Tertiary… I think I’d be opposed to any naming scheme that reminds me of syphilis.

    I don’t have any problem with stock phrases, per se, in public prayers. Most of our members, like most other people, are naturally shy about speaking in public, and we ask a lot of them when we ask them to give a public prayer in front of a hundred or more people without notes and sometimes with little warning. The ability to use stock phrases acceptable to the community helps a lot of these members get through the experience relatively unscathed.

    That’s not to say there aren’t specific stock phrases I could happily lose. “Thank you for this day” is very high on that list.

  34. Alison Moore Smith on August 19, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    I’m glad you have no problem with “Young Mens”

    Give me time. I’ve never served in Young Men :) and I’ve never had a child in YM, either. Three years from now I’ll probably be blogging about that.

  35. gst on August 19, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    I say it like this: “We thank thee for this day. You know, Sunday.”

  36. Dave in OR on August 19, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    The “Webelo” thing drives me crazy, too.

    On a similar theme, and at the considerable risk of kicking over another rhetorical beehive, may I mention a prime peeve: referring to multiple copies of the Book of Mormon as “Book of Mormons”.

    It was always a teeth-grinding moment for me when my missionary companions would do this.

  37. Alison Moore Smith on August 19, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    OR, that’s an interesting comment. I tend to avoid choosing altogether by saying something like, “We need three copies of the Book of Mormon,” because it makes no sense to me that “Books of Mormon” (which I assume you are suggesting?) could be correct but ‘Book or Mormons” sounds weird.

    I wouldn’t say, “I need three Cats in the Hat” if I was referring multiple copies of the book. I’d say, “…three Cat in the Hats” just like I’d say, “…three Bibles.”

    What say you?

  38. ThomasB on August 19, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Very interesting reading. I have heard prayers that were more interesting than the talks that were given. I do not believe I have ever been guilty of giving a long invocation but there have been times when I have been moved by the events of a meeting and having been asked to give the benediction that my prayers have gone on a bit to long I am sure.

    I think in these instances I sought greater understanding for us as a congregation that we might apply what we have heard. I guess I wanted to draw on the powers of heaven for us as a body of saints. I do live in a ward where there would be people who would not have a problem coming to me directly and objecting but it has never happened although the odd teenager has commented about it.

  39. barcelo on August 19, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    from #33

    That’s not to say there aren’t specific stock phrases I could happily lose. “Thank you for this day” is very high on that list.

    But thats MY stock phrase…sometimes I mix it up with a secondary comment such as, ‘thankyou for this day, this SABBATH day…..’ y’know just for variety. hmmmm, I’ll have to get a new one.

    I must of heard the following quote and agreeed with it early on in life because it has always been my pet hate concerning prayer in public:

    (from Elder McConkies sermon linked above)

    ‘There is no prayer so great and important that it is necessary to use more than once the name of the Son of God and of the Father’

    Really annoys me when every sentence starts with ‘Father…’

    Second runner up is a growing tradition of closing the prayer with one last ‘Father we love you, in the name of Jesus Christ Amen …’ It struck me the 1st time as quite nice, but now I hear it nearly every prayer.

    but then again when I get asked to pray in public I tend to do it in a very basic way, i.e the way I taught others how to do it on my mission and for all I know it may sound very insincere, so whatever.

  40. Hans in California on August 19, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    37. “I tend to avoid choosing altogether by saying something like, “We need three copies of the Book of Mormon,” because it makes no sense to me that “Books of Mormon” (which I assume you are suggesting?) could be correct but ‘Book or Mormons” sounds weird.”

    The Book of Mormon is a title, thus “Books of Mormon” or “Book of Mormons” for multiple copies is incorrect. You’ve got it right when you say “copies of the Book of Mormon”.

  41. Alison Moore Smith on August 19, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    Tell me more, Hans. While I think it does sound better to say, “I have three copies of Harry Potter,” is it grammatically incorrect to say, “I have three Harry Potters”? Now, I’d never say, “I have three Harries Potter,” but I might say the other. You can’t pluralize titles or proper nouns? (My ward has three Jessica’s, btw. :) )

  42. L-d Sus on August 19, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    “People listen longer when you talk shorter.”

    L-d Sus

  43. Hans in California on August 19, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    41. Harry Potter

    Maybe if you had three guys with an abundance of hair who like to throw pots? Then you would have three hairy potters! ;-)

  44. Ken on August 20, 2009 at 8:47 am

    I’d like to post a link, but I’m technologically ignorant of how one can do that without inserting a gosh-awful long character string as an Internet address. Can someone help me out? Thanks! ;-D

  45. Ken on August 20, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Allison Moore Smith: “… My ward has three Jessica’s …”

    Harrumph! One of my pet-peeves is the use of apostrophes in plurals! Your ward has three Jessicas, not three Jessica’s. (And I was able to suppress the urge to insert the apostrophe even when Word flagged the plural as improper without an apostrophe.)

    Heh-heh! ;-D

  46. anon on August 20, 2009 at 9:53 am

    2 of my favorite prayers were at an Eagle Court of Honor when the grandfather prayed to bless the BSA from the sodomite forces that threatened to destroy it, and when a kid from our Valiant 11 class’ mom prayed in whale (think Finding Nemo) for family prayer.

  47. KLC on August 20, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Our deacons and teachers who are asked to give the opening prayer in priesthood meeting generally include the petition that we will have fun during our quorum meetings. The innocence of youth…

  48. Alison Moore Smith on August 20, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Ken, anyone who uses “harrumph” in a sentence is good in my book. I’ve often wondered about that apostrophe thing because it doesn’t make sense to me, but it does seem to be used more often than not, like decades (1980′s, etc.).

    FWIW, last time I checked, LDS.org did not have a single occurrence of “Young Women’s” in the way I’m talking about. Whew.

    As for family prayers, I am the youngest of the siblings in my family. One day, when I was about four, my oldest brother (eight-ish) said the family prayer. Starting with dad and working through the ranks he prayed for everyone. When he got to me he said, “Please bless Alison that she won’t be a spoiled brat.”

    Serious harrumph.

  49. Ken on August 20, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Allison Moore Smith: “Ken, anyone who uses “harrumph” in a sentence is good in my book.”

    Why, thank you! I have more such words where that one came from. ;D (Alas, I don’t post here alot, so I seldom have occasion to use them … at least, not in this forum).

    Allison Moore Smith: “I’ve often wondered about that apostrophe thing because it doesn’t make sense to me, but it does seem to be used more often than not, like decades (1980’s, etc.).”

    I’m a rebel. I don’t use apostrophes in decades, either. ;-D I say, Que vive la revolucion! Who’s with me? ;-D

  50. James on August 22, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    Prayers need to be like a ladies dress; short enough to get everyones attention but long enough to cover all of the essentials.

  51. Allie on August 25, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Touche James!

    You all should listen to an evangelical preacher offer a prayer or say”Grace” over the food in the South. He will say “Father-God” in every other sentence and go on a spell! :)

  52. Stephanie on August 25, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    General Conference prayers are the worst.

  53. Alison Moore Smith on August 26, 2009 at 10:42 am

    Last month one of my kids attended Young Ambassadors Singing Entertainer Workshop (YASE) at BYU. In discussing appropriate dress for the dance rehearsals, the kids were told they needed to “cover your carnal treasures.”

    James, can you make that fit your analogy?