When three psychologists who also happened to be parishioners at Christ Church, Reading got together seven years ago to pray for their patients, they had no idea it would eventually lead to a popular healing ministry that has become a central part of their parish’s identity.
“I believe in the ‘divine spark’ in each of us,” says Dr. Margaret Pendergast, who was one of the three parishioners present at that first meeting. “Prayers are for body, mind, and spirit, and our healing prayer ministry offers compassion and kindness to others.” The group of three soon realized that the need for Christian healing and prayer existed outside the boundaries of their professional lives, and that it could be incorporated into the parish’s life and its outreach to the community.
Healing prayer takes place at Christ Church during the 10:15 Eucharist every third Sunday, as well as on Wednesday afternoons. The parish also offers workshops, public services of healing, and spring and fall “Celtic Spiritually” services, at 5:30 Saturday evenings, that incorporate healing and have proven to be attractive to members of the wider community. “It’s moving away from the structure, calling in people that would be attracted to the word ‘spirituality,’” Pendergast says. “We had 89 people come the first time, so we were ecstatic. It worked. We’ve found the word ‘healing’ brings in people we would not otherwise see in church.”
From its founding trio, the healing ministry team has expanded to twelve lay leaders with various vocational backgrounds, including psychologists, nurses and a social worker. The group works closely with Christ Church’s rector, the Rev. John Francis. “Our healing services are undergirded in prayer, before during and after the services,” says Pendergast. “Thanks to the theology and practice of our rector, centering prayer is woven into all aspects of our parish.”
Several years ago, Francis introduced the parish to the “Unbinding the Gospel” book series by Martha Grace Reese. Parishioners took part in small prayer groups that would discuss a chapter of the book and then engage in prayer triads. “During prayer triads, three people sit quietly for two minutes or so, listening for God to tell you what you might need to ask prayer for,” explains Jill Braun, a healing ministry team member. “And then each person in the triad shares their prayer request and is prayed for by the other two members. I’ll never forget the first prayer triad I was in—it was the first time I ever remember receiving an individual prayer like that, and it just felt so good.”
Soon, prayer triads became an integral part of life at Christ Church. Vestry and committee meetings now begin with the practice. “What I observed in our church was a whole new level of spirituality, connection and trust with each other,” says Braun. “We weren’t just nice people who were kind to each other. We knew each other more deeply because we were willing to share those prayer requests. I believe that was a huge opening that allowed the healing ministry to gently and organically grow.”
To those interested in starting a healing ministry in their own parish, Pendergast recommends beginning by seeking training. The Order of St. Luke the Physician (OSL), an ecumenical organization dedicated to the Christian healing ministry, is a good place to start, she says. St Peter’s in Tunkhannock is developing a chapter of OSL, and there are associate or full members of OSL at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and at Christ Church, Reading.
“Additionally, I would encourage anyone interested in healing ministries to talk to their priest,” Pendergast says. “But don’t be discouraged if the priest is cautious. This is a complicated ministry, and requires training, self-awareness, self-evaluation, education, teamwork and team building.” She also recommends attending healing services in the diocese and asking to talk to the priest or the lay ministers.
“Being part of the healing ministry team has nurtured me and helped me to grow in my own spirituality and pushed me to make changes that I needed to do in my life so I could be closer to God,” Braun says. “And that is a tremendous blessing. Now I look out and see people during worship, and realize we’re connected through those healing prayers, through those requests, and through ministering to each other. It’s been a privilege.”