Prayer Partners: How a Pastor's "Innovative Ideas" Led One Couple to Skip Church

Anne Francis drove alone to church last Sunday night, the car silent in light traffic, Frank sitting back home in front of some scandalous segment of 60 Minutes.

“How long has it been,” he had said, “six weeks now, maybe?”

She knew what he was thinking because she was thinking it too.

“I know it’ll be a prayer service tonight,” he told her. “I can feel it in my bones, Annie. I’m just not up for sharing tonight, so I’m sitting this one out.”

For Frank, worship wasn’t worship unless there was a sermon. Somewhere along the line the preacher had to say, “Thus saith the Lord,” or what happened in church really didn’t count. If all Pastor Henry wanted to do was gather the ever-thinning evening service faithful into small groups, then Frank didn’t want any part of it.

That’s why she was alone in the Mercury. Frank was probably right—Pastor Henry would likely take a Sunday night off this week and break the meager gathering into prayer partners or pockets or posses or parties or whatever. She didn’t really like it either. That’s why, right then, she considered pulling into Willowdale Mall parking lot, heading for the east entrance, taking one of those round tables beside the Cinnabon shop, and indulging in something really sinful.

But church was church, after all, and she didn’t like Frank’s attitude, even if she shared it. If Pastor Henry chose prayer tonight, she’d push through it the same way you learned in life to play with pain.

Besides, she thought, how can you not like prayer? How can a believer feel uncomfortable talking to God? What kind of Christian am I anyway, she asked herself, when I’d rather not go to church because we’re only doing prayer stuff—as if prayer were something incidental?

Maybe it was the public thing she couldn’t get used to—the sound of her words, the tangle of her sentences, the lack of freshness to what she could throw into the mix. Some folks were so good—so smart, so full of words. Maybe they were closer to God, she thought. What was wrong with her anyway? And why did she feel so judged? Good night, she was a grandma nine times—who was she afraid of? Certainly not the Lord.

When she came into church, the pews looked like a long series of toothless grins. She took a seat at the When she came into church, the pews looked like a long series of toothless grins. She took a seat at the end of the bench just a few rows from the front because she knew Pastor Henry would gather them up front anyway. Then she slid down halfway toward the center aisle and scanned the order of worship. Frank was right. “Service of Petitions for Church Education,” it said.

My goodness, she hadn’t a clue who was teaching what Sunday school class this year, not with her own kids a dozen years out of church education—not to mention the house. She and Frank had been members at Lakeview for only four years. She was sixty-one years old, her family left behind in the northern part of the state when Frank was transferred. Sometimes she felt like such a dinosaur—too much of her husband in her, maybe, too much of the old ways. She didn’t need to touch people in church. She needed to touch God. And she didn’t get that by standing up in front of people and praying. All she got was nervous.

“Tonight we’ll be asking the Lord to bless the educational ministry of Lakewood Church,” the opening line said.

Bob Wyssner—handsome guy, thick hair, always standing up for something. He had to teach Sunday school or young adults, she thought. She could throw his name in. He’d be as good a bet as anyone.

Someone slid into the row beside her, and she looked up to see Catherine Conan, Pastor Henry’s wife, right there beside her. Didn’t all preachers’ wives teach something? She could throw Catherine’s name in along with Bob Wyssner. And Bob’s wife, Sarah—always there. Count on the faithful.

“I want to pray in small teams tonight,” Pastor Henry said. “I want our prayers to be intense and specific, and I want us to lift the needs of our own church’s education ministries,” he told them smilingly. “Please mention each teacher by name—”

She had what?—three—and those were guesses.

“Just turn to the person beside you—maybe you want to find a quiet spot in the sanctuary, and then, just you and your prayer partner—I want you to devote the next twenty minutes to prayer.”

And who should be next to her but the preacher’s wife? Good night, she’d know every first name as well as every last. She’d even know the substitutes. She’d probably list the women who made cookies for children’s church, who donated junior high daughters for babysitters. Catherine would know everything, and she’d sit there like some mindless nincompoop.

All through “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” time kept trying to refresh her memory with names and faces. She felt her palms sweat, her breath shorten. A tickle developed in her throat. It started like a rattle and ended up tough as a ratchet. She coughed once, twice, three times.

What would this Mrs. Conan think? Prettiest preacher’s wife she’d ever seen, sweet little family—at that age when a mother thinks this business of bringing up kids isn’t nearly as hard as people say. How could she explain that she had enough to do just keeping things together with Frank’s new job and hers, both of them gone most of the day.

Her throat felt as dry as a country road. She needed a drink. Three more times she brought her hand up to her mouth to cover eruptions. And then Catherine pushed her legs to one side as if offering her an escape. Anne reached down into her throat to grind up another cough, not out of necessity this time but because it suddenly occurred to her that another one might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Catherine creased her eyebrows and nodded toward the back as if to invite her to get a drink, so Anne shuffled out of the pew, covering her mouth, and made her way to the back. It struck her, just as suddenly, that she really didn’t have to return, that she could keep right on going, through the front doors, into the Merc, and home. Everyone had heard her cough, seen her walk out.

So she left. She walked out coughing, whooping it up on her way through the front doors so there would be no mistake. She left, but not in triumph. The joy of escape wasn’t nearly as deep as the agony of deceit.

The clock in the Merc said 6:23. She didn’t feel like going back to Frank. What the heck, she told herself. She’d already been a sinner once tonight. When she went by Willowdale, she pulled into the parking lot, took a table in the food court, and ordered a Cinnabon as big as a collection plate.

Monday night the phone rang. “Anne,” the voice said, “this is Catherine Conan. I felt so bad about your leaving on Sunday night. I just wanted to check up—”

Anne held the phone away and coughed lightly.

“Have you seen a doctor?” Catherine asked.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Anne said.

“You should probably get it checked out,” Catherine said. “If you need someone to drive you—”

“I’ll be all right,” she said.

“Really, it’s no bother—”

And that was it. She’d had it with lying, had it with sheer deception. “You want to know the truth, Mrs. Conan?” Anne said. “The truth is, I didn’t know the name of one Sunday school teacher, and I knew I was going to feel like a turkey because you’d have to do all the praying and I’d sit there like a bump on a log, and if the truth be known,” she said, “Frank and I don’t really care all that much about those services when all we do is pray, and I feel guilty about it too because prayer is a full-time job, I know, and it’s something we can never do enough of and all of that, but sometimes when we just pray at church, I don’t think of it as being church at all, and I can’t help it either because I guess I’m just not a good Christian, at least as good as you and a hundred others, but there isn’t much I seem to be able to And that was it. She’d had it with lying, had it with sheer deception. “You want to know the truth, Mrs. Conan?” Anne said. “The truth is, I didn’t know the name of one Sunday school teacher, and I knew I was going to feel like a turkey because you’d have to do all the praying and I’d sit there like a bump on a log, and if the truth be known,” she said, “Frank and I don’t really care all that much about those services when all we do is pray, and I feel guilty about it too because prayer is a full-time job, I know, and it’s something we can never do enough of and all of that, but sometimes when we just pray at church, I don’t think of it as being church at all, and I can’t help it either because I guess I’m just not a good Christian, at least as good as you and a hundred others, but there isn’t much I seem to be able to do about it.” She gathered a breath. “I’m sorry for all of that—I really am. I shouldn’t have walked out of church that way, as if I were having a coughing spell, and I should be a better Christian, but it always puts me into a sweat to have to pray in front of other people, and there I was sitting next to you, the preacher’s wife, and it just got to me, so I walked right out.”

Silence.

“I hope you can forgive me,” she said.

Silence.

“Mrs. Conan?” she said. “You hang up on me or what?”

“Anne,” Catherine said. “You want to know the truth?”

“What truth?” Anne said.

“The whole truth,” Catherine told her. “The whole truth is, I don’t like those services either. I  didn’t want to go last night. I wanted to stay home and make popcorn. People expect so much from the pastor’s wife,” she said. “I feel like I’m being judged.”

“That’s no way to pray,” Anne said.

“I know,” Catherine told her.

Silence.

“Besides, I’m just so worried about Marty,” the preacher’s wife said.

“Your oldest?”

“He’s nonstop. He drives me nuts, and we’ve got an appointment for him this week—ADD or something. She stopped. “How come nobody tells you how tough it is to bring up kids? How many kids do you have?”

“Five.”

“How did you do ever pull it off?”

“It’s not over,” Anne told her. “It’s never over.”

“You’re kidding!”

The woman needed help. She needed someone to talk to. “I know a place where they serve the most delicious cinnamon rolls,” Anne said. “Way too much for one person, but two people can really feast. That preacher husband of yours home tonight?”

“He’s home,” Catherine said.

“Tell him to stay there,” Anne told her. “Let’s you and me go get one.”

When Frank came in, he washed his hands in the sink and went to the refrigerator. “Who was that on the phone?”

“If you want to know,” Anne said, “it was my prayer partner.”

“Prayer partner?” he said, eyebrows halfway up his bald head.

“You heard me,” she said. “Prayer partner.” She smiled. Then she left to pick up Catherine.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.