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We sat around the warm fireplace, journals open, pens ready, eyes eagerly awaiting the wisdom of our women’s ministry director. We’d gathered for a night of reflection, learning, and sharing. The first semester of small group had flown by; now was the time for the leaders to consider how it had gone. Did the women seem to be growing in their faith? Was there an eagerness to read the Word? Were the women committing to the life of the church?

Our director proceeded to touch on the subject of prayer. What was the temperature in the groups? Was getting prayer requests from our women like pulling teeth? Or were the women eager to share their hearts with each other?

Aunt Martha Prayers

Many of us agreed prayer time felt like a trip to the dentist. We had too many “Aunt Martha” prayers.

Aunt Martha prayers—you know them. These are the prayer requests that evade any hint of vulnerability, whether struggles or joys, focusing instead on “my sick Aunt Martha. Please pray for her health.”

A side note before I continue: Asking for prayer on behalf of other people is a wonderful thing. It reveals a sympathetic heart of someone who is thinking of others’ needs before her own. There is power in praying for others, so we should—with assurance that God hears us.

By “Aunt Martha prayers,” I’m referring to prayer requests that stay the same week after week—the ones that hide our true struggles, not directly tied to our relationship with Christ. Can you think of times “Aunt Martha prayers” have infiltrated your own small group?

What’s a small group leader to do?

I’ve found three helpful ways to encourage members to offer requests involving personal, Scripture-centered, and sometimes even sensitive subjects.

1. Set the example.

Something amazing happens when a leader speaks in earnest: She establishes a level of trust that encourages the listeners to follow suit. The author of Hebrews writes, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7). Leaders hold great influence and, when used appropriately, they can leverage this influence to help people grow in devotion to Christ. If we offer our own needs, struggles, praises, and even failures, we’ll encourage others to do the same.

2. Reframe the request.

One method that works well involves reframing “Aunt Martha prayers” in an effort to grasp the heart behind the request. For example, if a woman requests prayer for “her friend who needs a job,” we might ask, “How can you specifically be a support to your friend this week, and how can we pray for you in that area?”

Again, we never want to communicate that a prayer request is wrong or unimportant; there is certainly a place to lift others to the Lord. But we do want to encourage each person to search her heart. Reframing the original request by asking follow up questions is one way to probe deeper and invite greater depth.

3. Engage with Scripture.

The Word of God is sanctifying truth (John 17:17), so we can trust that praying through Scripture will bear fruit and align us with God’s perfect and pleasing will (Rom. 12:2). Encourage your group members to choose a verse or passage of the Bible that illustrates:

  • A way they would like to grow in Christlikeness.
  • A promise they need to remember.
  • An attribute of God’s person they want to know more deeply.
  • A precept they want to apply to an area of struggle, pain, or temptation.

You can have them write down the passage and share it with one person, becoming that person’s prayer partner for the week. Or you can share your requests aloud with the whole group, and spend time praying the selected words of Scripture over each group member.

Whatever way you choose to encourage your group into deeper, more earnest sharing in prayer, rest assured it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who wills and works in every believer (Eph. 3:14–19). Trust that Christ’s work will be completed in your small group, pray for your group members often, and continue to be an example worth imitating.

Editors’ note: Consider working with your small group through Praying with Paul, an eight-session Bible study by D. A. Carson and Brian Tabb. Aided by Carson’s video teaching, learn what Paul taught in his “school of prayer” as you consider the priorities of prayer, a God-centered framework for prayer, and practices for a more dynamic and meaningful prayer life.