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Silas Walker, Deseret News
The Rev. Elizabeth McVicker prays with children during Sunday worship at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Politicians are routinely mocked on social media for offering "thoughts and prayers" instead of policy action in the midst of crisis.

After a mass shooting, for example, many Americans say they want new gun control laws, not kind thoughts. After a natural disaster, they ask politicians to increase federal aid, not tweet their heartfelt concern to those who lost their homes.

Religious leaders are starting to face similar complaints when they fail to address the issues facing their communities, said Zac Davis, an associate editor at the Catholic magazine America who has written on prayer and the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. Some people of faith want better policies, not more prayers.

"I think we've got a sour taste in our mouth with thoughts and prayers," Davis said.

And yet this week's high-profile gatherings of Catholic bishops on sexual abuse and Methodists on LGBTQ rights may end with few accomplishments beyond group prayers. Already, the Vatican has warned people to lower their expectations for the Summit on the Protection of Minors, a first-of-its-kind meeting of leaders of the world's bishops' conferences from Feb. 21-24.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Worshippers pray during Sunday worship at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019.

"The pope wants the February summit to be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference — a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment," America magazine reported last month.

At the United Methodist Church's special session of general conference on sexuality, taking place from Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis, participants have just four days to decide how to avoid a denominational schism over LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage. Despite the time crunch, they'll spend a whole day in prayer.

"We need and depend on the power of God to intervene in our human weakness and divisions," wrote Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., president of the United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops, in an email, when asked why prayer was so prominent in the schedule.

Bishop Carter, Pope Francis and others see prayer as a way to unify diverse groups of people and invite God into difficult situations. They hope this week's meetings show prayer is a necessary step toward bringing about meaningful change.

"Prayer isn't supposed to be an empty action," Davis said.

Why pray?

Prayer is central to many of the world's religions, and it comes in many forms. It anchors worship services, begins meals and provides comfort to people in pain.

"Some types of prayer are more about asking for something. Other types are more about bringing people together or setting a stage," said Crystal Park, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut who has studied prayer as a coping mechanism.

More than half of U.S. adults (55 percent) say they pray at least daily, including 54 percent of mainline Protestants and 59 percent of Catholics, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report.

In settings like the Methodist meeting on sexuality, prayer prepares people's hearts for tough conversations, said Bishop Karen Oliveto, who leads the United Methodist Church's Mountain Sky Episcopal Area, which includes Utah.

Prayer is a "chance for us to humble ourselves before God before we do some hard work together," she said.

The day of prayer for the United Methodist Church will include an hour of group prayers focused on surrendering to God's purpose, four hours of prayer stations led by church leaders from Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States and a closing gathering focused on seeking God's will.

At the Catholic summit, prayers will be sprinkled throughout each day's mix of presentations and worship services, according to the Holy See Press Office.

In these settings and others, not all prayers are created equal, Bishop Oliveto said. It's more unifying to ask God to be present with conference participants and guide their actions than to ask for people you disagree with to see the error of their ways.

"I might have a desired outcome for general conference, but I pray that I will be surprised by the Holy Spirit and where we're going to wind up," Bishop Oliveto said.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Joe Scheller recites a prayer during Sunday worship at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019.

In general, prayers seem to offer more comfort when the people saying them aren't looking for a specific outcome, Park said.

"When someone has expectations of a specific answer, prayers aren't as helpful as they are in situations where people are more open to whatever answer comes their way," she said.

They also aren't as valuable if people are just going through the motions, Davis said.

Prayer "should be a conversation — in my tradition, with Jesus — that should instill in us a desire to change," he said.

Seeking change

Davis became interested in the role prayer plays in responses to clergy sexual abuse because of anger he observed in his community. When U.S. Catholic leaders gathered in Chicago last month for a prayer retreat, some church members complained that it was the wrong use of their time.

"A lot of people were frustrated," he said. "I needed to unpack that (frustration) for myself."

He sensed that anger partly stemmed from the U.S. political climate, where calls for prayer after tragedy have come to feel like an empty gesture.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Worshippers pray during Sunday worship at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019.

"'Thoughts and prayers' are routinely trotted out by politicians and pundits in the face of mass shootings and then followed up with little or no action to reduce gun violence," he wrote for America magazine.

But he knew that offering prayers without taking action was not just a modern political problem. Since the earliest days of the faith, Christians have struggled to turn prayers for change into actual change.

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Prayer problems "are not limited to politicians or religious leaders," he said. They're part of "our personal, spiritual lives."

That struggle doesn't mean people should stop praying, Bishop Oliveto said. "I think it's essential that we sink into prayer as often as possible, but especially when we are dealing with topics that generate" controversy, she said.

It does mean that Catholics and Methodists will have to pray for courage at their gatherings in addition to comfort, Davis said.