In Lutheran worship, laying hands on the head of a worshiper is a gesture that has come to be connected with the ministries of healing, absolving and blessing. Human beings instinctively lay a gentle hand on one another to convey love, care and compassion.
This gesture of touch is evident in healing stories in the four Gospels. We read of Jesus reaching out his hand, gently touching those in need as he healed them. Jesus blessed the children by the laying on of hands (Matthew 19:15).
Within the worship service, the physical gesture of the laying on of hands can be a powerful moment of connection with the love, care and compassion of God.
The laying on of hands is a significant physical gesture of blessing that recalls the promises of baptism. In the ELCA baptismal rite, the prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit is accompanied by the pastor laying both hands on the head of the newly baptized, and is an acknowledgment and expression of the bestowing of the Holy Spirit through Baptism in water with the word of God. This action is recalled in the rites of affirmation of baptism and ordination.
Worshipers who receive the laying on of hands during absolution in the order of confession or during prayers for healing are also tangibly reminded of these baptismal promises.
The laying on of hands is not restricted to the worshiping assembly. In pastoral care situations, the laying on of a hand with prayer may be part of a visit to someone who is sick, or it may be included when the Sacrament of Holy Communion is brought from the assembly to one who is ailing.
An order for healing can be found on page 276 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, or in the Ministry in Sickness and Health section of Evangelical Lutheran Worship Pastoral Care.
The laying on of hands is a powerful gesture of blessing that may be appropriate in a variety of circumstances. Groups or individuals may be blessed by touch when sent out into the world in mission work. A community of faith may surround a person in need of support with prayer and a touch to the head or shoulder. In this action, God’s love and the prayers are embodied by the community of faith.
Worship leaders must use care in any ministry that involves touch, including the laying on of hands. Be mindful of personal boundaries and an individual’s comfort level. Make sure that the physical gesture is appropriate, has a clear intent and is welcomed.