Grab the closest recent seminary graduate and ask him this question: how many times did he preach while in seminary?
Not how many preaching classes did he take; on how many occasions did he actually preach a sermon? His answer, I suspect, may surprise you.
Depending on the seminary, the answer may start at only two or three, since some schools offer only a couple of classes in preaching. Even at the seminary I attended, which is known for its strong emphasis on preaching, we were required to take only four classes in homiletics (the study of preaching); of those, we preach in only three of them (although we do some initiatory presentation in the first class as well). So by the end of my seminary career, I was required to preach all of six times to fulfill the requirements of my degree– a pastoral ministry-oriented degree.
In my denomination, these six times are insufficient to be ordained (thankfully– can you imagine a pastor who had preached only six times before beginning his ministry?). My presbytery required me to preach not just six, but 12 times in order to complete my internship. And, since a preached sermon is part of the ordination exam itself, I guess technically the requirement is 13 times.
Still, that strikes me as simply not being enough. Consider this: one pastor I know remarked that it takes a preacher about 100 sermons to find his “voice” in preaching. That is, assuming he preaches twice a week, the 13-sermon ordinand will need nearly a year before he is comfortable with his own style of preaching. (Of course, this number is approximate, and some guys will be comfortable long before that, but the exception proves this rule in this case.)
Some classmates have responded to my critique in this way: “that’s true if you’re going straight into a solo pastorate, but I’m going to be an Associate Pastor, so I’ll get plenty of time to find my voice.” When, I ask, do they expect to get that time? The very nature of the Associate or Assistant Pastor position implies that they are not the Head Pastor, and therefore probably not the main preacher. (For some Head Pastors, this means that the only time the Associate will preach is when the Head Pastor is on vacation!) Even if you assume that you’ll get one or two preaching opportunities per month, that means it will be more like 3-5 years before you’re truly comfortable preaching.
What is the alternative? Seminaries could always offer more preaching classes, but that would mean that elective hours would be devoted to them (not necessarily a bad idea), or that the already-bloated Master of Divinity degree– usually between 100 and 112 credit hours– would become longer still. No, the time-tested traditional method for garnering preaching experience is the so-called “Pulpit Supply” option.
Pulpit supply is just what it sounds like: some church needs a preacher to be in their pulpit, and seminaries supply one. Most of the pastors I know who were seminary-trained a generation ago tell great tales of their pulpit supply experiences, including which churches were always cold, which ones were sure-fire Sunday dinner opportunities, and so on. This great tradition lives on for only about 15% or less of today’s seminarians, by my estimation.
I knew a few guys who were out filling pulpits almost every Sunday; they actually got to their “home church” only once or twice per semester! But most of those who go for the pulpit supply opportunities get a few– say, 3-6– chances to preach each semester. Some guys I was in seminary with preached the same two or three sermons every time (which doesn’t help their training in sermon preparation, but it does help their actual preaching experience), but most of us wrote a few new sermons each semester.
Pulpit supply can be a good way to earn some extra money, as most churches pay $75 or $100 each time you preach. This represents a big shift away from convention– instead of paying big bucks for your education, you actually get paid for it. Preaching is hard, and sermon preparation is harder still, so even $100 is no easy money, but it can be a great way to earn and learn at the same time.
The dividends might pay off in even more ways. By pursuing pulpit supply opportunities, not only did I get good experience and progress toward “finding my voice” (I preached almost 100 times during my time in seminary), and not only did I earn some good money doing so, but I also developed a sermon series while in the process. I worked through much of Ephesians, as I anticipated preaching that series at my first call after graduation. Although I’ll rework the sermons to fit the context and revisit the important considerations of explanation and application, I already have a foundational framework in place.
Ed Eubanks is a contributing writer for Seminary Survival Guide.