I’ve had more than my share of preaching, teaching, and speaking opportunities since I began seminary studies. A lot of these have been repeat visits– during seminary, I preached 94 times in 23 different places. So I’ve been blessed to get some invitations to go back to places I’ve preached before. (I always appreciate the invitation back– it means that I didn’t totally blow it the last time I was there!)
Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about having a fruitful ministry through pulpit supply. Here are some of the lessons learned:
Approach it as a ministry. If you’re doing this just for the experience– or worse, just for the money– then you shouldn’t be doing it. I try to see myself as the minister of the flock that I’m preaching to for that day. Attend to their needs, pray for them and with them, and generally make yourself available, heart and soul, for their spiritual needs for that time.
Be willing to preach. How much notice will you require to accept a preaching invitation? Here’s my policy: if they call me, even last-minute, because of some sort of emergency, I’ll go unless I’m preaching elsewhere. This policy has meant that, on a handful of occasions, I’ve had to preach with only a day or two of notice. But it has also meant the world to those congregations– and I promise you, it didn’t matter to them if my sermons were a little rough.
Be considerate of the church you’re preaching in. If you’re a Presbyterian and you’re preaching in a non-denominational church, it’s probably not the time to pull out your sermon on predestination. Sure, it’s part of your deepest convictions, but there’s no need to ram it down their throats. Tone down your language if you’re talking about a topic of difference; if you have to discuss predestination, use “election” instead. You’re there to love them, not tell them everything they’re doing wrong or that you disagree with. If you want to have a lasting, long-term ministry to them of any sort, be considerate.
Don’t preach in a vacuum. If something huge has happened, be sensitive to that in your sermon. I spent all of Saturday, Sept. 3rd, 2005 writing a new sermon, even though I had plenty of sermons I could have preached. Why? Because Hurricane Katrina had hit Louisiana and Mississippi the week before, and the people I was preaching to needed to hear God’s word speak to them about tragedy and disaster. I’ve also written a sermon for a church whose pastor’s wife had a heart-attack the Wednesday before– they called me on Thursday to preach.
Show up 10-15 minutes earlier than they tell you. Chances are, they won’t tell you what time to arrive– just what time the service starts. But the chances are also good that the Elders or other leadership will want to pray with you before worship. If nothing else, being there early will give you a chance to look over the order of worship and note any changes you should be aware of. Or, if you have trouble with the directions it will allow you a few minutes to find your way without being late.
Take a partner. Whenever I can, I like to take someone with me when I go to preach. Often this is Marcie, and she is a great partner to me. But a number of times she hasn’t gone with me for one reason or another, and I almost always try to take someone else. Why? For starters, it’s easier if you’re not alone; if you have a companion, then you know that you have one supporter. (But don’t believe the lies of your own heart here: everyone else there is for you, too.) It’s also good to have someone to help you evaluate the sermon– what worked, where you could improve, how well you did on that one part you weren’t sure of. I know it’s easy to hate the evaluations in the cold, sterile Homiletics class environment, but you long for some kind of honest feedback when it’s live and in front of regular people.
Be prepared to lead worship. Think about it– the churches that are likely to call you for pulpit supply are not the ones likely to have another pastor on staff to lead worship. Sometimes there will be an Elder who does it, and occasionally a music director that takes a strong part. Most of the time, it will be up to you. It’s a good idea to be ready for it: have some scripture ready for a call to worship, assurance of pardon, and other readings that are appropriate for your sermon topic (or at least appropriate for those functions); maybe even have some hymns picked out that you could suggest if they’re needed (be sure to pick hymns that are familiar to most people AND that you know, since you’ll probably be leading them). If you’ve never done this before, pay attention to the way your pastor does it at your church. Note the way that he has something to say between the elements of worship, how he gives a brief explanation of some parts, etc.
Let one of their Elders/leaders pray for the congregation. I rarely will lead the congregational prayers, because they need to be very personal and familiar prayers– and I can’t offer those for a congregation I don’t know very well. In fact, there is only one church that I’ve preached at where I’m comfortable leading these prayers, and that’s partly because I’ve been there more than 10 times. You may end up leading them anyway, but ask their leadership to take them if they will; most will quickly understand why this is a good idea.
Show your gratitude to the musician(s). If you’ve ever led worship without accompaniment, you’ll understand why this is so important. But it goes beyond that; if you are open with them in your appreciation of how they share their gifts, you are acknowledging that it’s not all about you. You can be sure that the musician(s) will not be the only ones who notice this, and it underscores the value of your ministry to them tremendously.
Be ready to stay for lunch – or at least be ready to stay for a while. You shouldn’t just take off right after the service; if you want to minister to them, talk with them for a few minutes after worship. Often there will be some sort of fellowship time, with coffee and doughnuts or other food. Sometimes there will be a potluck dinner afterward. Now and then someone will invite you out. Don’t deny them their opportunity for hospitality; if you do, you’re communicating that you don’t really care about them, but only about the preaching opportunity. At very least, have a good reason why you can’t stay; “I’m tired” won’t do, but “I have to pick up my family at our regular church” will. “We have to get the kids home for their naps” is iffy.
Thank them on the way out. Be sure to seek out one or more of the leaders and tell them how much you appreciate the invitation to preach. You should feel honored and privileged that you were given that blessing, and you should also feel obligated to communicate to them that you feel that way. I thank everyone I speak to after the worship service for having me there, but I make sure to give a particular word of appreciation to the leaders.
Don’t make a big deal about the money. Most churches will hand you a check at some point while you’re there. By all means, don’t make this exchange any more awkward by drawing attention to it. If they give you a check, smile, quietly thank them, then tuck it in your Bible or your pocket. Definitely do not open it up and check how much it was for. If they don’t have the check ready, there will probably be someone who is very uncomfortable and apologetic about it; assure them that it is no big deal, and they can send it in the mail later. Again, if you’re there just for the money, you shouldn’t be there. I always approach pulpit supply as something I am willing to do for free; I’ve never refused an honorarium, but if a church couldn’t pay me I would still go when they asked me to preach.
If you take these lessons into consideration, you’ll probably find the ministry of pulpit supply to be even better. Your preaching will improve, your confidence will improve, and you’ll probably get more invitations back to churches you’ve preached at before.
Ed Eubanks is a contributing writer for Seminary Survival Guide.