Filling the Pulpit Without Losing Your Mind

Divine Details

December has rolled around again, that
month when the installed pastor is equal parts giddy over the imminent
celebration and counting the hours until some post-Christmas hibernation. When the regular pastor takes a few days off to spend time with loved
ones or make dents in her favorite recliner, that’s when the supply
preacher steps in. If you’re looking to grace a vacant pulpit
after Christmas or anytime, here are a few insider tips:

Scoring gigs

You never know when a church may need
a supply preacher, but the greatest demand is at predictable times –
the Sunday after Christmas or Easter, weekends next to school holidays,
and summer. If your schedule is open at those times, you’re
ahead of the curve. To get on a church’s calendar, first find
out if your denomination has a protocol for supply preaching.
Does your judicatory keep an official list of approved pulpit fillers?
If so, how do you get on it? How aggressively can you advertise
your availability without raising eyebrows? Within the bounds
set by your judicatory, ask about opportunities and get your name out.
Use your networks of both clergy and laypeople, because in some churches
the laity is charged with recruiting the guest preacher. Look
to make connections with other ministers who regularly substitute in
case they get multiple invitations for the same date. Decide how
far you’re willing to travel, and unless you’re a “name,” be
prepared for calls from small churches with solo pastors.

Donald Trump will never eye you
with envy, but…

You are providing a valuable ministry
to the churches that ask you to preach. You should be compensated
for your preparation, travel, and worship leadership efforts.
Be aware, though, that some churches and denominations are much more
familiar with the concept of supply preaching than others. Therefore,
when you put the word out, let it be known that you’re not a cheap
date. (“I am looking for places to preach as a means of fulfilling
my call and supplementing my income.”) Otherwise, you
might get paid in cookies from the fellowship hour, a pat on the head,
and the satisfaction of doing something good for Jesus. When in
doubt, ASK if the church pays an honorarium and mileage for out of town
trips. Find out what other supply preachers in your area usually
pull in, and negotiate if necessary. Politely decline to do extras,
such as writing liturgy for the bulletin or leading the children’s
message, if the honorarium is on the short end.

It’s the
little things that show you care

When I started supply preaching, I
assumed that I would be responsible for a scripture, the sermon, the
benediction, and maybe a pastoral prayer. Well, you know what
they say about making assumptions. It turns out that many churches,
even those with a lay liturgist, want the guest minister to lead the
entire worship service. That’s tricky business if you’re unfamiliar
with the congregation. So ask for an order or worship and go through
it element by element with the person who invited you to preach.
(Who does what? Do you say “debts” or “trespasses” in
the Lord’s Prayer? Who announces hymns, if anyone? What
information do you need from me before the bulletin goes to print?)
When you get to the church on the morning of your gig – early so you’re
not unduly stressed – have someone physically walk through the service
with you. Every church has hidden routines and unspoken taboos
around when and where to stand and sit. You can’t get it all
right, and there’s grace for that, but try as hard as you can.
Make notes on all these rubrics and file them away (along with e-mails,
maps, and church contact information) in case the same church invites
you back.

The preaching moment

When it comes time to interpret the
Word, be yourself and give the congregation a way to connect with you.
Otherwise, you grant the people permission to tune you out as mere filler.
Touch the hearts and challenge the minds of your hearers, but stay away
from drive-by preaching. No pastor wants to come back from vacation
to clean up your shrapnel after you told the nice members that there
was no virgin birth.

And now a word for our installed

Do you want to take a Sunday off but
suffer from a strong smite of guilt? Don’t worry. There
are lots of very capable ministers eager to keep your pulpit warm while
you take a well-deserved vacation. If you do call on a supply
preacher, allow her to focus more on worship leadership and less on
the fuzziness of the details by letting her know up front what all is
expected of her and how much your church will pay her. (Speaking
of money, if your church doesn’t have a set honorarium, consider how
much time you spend on Sunday prep when deciding on a dollar amount.)
And bear in mind that laypeople can shoulder some of the liturgy load
while you’re away, such as receiving prayer requests and giving the
children’s message, two elements of worship that are really tough
for a stranger.

Supply preaching is a dizzying, wonderful
way to enjoy the privilege of bringing a word to God’s people.
True, it can be frustrating to go in cold with no way to know if you’re
really speaking to the situations of the members in the pews.
But it’s an opportunity to meet new people and learn how other churches
(and even denominations) do church. And if you are open to the
moment, God will both use you to bless others and well up in you the
sense of a call fulfilled.

6 replies
  1. Erica
    Erica says:

    Right on comments, Laura (gave me flashbacks of the crazy amount of supply preaching we were required to do at my seminary).
    And, I have the added joy this afternoon of having the image stuck in my head of someone patting you on the head as thanks for a fabulous sermon. (I truly hope that never actually happened!)

  2. Kate
    Kate says:

    This is a fantastic article! Thank you, Laura.
    Also worth noting is that some denominations set a minimum amount for what a church may offer their pulpit supply folks. In my local Presbytery it is $125 per service plus mileage.
    As a college Chaplain I love doing pulpit supply when I can. It’s a wonderful way to get to know area congregations and to have the opportunity to lead worship. Over the years I have built amazing relationships with a few local congregations that I absolutely adore. 🙂

  3. ann
    ann says:

    laura, how do you think being a young woman plays into supplying? overall, i’ve been overwhelming thanked and welcomed when i’ve supplied, probably because people don’t know what to make when i first walk in and then are pleasantly surprised and appreciative that i have at least a basic sense of what’s what.
    then there are the ambiguous but amusing comments: “for a small person, you sure are loud.”
    and “drive by preaching”??? nice. that almost warrants an entire article by itself.

  4. Laura S-R
    Laura S-R says:

    I have had the good fortune of supplying mostly at churches pastored by women, so people are more taken aback by my size (and probably how young I look) than my gender. But I found out that one of the judicatory leaders, when referring me to churches, actually warns them about how short I am! I find that funny.
    As for “drive-by preaching,” I have to give credit for that phrase to fellow YCW Susie. I think it captures well that some suppliers think they can say whatever they want b/c they already have their check in hand!

  5. Jennifer C
    Jennifer C says:

    Laura, it might just be worth it to pay your travel and expenses to have you supply out here in Oregon! Thanks for a great article.


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