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How to Welcome Guest Preachers

The way your church welcomes - or fails to welcome - a guest preacher also says something about how visitors experience your church. And if you're the pulpit supply, the way you prepare makes a big difference. A feature story exploring how to welcome guest preachers.

Sad but true. A guest preacher agreed to preach at a church more than an hour’s drive away. The church leader who’d phoned replied, “We’ll pay you $100—the easiest $100 you’ve ever made”…as if the time and study that go into good sermons aren’t worth much.

A visiting preacher arrived at a church at the agreed-on time, but there was no one to greet him, and when he finally found the nursery for his toddler, the attendants acted miffed that he didn’t know the sign-in policies.

A seminarian preached in another church—only to be accosted in the narthex by someone who criticized a section of the sermon and blamed it on “what those people at the seminary are teaching.”

It was Mother’s Day, so a guest preacher brought along his wife and kids. During the service, the women received small potted plants. All, that is, except for the guest preacher’s wife.

Here’s hoping your congregation is more sensitive. But even if you’ve assumed you do a pretty good job of welcoming guest preachers, it’s worth thinking through how you do it. After all, much of what a visiting pastor experiences at your church is what any visitor would experience.

Cover the details

Howard Vanderwell, a retired pastor who preaches often in other churches, has compiled a list of guidelines for hosting guest preachers.

Vanderwell suggests informing the visiting preacher about church life or program issues that will help him or her choose a sermon theme, especially if the service is part of a mission emphasis week or will include a special event or Lord’s Supper celebration.

Send a liturgy or service order, clearly marked with which parts the guest preacher will lead. And invite questions. Vanderwell says, “If the preacher has not been to your congregation before, he or she will likely have questions you might not think of. Where should I sit? What type of microphone will I use?”

Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching, notes that the church office should clearly communicate all service details and responsibilities far enough ahead “so the guest pastor can, if need be, prepare a prayer of confession, children’s sermon, congregational prayer, and so on.”

An essential way to make a guest preacher feel welcome is to state a time and place in the church where he or she will meet a designated person. That person should be wearing a name tag and know where the guest needs to go first.

“Immediately orient the guest preacher to the timeline, such as, ‘Ten minutes before worship, the elders will pray with you. Elder Smith will introduce you at the beginning of worship. Elder Jones will lead the prayer of intercession. Meanwhile, here’s a quiet room where you can gather your thoughts,' ” says Ed Eubanks. A Christian school administrator in Wildwood, Missouri, Eubanks is also a Covenant Theological Seminary graduate and frequent pulpit supply minister.

Vanderwell adds, “Worship leaders who serve together in a service will serve more comfortably if they meet face to face.” That gives everyone a chance to ask questions, clarify roles, and pray together before the service.

Double check your visitor protocol

“Some congregations are just warmer and friendlier than others. Walking through the narthex as a guest pastor, I find congregations where members stop me frequently to say hello or comment on the sermon. In other congregations, I breeze through with few, or any, people greeting me.

“Doubtless, that would be the experience of any guest in their midst, not just the guest preacher,” Hoezee says.

Eubanks and other visiting preachers who bring their families note several things that help make guests feel welcome:

  • Parking spaces set aside for visitors
  • Clearly-marked exterior entrances
  • Clear signage or helpful greeters who explain what’s available for children and whether to keep crying babies in worship or bring them to a “cry room”
  • Well-organized nursery and church school spaces, along with friendly attendants
  • Greeters who offer help with wheelchairs, large-print liturgies, or hearing loop technology
  • Explanations for practices unique to a congregation, such as multiple songbooks or distribution methods for the Lord’s Supper

Offer post-worship hospitality

If your guest preacher is coming from out of town or preaching for morning and evening services, discuss meal arrangements ahead of time. “If the preacher (and family) must travel for more than 30 to 45 minutes after worship, they’ll probably need to stop for lunch or bring one along. An advance invitation assuages concerns,” Ed Eubanks says.

For visiting preachers who need a place to stay, you might assume it’s most welcoming to put them up at a church member’s home. But it’s better to offer the option of a home stay or hotel room.

“Preaching and leading worship take a lot of energy, no matter where you are. If the guest pastor also needs to feel like he or she is ‘on’ for hours on end while staying with other people, the energy drain is more pronounced,” Hoezee explains.

When worship ends, make sure there are people who will introduce themselves to the guest pastor and family, thank the preacher, and welcome them to any post-worship fellowship, whether coffee and donuts or a potluck. “I’ve had individuals in a congregation give me a few dollars ‘to cover gas.’ What a nice gesture!” Eubanks says.

Learn More

For even more tips on welcoming guest preachers and being a good guest preacher, see these guidelines from Howard Vanderwell and Placement Reflections blog posts by Ed Eubanks:

Visiting preachers aren’t always seminarians or seminary graduates. The Episcopal, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist denominations, for example, have processes for certifying or licensing lay preachers.

Consider inviting your church staff, council, outreach committee, or any study group to go through the course Making Your Church More Inviting: A Step-by-Step Guide for In-Church Training.

Start a Discussion

Talk about how to welcome guest preachers and any other church visitors:

  • Think back on the last few times your church had a guest preacher. What went well? What could have gone better? What checklists or policies or practices would you like to develop?
  • Who in your church is responsible for making guest preacher contacts—weeks ahead, on the day of, and immediately after worship? How does this person know what he or she should do? Is anything written down in case the responsibility gets shifted to someone new?
  • Which aspects of church worship do you assume “everyone knows”? Have you noticed visitors whodon’t know or been surprised while visiting churches with different worship practices?
  • What is your congregation’s self perception about friendliness or hospitality to church visitors? Do you tend to err by smothering and embarrassing visitors or by ignoring them?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to be more welcoming to guest preachers and other visitors?

  • Whether you’ve invited mystery worshipers, surveyed guest preachers, or sent out teams to visit other churches, what’s the best way you’ve found to identify your church’s blind spots regarding hospitality?
  • If your congregation sees itself as shy or reserved, what resources or strategies have helped you move toward being more welcoming?