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Profile: How to Prepare When You're the Pulpit Supply

There’s no need to sit back and wait for a congregation to clue you in about your upcoming guest sermon arrangements. Take the initiative to find information that will help you enter a new church feeling confident, prepared, and on time to bring God’s Word.

Your sense of ease will help worshipers switch from “Who’s the new preacher?” to “Let’s worship together.”

Be ministry minded

Ed Eubanks says one of the best ways to approach the pulpit supply ministry is to be “ministry minded. You’re not there for your benefit, so don’t focus on preaching experience, theological experience, or money. Instead, focus on meeting the needs, felt or otherwise, of your temporary congregation.”

Besides asking ahead of time about congregational events and prayer requests, you can peruse the church website or ask the church secretary to send you recent bulletins.

Communicate your sermon text and theme far enough ahead so others—worship leaders, musicians, PowerPoint team, and church secretary—have time to plan their parts.

Being ministry minded also means, Eubanks says, “being on time to preach, ready to pray, ready to lead, and ready to be challenged, whether through a congregant whose toes got stepped on in the sermon or through a companion who offers honest critique.”

Sermon selection can be tricky for guest preachers, according to Duane Kelderman, who teaches preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Given a choice between “sermons that comfort the disturbed and sermons that disturb the comfortable,” he advises guest preachers to choose the former.

“Sermons that have a strong word of judgment are best preached where the pastor has earned the right in terms of a deep relationship of love and trust developed over time. It’s hard to overdo sermons filled with grace, hope, joy, encouragement, or inspiration,” Kelderman says.

Think things through

Thank the church secretary or worship leader who offers advance details that help you prepare to preach and lead worship. Then ask about what hasn’t been covered, like what to wear. If the church is used to a Hawaiian-shirted pastor, you don’t want to show up in your robe and Trinity Season stole.

Sometimes a congregation doesn’t clue you in on something ahead of time, and you won’t think to ask…until there’s a surprise.

Scott Hoezee recalls a congregation that had asked him to give the benediction. “I was using a particularly poignant and lovely benediction that tied back to the sermon. About four words into the blessing, however, the man on the electric guitar began strumming. I was irritated by this musical intrusion—and if there’s one thing you don’t want to be when pronouncing a blessing, it’s irritated!”

He’s since noticed that pianists or musicians ask ahead of time whether it’s okay to play during prayers or other spoken parts. If not, he knows to address the issue before worship.

Hoezee also suggests asking for any directions that might augment what you’d find on Mapquest or Google Maps. And allow plenty of time so you can arrive at least a half hour before worship begins. “Arriving late ensures that someone on the other end will be nervous as a cat and wondering what to do without a pastor for the day,” he says.

Create ease, not barriers

In his list of acquired tips on how to be a guest preacher, Howard Vanderwell urges, “Be sensitive to local customs. Since I am entering into their community, I will need to abide by their customs.” That’s why he advises asking ahead of time about what the congregation is used to regarding Bible translations, sermon length, and worship practices uniquely theirs.

Hoezee says that, for guest preachers, using humor or highlighting differences often makes worshipers feel uncomfortable. They don’t know whether chuckling at a remark is okay or would offend their guest. “You won’t get off to a good start if you begin a service saying something like ‘Hoo-boy. It was a long drive out here this morning. I’m not used to being out in the sticks like this!’

“Smile, be warm, be friendly, thank them for having you there, and then lead the service with due reverence and decorum. And don’t rush out the door after church,” he adds.

Eubanks agrees. “Whether or not it feels that way, being a guest preacher is an honor and privilege. Show appreciation for this chance for ministry and the hospitality shown—and you’ll be all the more appreciated.”