As a person who is new in the church consulting field and as one who some would called "retired" (though I hate that term), doing pulpit supply by filling in for vacationing pastors and pulpit vacancies has been my lot this summer. Thus far, I have had the opportunity to preach at five different churches with two more pulpits awaiting me during the next few weeks. To say the least, the experience has been a valuable and challenging one for me as a consultant and guest preacher.
As I have had the opportunity to do pulpit supply, I have found that there are a number of benefits in having this kind of ministry. First of all, pulpit supply has allowed me a number of opportunities to observe what God is doing in a variety of contexts. Each congregation is different from each other, but I could see different ways the Holy Spirit was working even in the smallest congregation. In one church, in particular, I had the chance to see how far they had come since I did supply preaching there a year ago during the summer of 2012. There was a new atmosphere in that particular congregation especially since they had gone through a rather difficult crisis which left the church in a state where one wondered if the church would even survive. On the other hand, I had a chance to observe not only the ways God was working, but could see the congregation through an objective set of eyes. I could see some of the areas of the church's ministry that needed growth and transformation. As a consultant, preaching at various congregations has allowed me to improve my observation skills in looking at congregations in a variety of contexts.
Secondly, supply preaching has allowed the congregation to hear a different perspective on the Scriptures that they are not accustomed to. This does not mean that the pastor is doing a poor job preaching, but sometimes human beings become so used to the pastor's messages, they can almost take it for granted. At times, it is a healthy thing for churches to hear a different approach to the Scriptures and to remind people that the Word of God is a living word that is proclaimed in a number of ways. Supply preaching can help a congregation avoid tunnel vision when it comes to the preaching and teaching of God's Word.
Thirdly, supply preaching can be used to build up the pastor and his/her ministry. In addition to this, supply preaching can also build up the church's ministry by helping the congregation see God's plan from an impartial observer. As an outsider, often topics can be preached on that may be awkward for the pastor to speak about especially if there is conflict or finances are tight.The supply preacher has no direct vested interest in the congregation and has a great deal of leverage in being able to cover preaching topics that will help a congregation and its pastor fulfill God's calling.
While there are great opportunities involved in supply preaching, yet it is not without its challenges. As one who has recently entered the world of supply preaching, one of its most difficult aspects is that I am not connected to the people in the same way as I was when I pastored a church. When I was a pastor, I knew where Aunt Grace and the Jones' sat every Sunday morning. I knew that Harriet was still getting over the pains of a messy divorce and that Ralph was grieving over the loss of his wife of 62 years. In supply preaching, I don't have that history and I can go weeks without really being connected to any one congregation. Although I have been attending a particular church when I am not supply preaching, it can be weeks between times that I worship in what I would call a "home" church (especially during vacation time).
It is because of this challenge, I would highly recommend that, anyone who regularly supply preaches, should make it a point to find a home church and to attend its meetings during the week to stay connected. Another aspect to this is that my wife has not gone with me when I did pulpit supply with the reason being is that it gave her an opportunity to be connected with our new congregation since I had left my previous pastoral post in late April. Another factor that has helped is that a number of pulpit supplies were earlier than our church service and it allowed me to at least get back for the coffee hour held after the service. It is my opinion that the greatest challenge to pulpit supply is to stay connected to a local church.
Another challenge to being involved in pulpit supply is to understand the flow of the service in each church and what the expectations are. Some churches have lay leaders and all that the guest preacher has to do is preach. Other churches have no one and you are on your own! Some are very formal-suit and tie while others are laid back. In dealing with this issue, I usually wore a suit and tie when I arrived at the church but dressed down if the situation warranted it. Interestingly enough, I came into one church wearing my suit and tie and during the announcements, a woman told me to take off the coat- "We are informal here." On a warm summer day in a non air conditioned church, I obliged!
Some congregations are very good in telling the guest pastor ahead of time what the expectations are and some are not so good at this. The guest preacher should check with the pastor ahead of time what is expected but this can be very difficult if the church is without a pastor or if communication is poor. Nevertheless, a supply preacher will have to go with the flow to a certain extent and most people are pretty forgiving of a visiting pastor since we do have guest status. At one church that I had supplied at for three consecutive weeks, I had become comfortable enough that I even sang with their choir on the third week. Flexibility is a key in supply preaching and it is a great way of connecting with a congregation even if it is only short term.
Another challenge to supply preaching is that it involves traveling and this can interrupt the Sunday morning flow for most pastors (unless you are a circuit rider!). Also there are certain expenses involved. Another thing to keep in mind is that there is a great likelihood that you will preach a sermon that you have used before. This has its advantages in that you do not have to have as much preparation time but its disadvantages in that there is a danger that it is not a fresh word from God. Also a supply preacher must be careful to make sure that the same sermon is not used two times in a row if he/she should preach at the same church six months apart. Even if one takes a sermon out of the file, it must be prayed over, prepared and open to what God might be saying in new insights from His Word.
Supply preaching, especially for the church consultant, is a valuable and important ministry that will help make those involved in such a ministry become better observers, providers of a fresh perspective in God's Word and an important source of support to both the congregation and pastor. It is a ministry that has its significance even with its challenges. In response to this blog, I would welcome any additional thoughts to anyone who has had an opportunity to supply preach.