I recently wrote a post with some thoughts about starting a new ministry position well. Though I didn’t name preaching specifically, a thoughtfully-considered first sermon is an important piece of a fast start for pulpit ministers.
I heard an example of a great first sermon a couple of weeks ago. (Brag alert: it was delivered by my husband in his new appointment.) Matt started by outlining the different schools of thought about how to approach a first sermon, then told a humorous anecdote about each of his previous first sermons. These stories humanized him and gave his new congregation a sense of his growth as a preacher. They also showed his parishioners that they are meeting up with him mid-ministry. Matt then pointed out that he is joining this church’s narrative – already in progress – and that together they are all locating themselves along the arc of God’s relationship with humankind. Matt gave his hearers the charge to grab different threads of the story of God’s work among us and weave them more tightly into the trajectory of the kingdom, making the fabric stronger and more functional in the process. It was a great way to acknowledge the linking of a pastor’s ministry and a congregation’s mission while honoring all the history that each side brings to the relationship. This kind of sermon takes experience and a strong pastoral identity to preach, and it struck me as very effective.
I’m not often a good (traditional) pastor’s wife, but I certainly was a proud one that day!
Recently I was directing my youth in a run-through of their Youth Sunday worship service. This was a full rehearsal so that we could work out the rubics, troubleshoot AV issues, and make sure every aspect of the service pointed back to the youth-chosen theme. Several times I was asked – since there were all-important lock-in games like Sardines and Mafia to get to – “Do I have to read my whole part? I know what I’m supposed to do.” And each time I replied, “Practice like you play.” (I guess that old desire to coach basketball still lurks in the back of my brain.)
There are some worship leaders who think that writing out liturgy and sermon manuscripts (if that suits your preaching style) and rehearsing worship prevents the Holy Spirit from moving in the moment. But I believe that good preparation is a sign that a worship leader takes seriously his/her responsibility to God and to the gathered body. It’s a mark of hospitality when a worship leader ensures important details are highlighted and good transitions are made, because otherwise visitors won’t know what to expect. Preparation and rehearsal also create muscle memory in a worship leader so that if he/she is having an off day, the advance work can fill in some gaps.
But perhaps most importantly – and ironically – practicing creates more space for the Holy Spirit to operate. The Spirit isn’t limited to influencing the worship hour but instead can guide all the planning, study, writing, rehearsing, physical space arranging, and recruiting of liturgists, musicians, and greeters.
Practice like you play…and invite the Holy Spirit to redirect you in the moment and to translate all that happens into the message(s) the people in the pews need to hear.
Let’s be honest. Clergy cannot live on pulpit supply honoraria alone. Even in judicatories that dictate generous minimums, the return on a guest minister’s investment of time usually works out to less than minimum wage. (Don’t do the math. Just…don’t.)
But, pulpit supply pays other dividends that could be even more valuable than cold, hard cash.
Do you need to get your name out because you’re between positions? Do you have a new freelance ministry that could be advertised in your guest minister bio? Guest preaching, done well, can raise your profile and give you good word-of-mouth buzz.
Do you love learning how other congregations or denominations worship? Guest preaching provides you the opportunity to try on someone else’s way of doing things.
Do you enjoy meeting new people and traveling to new places? Guest preaching allows you to encounter folks and visit towns you wouldn’t otherwise.
Do you want to learn more about how to and how not to treat guests, whether clergy or laity? Guest preaching gives you a glimpse into others’ hospitality practices.
Best of all, though, guest preaching gives you a forum to tell the Good News and fulfill part of your call in the process.
If you’re wondering how to fill the pulpit without losing your mind, check out some tips here.