I’m asked quite often about my experiences guest preaching, so I thought it would be worthwhile to write a post addressing the how, when, what, & where’s of it all. A couple Sunday’s ago marked my 25th time guest preaching and while that in no way makes me an expert, it did make me reflect on each of those experiences, and then made me realize maybe I should write about the role of ‘guest preacher/pulpit supply’ for anyone who may be curious or interested in pursuing it. I wanted to write this post into existence for it to serve as a (mediocre) resource for people – particularly young people – who want more preaching experience but don’t know where to begin or what guest preaching even entails.
The first opportunity I ever had to preach was on Youth Sunday – a lot of churches have Youth Sunday and if yours does, I highly recommend offering yourself to deliver the message, especially if preaching is something you’re interested in exploring more. Even if it’s not, Youth Sunday gives you great leadership experience that I guarantee you will look back on forever. During my time in youth group there were three Youth Sunday’s that I got to be a part of – one my junior year of high school & one my senior year. I ended up giving a sermon at all three and the reason for this was because after my first time up behind that pulpit, all I wanted was to do it more & more. That was my first clue that maybe, just maybe, God was beginning to stir something up within me. When it came time for our youth group to begin planning that very first Youth Sunday, our youth leader at the time asked who wanted to deliver the sermon – my hand shot up in the air which is funny because I had been terrified of public speaking my whole life. (That’s how I knew in that moment the Holy Spirit had something to do with my eager response to give the message). That being said, I am not going to sit here and tell you that my nerves immediately dissipated as I got up to deliver that very first sermon – I’m pretty sure I recall my knees shaking uncontrollably and my message that day probably could have gone down in history as being the shortest sermon ever delivered. But a passion sparked within me that day – to preach & do ministry – in a way I had never felt passion before. I no longer get nervous before or while I preach which is such a God thing, given my intense fear growing up of anything that involved speaking in front of people – but I definitely do still get ‘butterflies,’ and I seldom sleep well the night before I preach because I’m excited (I’m like a little kid on Christmas Eve, lol)
When it comes to preaching opportunities, I can’t stress enough how important it is to know that those opportunities are not always going to find you or just fall into your lap – you have to seek them out. My first time ever preaching not on Youth Sunday was when my pastor at the time asked me to give the sermon at our 11pm Christmas Eve service, and it would have been easy *but naive) of me to expect that that’s how it normally happens – it actually seldom happens that way. You have to put yourself out there and play an active role in getting your own opportunities – get your name out there, contact your district superintendent, reach out to pastors in your area, use your own pastor as a resource, be annoying !! If you want to preach or do any sort of ministry, let people know. Put time & energy into finding those opportunities, because believe me, they are out there. Before I even got to college I was emailing pastors in the area introducing myself and letting them know that if they were ever in need of someone to fill in for them, I was an aspiring pastor & eager to gain experience. I ended up even getting coffee with a few of those pastors to talk further about their churches & about ministry. I even remember emailing various retirement communities in my area telling them that if their chaplain ever needed someone to fill in for them, I would be eager to. I was vocal to pastors on my own district and pastors not on my district about my passion to preach, and believe me when I say that once pastors have the name and contact info of someone who is willing to fill in for them in their absence and is passionate about ministry, they will reach out and ask you (more than once)
It is for this reason, however, that I need to stress the importance of creating boundaries and learning to say ‘no’ – both are aspects of self-care & they are vital. This is a topic for a whole other blog post which I will definitely do at some point, & if you’re a mentor of mine reading this, you’re probably chuckling to yourself and saying, “she’s really preaching to herself here,” and you’d be right. I totally am. I’ve never been a champ at saying no, even when it costs me. But through the stress & burnout that I’ve faced as a result of my reluctance to say no, I’ve learned just how important it is for my health and sanity to say ‘no,’ especially without feeling bad or feeling as though I’m missing out on an opportunity that deep down I know will come around again in the future (…AKA, every Sunday once I’m out of seminary) One small thing I’ve done for myself to help me with this is never saying yes or no to an opportunity the same day that I am asked. I always wait at least one day before giving them an answer – I say something along the lines of, “let me get back to you, I need to check my calendar.” In the meantime, I look at my calendar & my school workload to make sure I wouldn’t be spreading myself too thin, and I pray about it. I used to always say yes right then and there when I was asked without thinking about how I would potentially be spreading myself too thin, but I learned that if you do this, you get burnt out and exhausted super fast. Of course I want to say yes every time I’m asked because I love preaching and ministry, and I want to do a lot of it, & I’m also a huge people pleaser. Technically, I could say yes to every opportunity – there’s nothing really standing in the way of me doing so, but if I said yes to every single opportunity, I would be saying no to my health, my school, my rest. I have to remind myself also that I have my lifetime to preach and to be a pastor someday. My self care and sanity are more important than my fear of missing out or of disappointing someone. Factoring that into my preaching decisions was huge for me. So in a nutshell – learn how to say no, & keep people in your life who will hold you accountable for that.
Now that I’ve gotten that spiel out of the way, I get to talk about the joy of saying yes.
Friends – every experience, every church, every pastor, every congregation you meet will bless you & make your life richer – there’s no question about it. The churches that you guest preach at will be different from one another, sometimes in big ways & sometimes in small ones. There will be small, medium, and large churches. There will be rural churches in the middle of nowhere that you get lost in an apple orchard trying to get to (true story) and there will be city churches right in the heart of downtown. The people who make up those churches will amaze you in the best way – I think one of my top favorite things about guest preaching is the people I get to meet. They are so kind, so welcoming, so hospitable, so in love with God. These are people who welcome you – a complete stranger – into the church home that they so evidently love, but they treat you instantly like a sister or brother in Christ who has come to be part of their church family, even if it is just for a day. These are people who help you lead on the Sunday morning you’re there – they [significantly] help you lead a service that they’re more familiar with than you are, they offer you water bottles, give you a tour of the church, tell you its history, share prayer requests with you, tell you their life story after the service, and are always gracious to tell you when/how God spoke to them through your message. These people treat you like you’re their pastor for the day which is ~terrifying~ but humbling, and a huge responsibility not to be taken lightly.
From these people you will receive encouragement & positive feedback, and you may also (definitely) receive some criticism – some of which will be constructive and some will just be plain rude – my advice is just to learn to let those rude comments roll off you like rain. Allow yourself to talk it through with someone if it really bothers you, but also know that the hurtful comments are not worth internalizing, especially because you can usually be 99% sure that they’re not even true. So don’t be discouraged – the positive always outweigh the negative.
As far as the sermon writing process goes, just know that the process is different & unique to every preacher. I can’t tell you how to write a sermon because there is no right or wrong way to do it, which is why I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this. I can, however, tell you how I go about it & what my experience has been just to give you some ideas if this whole ‘sermon writing’ thing is new to you. More times than not, the pastor you’re filling in for will give you free reign (within reason) as far as the topic and scripture you preach on. He or she may sometimes tell you what scripture or topic they’d like you to preach on if they’re in the midst of a sermon series or something, but more times than not, you’ll choose. When I’m choosing the scripture and topic, I sometimes use the lectionary scripture for that week, but I don’t always. If there’s a specific scripture or topic that’s on my heart that I feel led to preach on, that is what I do. But first, before any of that, start by asking God what he wants to speak to these congregations through you.
*I will note, in regards to sermon writing, that time management is super important. So plan well! For example, if the pastor is going to be on vacation the week you’re filling in for them, they may want the sermon title & scripture lesson two weeks in advance so that he or she can get those bulletins printed. So manage your time well and don’t procrastinate – it benefits everyone if you don’t. As far as how long it takes to write a sermon, it’s a tricky question to answer because it often depends. Personally, I cannot write an entire sermon in one sitting. I don’t work well that way but more power to ya if you do. Some weeks I’m done with my sermon by Tuesday or Wednesday, other weeks I’m wrapping it up on Friday and printing it Saturday after proofreading. The Holy Spirit always shows up and moves so it’s never a concern of mine whether it will get done or not. You just have to be conscious of your time (i.e. how much time you have to write it and also go over it a time or two) (or 5). And might I just note, while we’re on the topic of planning – sometimes, your ‘only’ responsibility on that Sunday will be writing & delivering the sermon. Sometimes, your responsibilities will include both the sermon & the children’s message. Sometimes, your responsibilities will include the sermon, children’s message, the welcoming, the pastoral prayer, the scripture reading, the offering prayer, and the benediction. Sometimes, you’re warned about that ahead of time, but there have been instances where I have shown up on Sunday with only my sermon prepared, only to find out that I also needed to do the children’s sermon, and there have also been instances where I have shown up before with just my sermon prepared only to find out that I need to do the entire order of worship (that’s why you should always show up early on Sunday mornings!)
But hey, I count it all joy. While I am a total advocate for having lay leaders/readers helping throughout the service, because a) everyone should be given opportunities to use their beautiful gifts and b) I get sick of hearing myself talk, it really just depends on the church, the pastor, what he/she usually does, and what they want you to do. Always just be flexible and open to spontaneity, because that, my friends, is ministry.
One last aspect of preaching on Sunday’s that relates somewhat to self-care is the time in between services (if the church you’re guest preaching at has more than 1 service). This probably seems super menial, but to me, the time in between services has become sacred. When I first started guest preaching at different churches, members of the congregation would invite me to attend their Sunday schools during that one hour period. I felt like I constantly needed to be around the people of that church to be respectful and engaged. And of course before and after the service I’m mingling and greeting people. But now, I’ve learned that as an introvert, I need that quiet time in between the services to be in solitude. So nowadays, between services you’ll find me hanging out in the pastors office, sitting in an empty room, or in the sanctuary with myself and God. I use this time to breathe, to pray, & to look at the order of worship for the next service. I reflect on the first service and see if anything needs to be adjusted or changed for the second one. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s just my ‘routine’ – you will develop your own routine (or at least, as “routine” as ministry can get)
A few years back my pastor advised me to keep a preaching log, which I have happily done, and I am so glad. His reasoning at the time was for seminary applications and for interviews before DCOM, but in addition to that, it is a beautiful thing to have and look back on. Every single opportunity has been a blessing and grown me in different ways, and they’re all worth remembering. Now I have this log to look back on and remember every church, every pastor, every congregation, and every sermon that has played a role in helping me live out my call and grow as a preacher. I pray that if you are sensing or responding to a call to ministry, don’t be afraid (or be afraid and discern and pursue it anyways!) Put yourself out there. Use your resources. Know your support system & take advantage of those people who want to see you flourish. Follow & pursue where God is leading you. Live into your call. It is the best, most beautiful & fun thing I’ve ever done – doesn’t mean it’s perfect, just completely worth it.
This post in no way encapsulated everything I wanted to say – I know I’m probably forgetting to say about a million things, but it is my hope that this post provided the tiniest bit of information to help you navigate this whole ‘guest preaching’ thing. If you are someone sensing a call to ministry, or someone who loves preaching, I would be so happy to talk more with you – don’t hesitate to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org