My role at Midwestern has allowed me to see many young seminarians receive invitations to preach as pulpit supply for pastors and local congregations in our region. It can be quite a rewarding assignment if handled well, but it can also be nerve-wracking if you don’t follow proper decorum. Through many trials and travails of my own, I have gathered for you 14 tried-and-true rules of thumb to which I try to adhere when I am called upon to be a guest preacher. What an immense stewardship you have been given! Take it seriously young proto-pastor.
1. Don’t take very many pulpit supply assignments.
You should be worshipping in your local church on Sundays. Attending Sunday worship at the church where you are a member should be as habitual to you and your family as eating is. Since your own local church is to be your priority, you should live accordingly and give your first and best service to your own local church. You want to serve and be served the Word of God among the people of God at your own local church (Hebrews 10:24-25). With that said, I try not to be out more than once every six weeks or so. I also try to stay in regular conversation with our pastor as he monitors my soul and family. I have told him on multiple occasions that if he sees an unhealthy pattern, he should call me on it. Thus, I would say the first rule of thumb is that you are not to take very many pulpit supply assignments in the first place.
2. Don't be late!
I can’t imagine a more disrespectful and careless thing to do than to show up late as a pulpit supply! You have been called upon by God and this local congregation to deliver the oracles of God Almighty, and you didn’t even bother to show up on time. Don’t do it. Get the address a week or so ahead of time, make sure you punch it into Google Maps or whatever you use, and calculate the necessary drive time needed. Do not go to bed on Saturday night without knowing how long a drive you have ahead of you in the morning. I suggest you give yourself at least a 20-minute buffer zone between when your GPS says you’ll arrive and when you were asked to arrive.
3. Communicate beforehand with the pastor.
Ask the pastor what he is currently preaching through. Ask him about the profile of the congregation (old, young, rural, etc.). Ask him if there is any text, genre, or theme he would prefer you to preach or refrain from. Write down contact information for that day—will the pastor be present or will a deacon or elder be receiving you? What is their phone number? Lastly, ask him what time he would like you to arrive.
4. Look over their website prior to preparing your sermon.
If the church has a website, then peruse it before you start work on your sermon. This may give you some helpful clues as to the size, ethos, and needed sermon applications. This is also another way to look at the times for the worship service, Sunday School, etc. Look at the pastoral staff, calendar, belief statements, and history. This small investment of intentional research can be invaluable for understanding the congregation to whom you’ve been called upon to preach.
5. Better to be overdressed than underdressed
You can take a tie or coat off if you feel that you are overdressed for a more casual congregation, but you can’t put on a tie or coat that you didn’t bring with you. You want to honor the church who has asked you to bring the Word of God. You also don’t want to create an unnecessary chasm between you and them if you can avoid it. If putting on a coat and tie can eliminate impediments to hearing the Word of God, then why wouldn’t you do that? Furthermore, I believe you stand to lose more if you are considered to be underdressed, than you stand to lose by being overdressed.
6. Find a bulletin or order of service as soon as you arrive.
Upon arrival, try to find the church’s bulletin. Ask as soon as you arrive at the church and quickly become familiar with the order of service. If it is a church that doesn’t utilize bulletins, find your point of contact (deacon, host, etc.) and ask at what point you’ll be preaching, where should you sit, how many songs will be sung, etc.
7. Generously thank the church for the opportunity and compliment the senior pastor.
This is one I find younger and less-experienced preachers often jettison to their detriment. It is an incredible gift of God that He has chosen you to preach His sacred Word to this church at which you find yourself on this particular Sunday. Never take that for granted. What is in order, then, is thankfulness and praise. Take a moment right when you get up to preach (maybe before you pray for the hearing of God’s Word) to generously extend warm thanks and gratefulness for the opportunity.
8. Minimize humor.
Be careful not to lean too heavily upon humor in your sermon as a pulpit supply. As a guest preacher, humor can get pretty dicey and you don’t want to offend unnecessarily. What is almost equally as tragic is if you come off cheesy, or worse, you’re taken to be disrespectful—having unintentionally lowered the nobility of the sacred desk. So, play it conservatively and keep humor to a minimum. This church doesn’t know you, and you don’t know them, so keep your tone straightforward, sober, worshipful, and joyful, not humorous.
9. Stick to well-known texts and central doctrines.
When choosing a text, stick to the well-trod tracks and themes of the Bible. Choose a text that lifts high the doctrine of Scripture (Psalm 19, Isaiah 55:10-11, 2 Peter 1:16-21), a rich Christological text (Colossians 1:15-20), or a gospel-exalting text (John 3). If you’ll stick to this rule of thumb, my suspicion is that you’ll hear far more “Amens!” and far fewer “Huh?s.” Second, you should choose a central doctrine over a contested one, or even over an obscure text, because it puts you in a better position to have your sermon understood and received. It is not your job that morning to step into the pulpit as a grand polemicist. And it should go without saying, but you are not the pastor of that church, and it is not your job as a guest to disabuse them of all your preconceived notions of their “doctrinal aberrations.”
10. Feed those adopted sheep
I’ve never gotten over the fact that when I am asked to fill a pulpit for a pastor, what has in reality happened is that God has entrusted that congregation’s souls to my care for those fleeting but sweet moments. What is really going on on any given Sunday is that God has set His sights on me from eternity past to deliver His Word to the souls sitting before me that day. That, my friends, is a stunning actuality. For 30-40 minutes that Sunday morning, you are to deliver the mind of God to this flock. They are your adopted sheep for just a moment of time. It’s an eternal moment, and I’ve never gotten over that. You and I should pray the truths of Isaiah 55:10-11 over that moment every time. God will do his work by his Word, and we must be faithful to get out of the way of the wonder-working power of the Holy Spirit as he goes to work with his Word. You just be faithful young proto-preacher.
11. Don’t assume they are taking you out to eat (or paying you, for that matter!)
Though this is proper decorum, it’s not always within small church’s capability to pay you or to take you out to eat after the sermon. I remember about two years ago when one week I preached at a church with literally thirteen people in attendance, and the next week I preached at a church with 300+ in attendance. I was struck by the difference in decorum between the two. I don’t denigrate the smaller church. Rather I simply expect different things from different churches. You never know what kind of financial footing these little fledgling churches are standing on. Typically, these are the churches in need of a pulpit supply.
Remember, you are there not as a peddler of the Word, but as a minister of it. What a gift! You get to deliver the oracles of your Savior to a poor and weary little church. Suffer not the little ones to come to the bread of the Scriptures, the water of the Word. So, ideally they should pay you and maybe even take you out to eat, but they may not be able to, and they may not know that is the appropriate thing to do. But you are there to deliver God’s Word and that is pay enough when you stand before your Lord.
12. Bring greetings from your own local church.
This shows good form and builds Kingdom collegiality. Bringing greetings builds good will between local churches and is a kind gesture. It also models a love for your own local church, something you hope to engender in the congregation you are preaching to.
13. Consider preaching a sermon you’ve already preached elsewhere.
Reusing the same sermon allows you to drill down deeper on your particular text, but it also allows you to work at your homiletical craft. You can rub off the ugly edges of the previous time you delivered it. Beware the tendency to become stale and stifled, though. If you have preached a sermon two or three times, it’s probably time to retire it. When you double dip on a sermon, I strongly suggest you rewrite the sermon to some degree. Get in there and tinker with it. Don’t just rewarm it and then deliver. Brood over the text and your manuscript. Sharpen your arguments. Cut it down a bit if you can. Switch up your anecdotes.
14. Better the sermon be too short than too long
This really goes with number three from above. But once you learn what your time parameters are from the pastor, stick to them. You won’t have time to explain to everyone in there how it was not your desire to have gone over on time, so keep it short! I have had many pastors say to me, “Brother, you take as long as you need.” And you know what I say? “No, come on now, don’t do that to me. How long do you normally preach?” And then they’ll normally tell you. This is important because it gives you the norm for the church’s corporate expectation as to when they will be getting out.
I dare say that if you keep to these rules of thumb, you’ll more than likely have a successful pulpit supply—and who knows, they may just ask you to come back!