What I Learned Guest Preaching Last Year
I’ve spent the last year guest preaching.
Some of them I had a preexisting relationship, and in others, I came in as a stranger.
In every case, I was fill in for a pastoral absence (be it their holiday or a church in transition).
As a result of this experience I have had a chance to think about the ins and outs of pulpit supply and here are my suggestions for how to make this experience better for you as a guest preacher.
1) Understand your Role
You are a guest in someone’s church.
That should sink in before you start offering yourself for pulpit supply.
As a guest, you need to change your approach to preaching. You are no longer simply trying to lead and guide your congregation instead you are being offered the chance to speak to someone else’s congregation.
This change means you need to temper yourself and your preaching.
I’m sure for some of us the idea of putting a limit on your preaching feels antithetical.
“God has called me to preach the truth passionately and I will.”
And yes, that is a calling you may have on your life, but at this moment, as a guest, you have been called to support the work of the person/persons called to lead that church.
You have this great chance to make an impact but it is limited in its nature, and so you should adapt your style to fit the task.
2) Focus on the Basics.
Unless you have been asked to speak about something specific, you should limit the range of material you preach about.
You are not there to make the final judgement call on the great theological issues of our time, or to make great strides of change for the future of the church. Frankly, even if you tried, I doubt it would make a lasting impact.
Instead, you have this great opportunity to speak about some of the basic elements of our faith. As a fresh face, you can breathe life into a topic because your voice is new. You should see the chance to preach in another church as a freeing experience to step away from the need to tread new ground every week and instead develop your skills communicating the basics of the faith to an audience of people you don’t know.
3) Ask Questions
One of the easiest ways to ruin the experience of guest preaching is failing to understand the expectations of the church you are serving. Yes, the role of the guest preacher is somewhat straightforward but every church has their own way of doing things, and you need to understand each church you serve. Here are a few questions you should ask:
What is the typical length of a sermon?
You probably have your own thoughts about how long a sermon should be. That’s wonderful, but as a guest, you are filling a need and serving a congregation. Finding out what they expect regarding length can help you to leave a positive impact.
And if you find out, stick to it. Work hard, cut things, and edit yourself till you meet their expectations.
How would you describe your congregation?
Is the church traditional or contemporary? Would the average person be a new believer or a long-standing member? How many people will be there? These are all tools to help you figure out what kind of sermon you should be preparing.
You may not change all that much about how you preach but knowing your audience goes a long way to communicating well.
Is there anything you need from me before I arrive?
This question is a freeing question. Churches have a wide range of expectations of their guest preachers. Asking about needs in advance will give you a fair amount of insight into the commitment you are making. Are you leading the service? Are you supposed to choose songs or scripture readings? Do they need these things by a certain date?
Knowledge is your greatest asset when it comes to serving a church as a guest preacher.
4) For One-off Guest Preaching, Don’t Worry too Much about Payment.
Yes, a church that is asking for your time and energy should be offering you something in the form of an honorarium.
The good news is that most churches know this and have a prearranged amount/method of providing for this need.
Even still, if you want to serve the church by providing pulpit supply, I encourage you to focus on your service and rely on the church to support and appreciate that service.
There is an impression that people who want to pulpit supply are looking for a way to make some money. This is a flawed approach to pulpit supply. If you focus on being compensated, it taints the relationship making it transactional and limits the opportunity for the relationship to be healthy and helpful.
Two things I should add to this point:
The advice on this point is for one-off pulpit supply. If you make a living as a speaker, or if a church is looking for a more regular commit than you should discuss compensation that matches your expectations and the commitment being made.
Compensation should be a norm for anyone who is a guest preacher. If you do preach at a church and there is no compensation, then you should consider this the next time you are asked to preach at that church. If compensation matters to you, you can either kindly refuse their request making sure to note your concerns or address the issue directly before making a decision on returning.
All told the issue of money and ministry is difficult and complicated. You can save yourself a lot of hassle by choosing to accept the limitations of pulpit supply and the graciousness of the local church. I expect in most cases you will not be disappointed.
5) Keep Good Records
Spoiler alert: I tell the same stories and preach the same sermons over and over again.
I hate to admit it, but it is a good practice, as a guest speaker, to preach a sermon you like and has been well received in the past. Because of this, and that doing a good job will likely lead to a future invitation, you have to take detailed notes.
Write down what you preached and where you preached it. I personally write down the following pieces of information for every sermon I preach:
Stories/Images and How I Used Them.
This seems to be enough information for me to remember what I’ve preached before.
While it seems tedious to keep these sorts of records, I live in fear of the eventual day when I, by complete accident, preach a repeat sermon to a church that I’ve only been a guest at once.
There you go. A few key suggestions from what I’ve learned in the last year of pulpit supply.
Do you have any tips?
If you happen to be in Ontario and are looking for someone to guest preacher, you can always send me an email.