One of the great joys of pulpit supply is the adventure of it all – traveling to new places, seeing new churches and meeting new people. That part makes the job exciting and fresh.
Other words for exciting and fresh could be “scary” or “anxiety-ridden”. The same things that make every Sunday exciting and new also have a flip side – the great unknown of how each service works. The questions that run through a supply preacher’s mind on the way to a new church might include – do I pray with the choir before service? Do I process from the back of the church or do I have to navigate my way to the pulpit from narrow passageways and tricky stairs from somewhere deep in the bowels of the church basement? Do I do announcements? Who takes the collection plates where and when?
The regular minister and the congregation do the same things the same way every Sunday. They know where to stand and where to move and who places the collection and who leads the processional – if there is a processional.
Your pulpit supply person won’t know any of this. Even if they have served your church before they might have forgotten. Processionals and recessionals and offerings tend to blur together.
Most churches I’ve visited have someone to unlock the door and I’ve found these people to be helpful and friendly. Organists are another resource. They usually know the nitty gritty of the service and understand the performance anxiety a guest preacher can have. By being resourceful and hitting up as many friendly faces as I can before the start of service I can usually figure where I’m supposed to be and when.
But not always. And that makes for some awkward moments. Like the time I stood for several moments looking at the ushers with the offering plates as they looked at me. I was waiting for them to place the plates on the table and they were waiting for me to gather them and place them on the table. It was like some kind of strange staring contest or battle of wills. Finally I came to a realization and blurted out, “Oh, you want ME to take them!” It may not have been my most graceful leadership moment.
None of these are earth-shattering mistakes but they make the congregation and the preacher feel awkward and it makes a service go less smoothly. It puts people’s minds on the mistakes instead of on God or the music or the scripture.
I served at one church who assigns an elder to take care of the supply preacher. I hadn’t realized how much this helps until I experienced it. They greeted me warmly, made sure I knew how to work the sound system and walked me through the logistics of the service. It was great not having to watch for clues that I was doing things wrong. I was able to make notes on my bulletin and the service went extremely well. What a difference it made for me and the congregation.
It doesn’t take much to make a supply preacher feel welcomed and on-track with the service and the church. A smile and a five minute conversation can do the trick easily. Next time your church has a supply preacher scheduled, consider asking someone to be their point person to guide them through the service.
Next week we will be talking about inclement weather and who cancels a service.