Listen To Article
I never thought much about the life of a guest preacher until I became one.
Once, twenty years or so ago, I invited a friend and seminary classmate to preach at my church, and then a few months later—feeling obligated, I guess—he asked me to preach at his church. I think that’s known, technically, as a pulpit exchange, and that was about the extent of my guest preaching experience over the more than forty years that I have been a pastor. Frankly, I never used to get out much on Sundays.
But now that I’m not serving a church anymore, I am often—more than I expected, to be honest—a guest preacher.
My first experience as a guest preacher occurred so that the pastor where I was worshiping most Sundays could get away for a spiritual retreat at a monastery in Wisconsin. I wondered how the people would respond to having an old, retired guy up front, but when I looked out at the congregation, I saw mostly old, retired people. I felt right at home.
I always served churches with more than one pastor on staff, so there was never much of a need for guest preachers. I knew a few seminary presidents personally, however, and always felt proud to invite them to preach, partly as a way of signaling to my members that I was somebody. But then, the following week, I would hear church members tell me how glad they were that I would be “back in the pulpit” on Sunday.
Once, at the church door, after a seminary president had finished preaching, in a fine example of midwestern niceness, a church member whispered to me that the seminary president had “very good diction.” I got the message.
I’m not and have never been a seminary president, but I hope my diction is good enough. Mostly when I’m a guest preacher I hope to go unnoticed. I get my sermon information to the church office on time. I arrive when I’m asked to arrive. I express gratitude to the person assigned to be my host (if the pastor is away). And I sit where I’m directed to sit, usually up front facing the congregation. I would like to think that I’m an easy guest to have. I try.
Somewhat sheepishly, I confess to doing occasional reconnaissance. If I’m scheduled to preach somewhere, and it’s within an easy drive, I’ll go one Sunday, sit in the back, and try my best to avoid being noticed. Not what worship is supposed to be, I’m pretty sure.
My most memorable guest preaching experience was at a retirement community where I preached and led worship at a Sunday afternoon service. I’m not sure whether it was an independent living or an assisted living facility, but I’m certain I will know the difference soon enough. Anyway, I was feeling good about myself that day for so generously giving of my time.
In my congregation that afternoon there were maybe a hundred people. I knew a few of them, which surprised me, and the rest I hoped to meet after the service. One of those I knew was the mother of a college friend. She’s nearly 100, but my college friend assured me that she’s maintained her exacting standards for pastors. My friend promised to email her mother’s review of my sermon the next day. Another person in the congregation that afternoon was a retired pastor, someone I knew only from a distance and was glad to meet. I told him how much it meant to me to meet him.
The person who took me by surprise was a woman who sold my wife and me our first house in 1982. She was newly divorced at the time and was selling real estate to support herself. Putting her first husband through medical school did not allow her to prepare for another career. So, she was a realtor when I knew her and an elder at my church. I recognized her as soon as I saw her and nearly cried.
She was patient with me as a new pastor, and I needed a great deal of patience. My gifts for ministry were evident to a few, not to all. But Joanne treated me like the pastor I was pretending to be, and I loved her for it. She sold us a good house too, for which I was grateful, and then when I left that church after a few years I never expected to see her again.
But on that Sunday afternoon in the retirement community there she was. It would be a stretch to say that she hadn’t aged a bit, but she hadn’t changed much. For most of the service I felt like the 28-year-old pastor I was when I first met her.
At the door afterwards, she rolled by in her wheelchair and said, “You do a good job. You know that, don’t you?”
I’m not embarrassed to say that her words of encouragement meant as much then as they did all those decades ago. I figured I was performing an important service that afternoon, and then I remembered how much church members have given me. And still do.