The Substitute Preacher
Before I embarked on the occupational journey of being an everyday classroom teacher, I had a job that many prospective educators hold while waiting for that illusive first gig in the schoolhouse — the substitute teacher.
The experiences of being a substitute teacher will make any professional — seasoned or green — respect the job of the full-time teacher, or wonder why anyone would want to do the job every day of their life. Anyone who has been a substitute teacher knows what it’s like to walk into a classroom full of students you’ve never met knowing full well the hunter is the hunted.
Once while substituting in an elementary music classroom of kindergarten students, you would have thought the children were recreating the battle of Stalingrad with musical instruments. It was nothing like when Jimmy Fallon and The Roots play hit songs on classroom instruments and more like “Lord of the Flies” the Musical.
A few weeks back my old school substitute teaching skills were put to the test. Not in the classroom, but behind the pulpit.
Often I serve as the liturgist at church, welcoming the congregation and guests, reading the announcements and the daily scripture. And every now and then I do so with a spiritual sense of humor.
A couple of Sundays ago our Pastor had taken a hiatus for two weeks. He asked me to serve in his stead — not as the Pastor, but rather to lead everything in the service that he does that wasn’t the prayer or the message. In my head, that was something I could handle. I can welcome everyone, instruct them to greet each other, introduce the guest pastor, prepare the offering, and announce the hymns. Nothing to it. I’ve got this.
The first week went off without a hitch. No problems whatsoever and everything went according to plan. You would have thought I had been leading worship since I was a child.
However, the second week I, and the congregation, wasn’t so lucky.
I arrived at the church about 15 minutes early, plenty of time to meet the guest pastor, run through the service with them, and be ready to lead worship. It was at that time that I was informed of the absence of the guest pastor.
“He’s not here,” I was told. “Who’s not here,” I asked. “The guest pastor.”
My first reaction was, “What am I supposed to do about that?” I can’t lead prayer, or praise and concern, or (gulp) the message. I can’t just lead a “day of music” because I don’t know the hymnal. I would literally just fan through the pages and land on a hymn, announce it to everyone and pray the organist knows the song.
This is not good.
So, I spoke with the liturgist and alerted him to our predicament. All he could do was laugh and say to me, “That’s all you, my friend.” Great. I am going to be left all alone to lead this service without any experience in the field of pastoring and no time to prepare.
There wasn’t enough prayer to save me now. This Sunday was going to be my deal.
I held out hope the guest pastor would show up. Our Worship Committee chairperson was waiting downstairs in the unlikely event he showed up during the service. Which would have been a Godsend.
The service started off like every other service. I made sure to alert the congregation to the situation at hand and you could see the wry smiles on the faces of my fellow congregants and their desire to see how this was going to unfold. The greeting and welcome time was, well, welcoming. The announcements were announced and we sang the first hymns and had a moment of musical praise without incident. I took the praise and prayer requests, read them and then led the prayer for all of those concerns.
All the while I continued to look out to the back of the sanctuary to see if an unknown face made way into the room. Nothing. I would share a glance with the liturgist from time to time who was just soaking in the enjoyment of watching me writhe in anticipation.
This was really going to happen. And then it happened.
I rose to the lectern, stood in silence for a brief moment and began. I had no idea what I was going to say when I got up there and I wasn’t even sure if anyone really even wanted me to be standing there. But standing there I was. The scripture that day was about prayer, so I just started pontificating about prayer.
The message evolved into a confession about my uneasiness with praying aloud. I don’t feel comfortable praying aloud and in public, something I already had to do that day without a thought and something I would have to do later in the service. As I spoke I could see people smiling, I could see the faces of approval and agreement. Maybe it wasn’t going to be that bad after all.
Now, I was an actor in high school (more than a dozen plays to my credit) and until this year I was one of the theatre directors at our high school. Speaking in public is of no worry to me, and actually I love it. But this was very different, and having absolutely no preparation time didn’t help at all.
The message was finished in 12 minutes. Pithy is something I am not normally, so it caught everyone in the congregation off guard. I prayed again, led the offering and closed the service. As the benediction was being sung I walked down the aisle and stood at the back. As the service ended I said, “Go in peace.”
I’m not sure if that was for the congregation or for me.
The bar had been set high for the pastor’s return. I was told by many in the congregation how it was going to be hard for the pastor to live up to my heartfelt and short sermon. Short being the operative word. Actually, I think the length of the message was the shortest in the church’s storied history.
To say the experience was humbling would be an understatement. The support and love I received from the congregation was heartwarming. I was more than happy to step in when I was needed and can only hope that I made those around me proud. A new appreciation for the pastor do I have now.
There are two ironies in this story. The first is that the guest pastor showed up about 10 minutes after the service ended. He had been given the wrong service time. Second, my wife and kids were home sick from church that day – they missed the whole thing.
Hopefully, if I am ever asked to serve as the substitute preacher, I will be given a little more advance notice. And I plan on extending my impromptu sermon to at least 15 minutes.