‘Tis the season for the preaching of associate pastors. During the summer months, when lead pastors take vacation time, they often hand us, their associates and other staff members, the role of preaching, leading worship, and generally covering for them while they are gone. Some of us are excited to get this role, others terrified. Either way, preaching as an associate brings a unique set of challenges.
Recently, while having dinner with a friend who serves as “the other teaching pastor” (his words, not mine) of a congregation in town, the conversation turned to the challenges of preaching as associates. I laughed when he told me how difficult it can be to refer to “my last talk” when it happened several months ago, and we shared humorous stories about teasing our lead pastors for giving us “difficult topics” to preach on, like sex and money, while they are out of town. It is always fun to swap stories with another associate.
He told me he sometimes opens sermons by apologizing to the congregation that they are getting “the B-Team today.” I told him how I have sometimes referred to myself the junior varsity. The conversation reminded me of a guest preacher subbing for Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church one Sunday who opened his sermon by comparing coming to Mars Hill and getting a guest preacher, to driving to Wally World and finding it closed – an homage to the 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation. All of this is great fun with the congregation, and a technique to lower the tension by naming the elephant in the room – you are not the preacher some were expecting and are familiar with.
But don’t dwell there. It is wise to name their disappointment, but be sure they know you do not believe it. You are not the B-Team, the junior varsity, or the equivalent of Wally World being closed. You have been entrusted with this Sunday’s message, this opportunity to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those seated before you.
I know you will receive messages to the contrary. Attendance may be a fraction of what it was the week before when the lead pastor was in town. Expectations for your preaching may be low. You may get compliments about giving a “nice” sermon, the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. You may even be asked between services when the pastor is coming back, causing you to wonder if people are sizing up whether to come back next Sunday. These are all discouraging messages which may cause you to wonder if it is worth the effort of top-notch preparation.
Through years of preaching as an associate, I have learned not to think of the congregation as a unit, but as individuals. The Sunday you preach is an important day for someone in the congregation who needs to hear a word of grace. It matters to another who needs to hear God loves them. Another has come who needs to be strengthened for the week ahead by a word from God delivered through you. You have a sacred responsibility, entrusted to you by God through the lead pastor. Don’t squander it.
Preaching in the summer as an associate may feel like a call to simply pass the time. It is not. You do not have the luxury of phoning it in as the B-Team. You have been entrusted to deliver the word of the Lord to someone. Don’t shirk that responsibility.