Local Church Ministry

Emergency Pulpit Supply: 9 Proactive Options When the Pastor Can’t Preach

My phone started ringing at 9:28 AM one Sunday morning. The number belonged to one of the pastors in my local association of churches.

“Brother Jason, my wife has come down with a sudden illness, and I won’t be able to preach at church today. Is there any way that you could come and preach this morning?” 

Immediately, my plans had changed. I had just agreed to preach in ninety minutes.

I wish I could say that was an isolated incident. The truth is I have received numerous emergency calls to “fill the pulpit” over the years. In fact, I have been asked to preach on the spot on more than one occasion. By that, I mean that I showed up for a church visit and the pastor wasn’t there. On one of those occasions, a deacon – who had drawn the short straw – was hastily preparing a message. You could see the relief on his face when I walked through the door. You can probably imagine the frantic look on my face when I discovered that I’d be preaching just a few minutes later!

The reality is that emergencies don’t check to make sure it works with the pastor’s schedule. Sometimes, sickness or some other type of emergency sidelines the pastor on a Sunday morning. In those more-common-than-you-think occurrences, the church is left scrambling to find a preacher at the last minute.

I can assure you that your church will need emergency pulpit supply from time to time. The key is to be proactive instead of reactive during those times. Here are nine ways your church can be prepared when the unexpected absence occurs:

  1. Enlist an associate pastor to preach. If your church is large enough to have more than one pastor, one of those men should be designated as the backup preacher each Sunday. They certainly don’t need to prepare a new sermon each week, but they should have one prepared and at their disposal if the pastor should suddenly become unavailable.
  2. Enlist a designated deacon to preach. If the church doesn’t have another pastor, this responsibility falls to the deacons. Make sure that one (or more) deacons have a sermon prepared and at their disposal if needed.
  3. Play pre-recorded backup sermon from the pastor. During the early days of the pandemic, pastors learned how to preach to a camera in an empty sanctuary. Therefore, a great way to be prepared for an emergency pulpit supply scenario is for the pastor to pre-record a few sermons. The worship leaders could still lead, and when the time for the sermon arrives, someone in the tech booth could play the pre-recorded message.
  4. Play recording of a previous sermon. If you cannot play a pre-recorded sermon, it may be possible to replay a message from an earlier worship service. While this isn’t the ideal solution, it’s better than no sermon at all!
  5. Provide copies of the Pulpit Supply List to church leaders. During some emergencies, the pastor may still have time to find his replacement. At other times, he may not be able to do so. That’s why it’s helpful for other church leaders to have a copy of the local Pulpit Supply List. If you’re unfamiliar with such a list, contact your local associational or denominational leader. They will probably have the list, or they can point you in the right direction. When the pastor doesn’t have time to track down a replacement, someone else from the church may do so.
  6. Convert to a non-traditional service. Redeem the time usually allotted for the sermon for another purpose. Perhaps you can sing more songs than usual. Maybe you use that time to pray for your pastor, your church, your community, or missionaries serving all around the world. Think creatively as you utilize the sermon time.
  7. Livestream the service from a sister church. Most churches now have internet signals strong enough to stream a service. The pastor could work out an agreement with another pastor in the area. Whenever one of them must miss his service at the last minute, the other church agrees to live-stream their service. Obviously, this agreement works both ways and assumes a good relationship between the two churches.
  8. Postpone services until later in the day. If the pastor can’t be present during the designated hour, the church could postpone the worship service until later in the day when he is available. If he is out of pocket for the whole day, postpone the service until a pastor from a sister church can come and preach his sermon to your congregation. Again, this would require a pre-arranged agreement between the two churches/pastors.
  9. Enlist a Sunday School teacher. When all other options fail, enlist a Sunday School teacher to expand on the week’s lesson. While this may be redundant for those attending Sunday School, it is still a viable option in a pinch.

Emergencies happen at some of the most inconvenient times. Make sure your church is prepared to fill the pulpit when those unexpected absences occur. While some of these suggestions may be too far outside the box for your church, there should be at least a few that will work in any context!

Photo by Kristina Paparo on Unsplash

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