Chapter 20

Rightly Dividing the Preaching Load

The benefits of developing a preaching team, and how one church is seeing it work

When I first entered the pastorate, I considered preparing and preaching Sunday's sermon the essence of ministry. Everything else was secondary. The notion of sharing my pulpit was unthinkable, tantamount to a denial of my calling.

But it wasn't long until I discovered that there was much more to being a good preacher than just preaching. From the beginning, people looked to me for far more than a weekly sermon. They wanted from me counsel, administration, vision, recruitment, and a host of other skills that had little or nothing to do with my pulpit prowess.

And to my surprise, all that other stuff really did matter. When it was handled well, our ministry flourished. When handled poorly, we struggled. It was then I first began to think about doing the unthinkable: sharing my pulpit with another preacher. Four years later I decided to go for it.

Here was my thinking: By turning over some of the time spent preparing and preaching sermons, I would be able to give better direction to our overall ministry. That would result in a healthier church and spiritual environment, and in the long run, my sermons would be more effective, even if less frequent.

I was right.

Now, seven years later, I'm more convinced than ever. I doubt I could ever again return to the days of being a one-man show. Sharing the pulpit has been too beneficial. It's proven to be one of the best things that ever happened to our church and to me.

Here's why—and what it took to make it work.

What it did for the church

One of the most significant things it did for our church was to make it more stable—by making it less dependent upon me.

Let's face it: attendance and giving at most churches rises and falls with the presence of the senior pastor. Any prolonged illness or move to another church usually results in a dramatic drop-off. Sharing the pulpit (which in our case means having a second pastor preach between 20 and 30 percent of the morning messages) has helped mitigate the problem by giving our people the chance to buy into two preachers. And most have.

As a result, when I now leave for a conference, mission trip, or vacation, we hardly miss a beat. There is never an appreciable drop in attendance or giving. Things keep right on going.

That's not to say that my long-term absence or move to another church wouldn't have an effect. Of course it would. As the initiating leader of our ministry and staff, I'm a vital cog in the wheel. But it wouldn't hobble our ministry nearly as much as if I were the only "first-string varsity preacher" our people knew.

Should I be removed from the scene, our people wouldn't be faced with a sudden parade of strangers in the pulpit (or an ill-equipped associate, learning on the job). They'd simply get an extra dose of "the other preacher," someone they've already grown to love and respect.

The church has also benefited in other ways. For one, they've received a more balanced presentation of Scripture than I could ever give on my own. While Mike (the other preaching pastor) and I share the same core theological perspective, we often approach life and Scripture from different angles. I'm more practical and oriented to the bottom line. He's more of an intellect and a scholar. Thus each of us ends up seeing things and reaching people that the other misses.

How the senior pastor benefits

However, the church isn't the only one that has benefited. I have too, perhaps even more so. To begin with, it's given me a chance to regularly recharge my creative batteries.

We each have a reservoir of creativity. For some of us it runs deeper than for others. But for each of us there's a bottom. Unless we're able to periodically replenish it, sooner or later it runs dry. When that happens, the joy goes out of preaching, for us, and our listeners.

I once served in a ministry where I was responsible to teach five or six different Bible studies every week. For a while it was exhilarating. But after three or four years I began to fade. It's not that I ran out of passages or topics to teach. I ran out of creative and thoughtful ways to present them. The result was a marked increase in truisms, clichés—and a little plagiarism!—and boredom all around.

Now I use my breaks from the pulpit to rekindle my creativity, to catch up on non-preparatory reading, to reflect, and to dream new dreams. Breaks recharge my creative juices in a way that another week of sermon preparation cannot.

I also use my non-preaching weeks to regroup emotionally. Preaching is hard work, and it takes its emotional toll. It's no small matter to stand up and presume to speak for God. No wonder we're known to take Sunday afternoon naps and Mondays off. Yet for me, the actual preaching and preparing of a sermon isn't the hard part. I love it. The hard part is always knowing I've got another one due in a couple of days. That keeps me on edge and always pushing.

During my first four years at the church, I preached every Sunday except for my vacations. That meant that, no matter where I went or what I did, next week's sermon was always percolating in the back of my mind. I'd wake up in the middle of the night to scratch out an outline. I'd take note pads on vacation. At conferences and seminars, I'd disappear for a few hours to hammer out that final point or closing illustration.

The result was a slow but steady drain on my emotional reserves. As much as I love study and preaching, it was too much of a good thing. Too often, by the time my vacation rolled around, preaching had become a chore instead of a privilege; I was reading the Bible for sermon material, not personal growth. Furthermore, most of my ministry was on automatic pilot.

That hardly ever happens anymore. I find that my regular breaks from the pulpit get me off the sermon prep treadmill before I've reached a point of emotional exhaustion. Though I often end up working just as hard and even harder during my non-preaching weeks, it's the change in routine that makes the difference. Preaching can hardly become monotonous when it's periodically taken away. In fact, I always miss it, and I invariably return with heightened enthusiasm for proclaiming God's Word.

Sharing the pulpit has also helped me follow through better on my responsibilities as the church's leader. Like most pastors, I have a love/hate relationship with administration: I love what it accomplishes. I hate doing it. I didn't enter the ministry so that I could juggle budgets, supervise a staff, crank out policy statements, or return phone calls. But that's part of the package, and if I want to do a good job, I have to do those things well and in a timely manner.

Still they aren't a lot of fun. If I can find half an excuse, I'll put them off until next week. And preparing next Sunday's sermon has always been a great excuse. That's where my weeks out of the pulpit come in. When I'm not scheduled to preach, I no longer have an excuse to let things go. Those important-but-not-urgent administrative matters that have been pushed to the side finally have a chance to rise to the top of my to-do list. And miracle of miracles, they usually get done.

I've often been told that one of the secrets to our congregation's health and growth has been my excellent administration. But little do people know that what they're so impressed with would never get done if I had my way—or if I had a sermon to prepare every week.

What it takes to make it work

As valuable as sharing the pulpit can be, it can also be a disaster if done poorly or naively. We've all heard horror stories of an idealistic co-pastorate gone bad or a trusted associate who turned into an Absalom at the gate. That's probably why so many of my mentors recommended against it, and why so few pastors try it.

But I've found it to be neither difficult nor dangerous as long as I pay careful attention to four key factors.

Mutual respect and trust

The first thing I look for in a person to share the pulpit with is someone I can respect and trust. The second thing I look for is someone who respects and trusts me.

The power and prestige of the pulpit is too great to give to someone I'm not sure about. Once they have that platform, it's hard to take it back.

Before turning the pulpit over to Mike, I had known and watched him for four years. Like most of our staff, he was hired from within so his loyalty and integrity had been tested by time and through actual disagreements. I knew I was putting a Jonathan, not an Absalom, in the pulpit.

Bringing in an outsider is a lot trickier. No amount of interviewing and candidating can guarantee that two people will work well together once they're actually on the job. Only time will tell. That's why I'd wait at least one year before starting to share the pulpit with a newly hired staff member. I'd want to confirm that the person I thought I'd hired was the person I actually got.

Make no mistake, sharing the pulpit can be tough on a shaky relationship. That's because people tend to choose sides—even when there isn't a contest. Both Mike and I have found that when some people compliment us, they suggest subtly a criticism of the other person: "Mike, your sermons are meaty" or "Larry, your sermons are practical." It's not that they are trying to be malicious or drive a wedge between us; it's just their way of saying, "I like you best."

That's no big deal as long as we understand what's happening and share a genuine respect and love for each other. But if either of us lacks that respect and if we begin seeing ourselves as competitors instead of co-workers, those kind of comments would widen the rift, serving as encouragement and confirmation of the ugly things we were already thinking.

Of such stuff coups and church splits are made. And that's why I'll always wait until I'm certain of the relationship before sharing the pulpit with anybody.

Good preaching

The second thing I look for is someone who'll do a good job in the pulpit. I realize that something as subjective as "good preaching" is hard to define. But for our purposes, let's define a good preacher as someone the congregation thinks is worth listening to.

I know of one church where the senior pastor tried to share his pulpit with a warm-hearted and greatly loved associate. Unfortunately, he was also a pedestrian communicator. Attendance dived.

The best candidates for pulpit time aren't always next in line on the staff hierarchy. They might not even be on the staff. I know of one church where a part-time youth pastor was the one tapped to share the pulpit. I know of another where a lay preacher was clearly the best person for the job. (Obviously, in a solo pastorate it would have to be a lay person, perhaps a gifted Sunday school teacher or someone serving in a parachurch ministry.)

The key is to find someone the members feel good about and who can help them grow. If you do that, people won't care where that person fits in the staff hierarchy.

In a smaller church, it's possible to get by with some on-the-job training. When I first brought Mike aboard, he had never preached a sermon in his life. But I knew from his success as a Bible teacher at a Christian school and various home Bible studies that he had the gift. All he lacked was experience.

Proper billing

Once I've found the right person, I still have to make sure that he gets proper billing. Otherwise, he'll always be seen as my substitute, someone who's giving them less than the best.

I've found one of the most effective ways to present someone as the other preacher rather than my stand-in is to be highly visible whenever he's scheduled to preach. To do that, I'll often make the weekly announcements. That lets everyone know that I'm in town and healthy. It also sends a clear message that he's not just filling in because I'm unavailable.

That proved to be particularly valuable when I first started sharing the pulpit. In fact, when I went out of town, I often came back early just to show my face. Though it's something I no longer need to do, it paid high dividends during those early days.

It's also important not to give away all the Sundays nobody wants. To assign someone to preach during my vacations and holiday weekends is hardly sharing the pulpit. It's dumping the dogs!

Finally, I'm careful how I talk about our roles. I always introduce myself as "one of the pastors." I never call Mike "my associate." He's the "other pastor" or "one of the other pastors."

None of these techniques are as vital as mutual respect and good preaching skills. Still they've gone a long way toward establishing the credibility of the other person in the pulpit.

Meeting congregational expectations

Every congregation has expectations (mostly unwritten), tampered with at great peril. To share the pulpit successfully, it's important to know what these expectations are and to meet them or find a way to change them.

For instance, our people expect me to be in the pulpit on Christmas and Easter. I can give away any other Sunday without hearing a complaint. But let me fail to preach on either of those days and I'll have a small uprising on my hands.

How much of the pulpit can be shared will also be dictated by congregational expectations. As Lyle Schaller has noted, churches that place a greater emphasis on the sermon and the personality of the preacher, rather than the Eucharist and the office of the minister, will have a harder time adjusting to an equal interchange of preachers.

In our case, we're sermon-centered. So when I first started sharing the pulpit, I was pushing it when I was out of the pulpit 15 percent of the time.

Now, I'm out as much as 30 percent, but that's probably as high as it will ever be able to go here. The pastor of one church never missed a Sunday during his long tenure. Even during his vacations he shuttled back and forth on weekends to be in the pulpit. As you can imagine, that built in the congregation some incredible expectations. When a friend of mine became this pastor's successor, the best he could do was to turn over some Sunday nights and his vacation weekends. Anything more would have been interpreted as shirking his duties. The key in any situation is to know what will and won't work there and to adjust accordingly.

Preaching, I've discovered, is only one part of being a pastor. It may be the most important part, but it still is only a part. When I learned to share that part with a trusted and skillful colleague, it not only made me a better preacher but also a better pastor. And it made our church a better church.