The Substitute Pastor

On this most recent Sunday, I attended a United Methodist Church west of Staunton, Virginia.  Let me take a moment to mention that it this isn’t my typical Sunday routine.  Normally, one can find me in the exact same seat every week in the congregation of RISE in downtown Harrisonburg.

However, many months ago I inquired I how could help give back to my church and, as such, I was asked if I would go to other Methodist churches in the area from time to time.  I guess you could say that I would serve as an ambassador for RISE, telling other congregations about our church and asking them for financial support.  As RISE has a large college age population, they certainly can use help from outside the church.  I suppose that I must have been fairly successful at my mission (or perhaps no one else cared to do it) for I have been called into service many times.  I’ve visited churches in Page, Rockingham, Augusta, and Highland Counties.

Although I have to confess I was very nervous the first time I spoke to a congregation where I knew no one, I soon came to enjoy this duty and looked forward to my assignments.  Not surprisingly, no two churches have been alike and, as such, I’ve tried to offer a slightly different message at each so that if someone happened to hear my speech more than once, they might be able to learn something new about both RISE and my spiritual journey.  However, despite the fact that I’ve visited about dozen or so churches thus far, I have to admit that this Sunday was a totally new experience.

When I arrived at the small wooden structure, two members of the church stood outside greeting folks as they entered.  As typical, I wore my RISE t-shirt so that I could be easily identified as a guest from the RISE community.  When I stepped inside, I said hello to the parishioners gathered within.  After doing so, one took me aside and asked what scripture reading I would be including with my sermon.  “What?”  I asked.  Even though I had spoken to many churches before, my talk was only a small part of the service, never intended to be the bulk of the service itself.  In addition, I was told that I was expected to lead every aspect of worship, from the opening prayer, to the offering, to the closing benediction.  I looked around to find any member of the clergy, wondering if I was part of some late April Fools joke, but the woman was perfectly serious.  Therefore, I spent the final five minutes before the service began hastily scouring the Bible I brought with me searching for a suitable passage.  Once I picked one out, it was time to begin.

I wish I could say that every aspect of the service went well, but considering I have had no experience or training in either leading a worship service or giving a sermon, I tried to do my best.  I felt my message wasn’t particularly well-suited for the main sermon, but as it was the only message I had prepared, I didn’t have any other option.  As a side note, during the time when the congregation offered personal prayer concerns, I asked them to pray for my pastor as she has been temporarily suspended from the church as a result of following her conscience.

Once the service was over, following the example of other pastors I’ve observed, I did my best to speak to many of the members of the congregation.  The last fellow who approached me mentioned that he thought he had seen me on TV at some point and I said it was likely as a result of my run for Harrisonburg City Council in 2014.  I added, however, that the election didn’t work out so well.  He responded by observing that it was possible that the result was a better outcome for me.  And, as I thought about it for moment, I realized that it was quite likely that he was right.

On the drive home to Harrisonburg, I thought about this adventure, wondering how the idea of my visiting this church somehow morphed into me temporarily leading it.  I suppose that some people would have been upset by this miscommunication and being asked to serve as an impromptu substitute pastor.  Yes, I have to admit that I was troubled at first; but I’ve taken some time to consider it over the last thirty hours and I have to admit that I appreciated the opportunity…though I wish I had been informed what was going to happen so that I could have prepared and given a far better sermon.  And, as I continued down the road, I thought of a half a dozen different sermons I’d like to give…assuming God ever gives me the chance to preach again.

What an unusual Sunday it was!

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