The Preacher’s Understudy

In the 1990s, I served on staff at a church in a large metropolitan city […]

Larry Parsley / 10.23.18

In the 1990s, I served on staff at a church in a large metropolitan city in the South. For several years, we hosted an interdenominational worship service for young single adults. Close to a thousand singles would pack out our church’s sanctuary, with some people standing at the back of the balcony. Some college students drove over an hour each week just to be there. The service opened with rousing contemporary worship and was followed by engrossing preaching from a very skilled preacher. At the time, I used the word “anointed” to describe him, and that adjective still rings true to me. It was a heady thing to be on staff at the church that hosted such a large, citywide Christian event.

Perhaps, because we were the host church, and I was the host minister, I was invited a half-dozen times to fill in when the main speaker was out. I’m embarrassed to admit how utterly thrilling this was, and how deeply intimidating. On those nights, after the opening worship set, a host would walk out on stage and announce that the main speaker – the one we had all come to hear – was not present this evening. An almost-deafening groan would arise, like air rushing out of a balloon. Some attendees would literally get up and walk out. When I was finally introduced and invited up to speak, a rush of self-imposed imperatives jangled around in my brain: “Be funny!” “Be compelling!” “Be memorable!” And yes, “Be anointed!”

Now, I always had a sermon title and biblical text (in other words, a theological rationale for why I was standing up there). But in my own psyche, there was this subtext competing with the biblical text. I felt like the gifted preacher’s understudy, and this was my shot. As much as I tried to pray away such naked ambition, it felt like shooing away a vulture. Ambition would make a show of flapping his wings and plopping a few feet away, but he never flew very far.

During one of those coveted preaching opportunities, I told the story about some personal ministerial misadventure (the actual story escapes me). I intended to punctuate that reminiscence with the epiphany the adventure produced. The spiritual insight I intended to announce was, “It’s not about me…[insert dramatic pause]… it’s about God!” Yet, for some strange reason, what I actually blurted out was, “It’s not about God (dramatic pause)!” My own heretical words hit my ears like a cattle prod. I quickly recanted and said what I meant to say, and the audience laughed, and I actually walked over to the side of the stage and put myself in “timeout” for a few moments, as a kind of penance.

Now, I’m no expert in psychoanalysis, but something about the whole experience feels like my Id momentarily snatched the microphone from my Super-EgoI’m quite sure I sincerely wished for everyone in the room (including me) to hear from God that evening. But I also know those preaching opportunities felt like auditions to become more significant than I currently felt. And I know that as long as I preach in this sinful flesh, some part of me will want to use the opportunity to cast my name in some large, bold font on a ministerial version of Playbill. And yet, the amazing thing about gospel preaching is that somehow Jesus still speaks. Sometimes, like Balaam preaching through clenched teeth, the truth comes out of us despite of us, especially when the preacher finds himself in the timeout chair.