The Joys and Pitfalls of Being a Lay Preacher

Learning, wondering, and giving the good news

photo of feet balancing on log

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome echoes the prophet Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” These texts come as both reassurance and encouragement to me. My feet will never win a beauty contest, especially while recovering from recent extensive foot surgery. But thanks be to God that the feet of all who bring good news of peace, salvation, and the reign of God are made beautiful! What a privilege and joy to be a messenger and humbly offer my feet to carry the good news of Jesus as a lay preacher!  

Life-giving and life-long learning

For as long as I can remember, years before preaching as a lay person, I’ve enjoyed engaging the lectionary and imagining potential approaches to the crafting of a sermon on the assigned texts. With ears and eyes open to listen and notice what is happening around me, I often find an “ah-ha” moment that provokes a quick scribbled note, connecting that moment in time to a particular Biblical text. My home library is filled with books and articles, read and yet-to-be read, that have inspired, informed, and helped me grow in faith, as well as in sermon preparation and delivery. Reading commentaries and supporting materials in preparation for sermon writing is life-giving to me. As a life-long learner, it was good for my soul to take part in Lay Ministry classes that taught about Bible and Preaching. 

Involvement in the life of God’s Church in congregational, synodical, and churchwide contexts has provided exposure to a wide variety of experiences, preaching, and worship styles that have fruitfully nurtured my own call to reflective writing and proclamation. Listening to stellar preaching by ordained and lay pastors in worship services and at events such as the Festival of Homiletics is something for which I’m always grateful. I respect the training and experiences that have shaped them to be preachers who invite the listener into the message, intently hanging onto every word. Even so, if we are honest, any preacher, no matter whether world-renowned or relatively unknown, ordained or lay, will likely reflect on occasion, “Hmmm, let’s give that sermon another try!” How thankful we can be that the Holy Spirit’s power works through and in spite of our human frailty!

Wondering and wrestling together

It seems to me that solid relationships are built and integrity is strengthened when any of us have the courage to admit that “we don’t know it all.” Often in my sermons I use the language of “wondering” about something in the text, and invite the congregation to wonder along with me as we wrestle with what it might mean for us as individuals and as a community of faith, together, in the world. As a lay preacher, I pray that what I say will make a difference, will bring a word of hope to a weary world, and will send people out beyond the walls of the building with something to chew on after the service has ended. What I do know for certain, and boldly preach, is that each of us is beloved in God’s eyes and God’s love for us will never fail. Jesus brings life out of death. These are powerful words to proclaim and remember for ourselves, as well. I’m often surprised at the deep emotions that are aroused in my very core when speaking these words that I cling to and believe.  And so, it is always with great humility that I step into a pulpit, praying fervently that the Holy Spirit will be at work in me and through my words, on this day, in this place, for these listeners as together we find and cherish our place in God’s Story of redeeming love.

Different ears and assumptions

Not every person in the pew enthusiastically welcomes the presence of a lay preacher. I wonder if folks in congregations sometimes listen—either positively or negatively—with “different ears” and different assumptions when the person in the pulpit is not ordained. If the assumption is that without ordination, the preacher’s words lack authority or credibility, or that lacking seminary training, the sermon will be dreadful, a negative response is elicited. On the other hand, lay preaching might evoke a positive listening response. When that lay messenger is well-prepared and proves trustworthy and faithful, might they just expand the listener’s imagination and spark the notion that the good news can indeed be carried by the hands, voice, and beautiful feet of lay people just like them? Maybe it isn’t only the ordained “professional” pastors after all who can witness to God’s love and “Go and tell what God has done through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus!”

In my context of rural southwestern Minnesota, as in countless other places across the country, there are ongoing conversations among church leaders about the pastoral needs of congregations, imagining what God is calling the church to be and look like, dreaming about innovative yet faithful ways to raise up messengers who will continue to announce peace and salvation, bring good news, and proclaim the reign of God today. Many factors are at play in calling pastors to serve in a variety of urban, small cities and towns, or rural settings. It seems that preparing and equipping lay preachers will continue to play an important and vital role in these conversations and dreams, no matter the setting and context. With deep gratitude and joy, my faith has grown through preaching. A favorite hymn (in Evangelical Lutheran Worship #808) by Les Petites Soeurs de Jesus and L’Arche Community comes to mind as I write today: “Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey; I’ll tell everybody about you wherever I go … I fear in the dark and doubt of my journey; but courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side…” My scarred yet beautiful feet have had the privilege of bringing good news on this journey. Thanks be to God!

  • Gwen Arneson

    Gwen Arneson lives on the Arneson family farm in Cottonwood, Minnesota with her husband, Kevin. She has a heart for service to the Church and has been very active in a variety of callings over the years. Family time with their three adult children and spouses along with four grandchildren fill cups of joy to overflowing. Any time spent by Lake Superior along the North Shore is good for the soul!

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments