Pulpit Inventory

Pastor's Pulpit(Creative Commons Image by Paul Aningat on Flickr)

I’ve always been fascinated by words. Words shape ideas, so much that a seemingly innocuous phrasing choice can seriously, and sometimes permanently, alter our way of looking at the world.

Because this effect can be so dramatic, I constantly find myself evaluating even words in common usage. Sometimes this causes me undue anxiety as I second guess my use of idioms. I start to wonder, “Is this really commonly accepted or is it just a pet phrase that my mother once used that no one will understand?”

Anyway, the subject of my latest nitpicking has been “pulpit supply.”

Yes, I understand that most people in this profession know what it means: it refers to the human resources available to fill in when the called pastor of that congregation is not available to preside at a worship service. But I think the choice of words is just a touch unfortunate.

It implies that the resources exist solely for the purpose of filling up that portion of the service labeled “the sermon.” Pulpit supply sounds as though it provides an inventory of local hired guns who will deliver a sermon in the absence of a pastor. If I’m not mistaken, pulpit supply pastors are actually called upon to lead the worship encounter with God, part of which consists of a sermon.

What’s the problem with using “pulpit supply” if everyone knows what it means? Because words have meaning, and there is a consequence to referring to this as “pulpit supply” and not as “worship leader resource.”

As was again made clear to me by an editor last week, preaching has a supremely negative connotation outside the walls of a church. I know there are folks who hold preaching as one of the purest, most honorable acts of service to God known to humans. But the common usage of the word is that it is the act of distancing one’s self from people — assuming a stance of superiority and talking down to the audience. It connotes a lack of respect for those listening.

In the real world, perception is reality.

We have reinforced that negative perception in the structure of church worship spaces that have included an elevated, and rather ornate, box from which to rise above the masses and thunder down on those below. This configuration of the pulpit accentuates that perception which, believe me, is as common as ever, that churches are places where holier-than-thou people who believe they have a private line to God scold you about how you should be living your life.

What really makes me cringe is when I hear a pastor refer to the preaching box as “my pulpit.” To me, it’s a scary thing when a pastor claims ownership of the elevated place where Good News is proclaimed. I am likewise uncomfortable with congregations who promote the idea that the rarified air of the pulpit is for pastors only. Anyone else who speaks, even if they are reading words of Scripture, must speak from the secondary speaking box — the lectern.

For this reason I applaud worship architecture that combines lectern and pulpit into one spot of proclamation. So in many places, we have eliminated the perceived arrogance of the pulpit. Why not continue with that in the elimination of the Pulpit Supply list?

I have always wondered if a better word for pulpit would not be “witness stand.” That seems to better convey the sense of what a sermon should be. I don’t think it should be raised any more than what is necessary for the congregation to see the proclaimer.

It is not space that is owned or controlled by the pastor. Rather, it is the witness stand to which pastors are called to report what we have experienced of the love of Jesus Christ.

When I retire from my present call, it will be much easier to relinquish a place of proclamation if it was never mine. I hope to be put on a witness list or on a worship leader resource list. I suspect it will still be called pulpit supply. But I can always dream.