When Truett Seminary Master of Divinity student Michelle Shackelford arrives at a church on Sunday morning to preach, she likes to take some time to listen to the spirit of the place. She comes early, to breathe and connect to a congregation she may have never met before, or just met a couple of times.
"There’s often a certain excitement when I preach in a new setting for the first time. There seems to be a bouncing energy among the people who gather, and that lifts my spirits and calms my nerves," Shackelford said. "It’s hard to know what to expect when doing something new in a new place, but when I arrive and meet the people face-to-face, the Spirit always shows up powerfully."
In 2014, as she was really beginning to embrace the calling God had placed upon her for ministry, Shackelford reached out to the Office of Ministry Connections at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary about opportunities to get behind the pulpit and hone her craft. The Office connected Shackelford with Bosqueville United Methodist Church in Waco, who at the time did not have a pastor and relied completely on supply preachers to fill the pulpit every Sunday morning.
"Supply preaching has offered me the safe and sacred space to explore a calling that I once powerfully rejected," Shackelford said. "It has shaped my understanding of ministry in many ways and has offered me the opportunity to develop skills that are hard to learn otherwise."
Supply preaching is just one of the many services offered by the Office of Ministry Connections, but it is one that has recently seen an exciting increase in momentum, both in student interest and for local churches. In 2018, about two students each week filled the pulpits of local churches, totaling over 130 pulpits filled by Truett students during the year.
According to Jack Bodenhamer, Assistant Director for the Office of Ministry Connections, local churches will contact his Office when they are in need of an interim or supply preacher.
"Sometimes pastors are going on vacation or they may be leaving," Bodenhamer said. "In a few cases, we have small, rural churches that can’t afford a full-time pastor, so they come to us to supplement their needs."
As the supply preaching requests come in, Bodenhamer and his team take special care to assign to each church students—like Shackelford—who are equipped and prepared for these opportunities. This past semester the Office of Ministry Connections hosted a luncheon for Truett students interested in supply preaching. During the luncheon, Bodenhamer offered training regarding the nuances of filling a pulpit for a limited amount of time.
"Supply preaching is entirely different than preaching on a regular basis when the people know you and trust you," he said. "You have to go in and have a sense of trust before you ever step behind the pulpit, so there’s a lot of legwork that has to be done—meeting people, sharing stories, arriving early to connect before the service starts. We wanted to provide education for our students about what it means to be an effective supply preacher."
After the luncheon and training concluded, Bodenhamer compiled a list of the Truett students who attended and were interested in honing their preaching skills. These students—around 20 during the fall 2018 semester—were then contacted by the Office of Ministry Connections as supply preaching requests came in and had the opportunity to fill the pulpit depending on their workload and availability.
The churches Bodenhamer’s Office works with are generally local and represent a range of denominations. Truett students fill the pulpit every week at Adamsville Presbyterian Church, and Zion United Church of Christ in Clifton welcomes Truett student preachers multiple times per month. A few miles outside of Waco, students were able to give the bi-vocational pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Mexia a much-needed vacation earlier this year. And just down Interstate 35 in Belton, Mosaic Fellowship has designated the second Sunday of every month for Truett students to preach, requesting women and international students in particular.
"How can we expect our upcoming leaders to become proficient at preaching—the most visible component of pastoral ministry—without giving them opportunities to practice the art?" said Russell Jones, founder and pastor of Mosaic Fellowship. "People who are on a development path to ordination are expected to become good preachers without getting much, if any, real practice. When I was ordained, I’d gotten to preach a total of four times. The more people I talked to about the process, the more I realized how widespread the issue was."
Shortly after founding Mosaic Fellowship, Jones approached Truett Seminary Dean Todd Still with his idea of inviting Truett students to fill the church’s pulpit to help them obtain practical preaching experience. Dean Still connected Jones with Truett’s Office of Ministry Connections, where, together, the church and the seminary began to shape this new opportunity.
"I never wanted mine to be the only voice my congregation heard, so having fresh perspectives every month gives them a broader and fuller understanding of their faith," Jones said. "An unexpected benefit was the international students giving our small-town Texas folks a glimpse into what life is like for Christians in other countries."
"[At Mosaic] They realize that the opportunities for those students are not as vibrant as for others. It’s a God-send for a church to be so intentional about that specific calling," Bodenhamer said. "Our local churches understand that they are providing a service to our students. You get better at preaching by preaching, and no other way can duplicate what it means to stand up and preach the word of God except to do it."
Looking toward the future, Bodenhamer hopes the work of Dr. Matt Homeyer, Truett’s Assistant Dean of External Affairs, as Director of the Truett Church Network will help to build out the supply preaching program.
"We’re hoping to create Truett Seminary Days through the Truett Church Network," Bodenhamer said. "Through this program, we’ll reach out to churches and ask if they will partner with us by allowing us to host a dinner to connect with the church and let them know about our services and also letting them see our students in action by giving them the opportunity to preach on a Sunday morning."
In addition to student supply preaching, Truett faculty and staff are also filling pulpits across the state of Texas—from San Angelo to Galveston to Longview—in interim and supply preaching roles throughout the year.
"We fill a tremendous number of pulpits through the year—probably close to 400 if not more," Bodenhamer said. "The heart of Truett really is in our mission—equipping God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church. We believe in that mission, and we’re committed to seeing it come to fruition. This is just one of the many ways we seek to shape the ministry of our students and the church."
If you are interested in partnering with Truett Seminary to help create opportunities for student preachers, contact Jack Bodenhamer at Jack_Bodenhamer@baylor.edu.