One Sunday morning, many years ago–I must have been in my mid-30s– as I rose to preach, Dr. Ed Young, pastor of the enormous Second Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, sat in the congregation to hear my sermon. (I was pastoring the FBC of Columbus MS.)
Was I surprised? Discombobulated? Nervous?
Nah. Not in the least.
I didn’t let it faze me but went right on as though he were not in the house.
I didn’t know he was in the house.
He told me about it years later. (Not sure how I would have handled it had I known. Smiley-face here.)
In college, the dean of education cautioned all us future teachers. “One day the superintendent of education will walk into your classroom. He (or she) will take a seat on the back row and motion for you to go on with your lesson.”
“When that happens, I want you to teach as though you know more about that subject than anyone else in the world.”
I never had that happen, but I always remembered the point he was making.
Do not falter or stumble because someone important is in your audience. No stuttering.
Do your job. Stay the course.
There came a day when I was 30 years old and the newest (and lowliest) staffer of the largest Baptist church in the state and was suddenly preaching to the congregation with live television cameras pointed in my direction. The governor sat in the balcony and a former governor on the front row, while executives from the denomination were scattered across the huge congregation.
The previous evening the pastor had called to alert me. “I’m coming down with something,” he said. “I’m losing my voice. You may have to preach tomorrow.”
Early Sunday morning he phoned and said hoarsely, “You’re on, Joe. Do good.”
The superintendent of education may not have been in my classroom but a world of bishops and such were sitting before me, ready to hear my sermon.
You never forget the first time for that.
I’m not the superintendent of education dropping in on teachers. Nor am I a bishop calling on ministers. There is a sense, however, in which I did log a few years as a minor bishop–if Southern Baptists could be said to have such things–and am acquainted with the role.
And, I have been known to drop in on pastors unannounced to worship with their congregations and to hear them preach.
Yes, I’ve seen them sweat.
Now, they were not in fear of their jobs, because our denomination does not function that way. Nor did they fear censure in any way that matters. What they sometimes feared, I expect, is that I would see a) that their church is not doing well as they would like or b) that they are preaching an ill-prepared sermon unworthy of the Lord. And possibly a third one, c) I imagine they wanted to impress their visitor and realized the sermon they were about to deliver was not the best one for that.
But I could be wrong on all of this. At any rate, the point of this is to say…
It’s good for a teacher to be visited by the superintendent and absolutely great for the pastor to be surprised by a drop-in visit from some big-church preacher or big-shot denominational leader.
Why? Why would we say it’s a good thing?
1) It’s a reminder that he should always be ready.
2) It’s a wakeup call to always give his best every Sunday.
3) It reveals how he feels about today’s sermon. He decides quickly whether this is a word from the Lord he’s about to declare or some hastily gotten up and barely warmed over collage stitched together from last year’s sermons. If he has a message from the Lord and knows it, he does not care who shows up. He’s ready.
The bishop–whoever and whatever he is–delights when he sees that the pastor is on top of his game. (No one I know drops in on a church wishing to frighten the pastor or find him doing less than his best. We want him to do great!)
4) If he has become lazy and is feeding spiritual junk food to his people, he feels it when the bishop shows up. He feels quilty and somewhat ashamed.
As well he ought.
Paul said to Timothy, “Preach the Word. Be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Be ready, preacher. Oh, and sometimes it’s not the bishop or a well-known preacher who shows up to surprise you. It’s the pastor search committee of your dreams.
You will be so glad you got this right!