What to do in a “trial” (candidate) sermon

The prospective pastor walked to the pulpit, took the measure of the congregation, and began. “There is a powerful lot of wondering going on here today.  You are wondering if I can preach. And I am wondering if you know good preaching when you hear it!”

I know a good Flip Wilson story that fits here, but I’ll tack it onto the end of this.


Not all pastors are asked to deliver a “trial” sermon to the congregation they hope to serve.  Some are appointed by a bishop and some are chosen by elders or a committee. We Southern Baptists usually use the procedure listed below.  Of the six churches I served over 42 years of ministry, only one brought me in without the people having heard me preach.  The other five administered the usual “trial.”

The procedure goes like this….

The pastor search committee has zeroed in on a candidate they like.  They’ve prayed a great deal, visited the minister’s church, heard him preach numerous times, interviewed him and his spouse, and run all the background checks and references.  Now, at long last, they are ready to present their choice to the church.

The congregation will be given information on him that week, will hear him preach in the Sunday morning service, and then will take a vote, immediately following or on the next Lord’s Day.

That sermon–when the prospective pastor preaches to the congregation which will be considering “calling” him as their new shepherd–is a huge deal to everyone involved.

For good reason we call it a “trial” sermon. No minister takes it lightly.  If things go according to plan, his life and the eternal destiny of a lot of people will be changed.

The preacher must not set out to win the congregation’s approval, but to show them who he is.  He wants to help them decide whether he would be ideal for that church. 

No preacher wants to go to a church where he would not fit.

Now, there are a thousand ways to do this wrong, and only a few ways to get it right.  Here are a few of the “wrong ways,” but with little commentary in order not to make this article interminable.

How to do a trial sermon wrong–

–The pastor preaches a sermon that is not his own, something he read or heard or dug out of an old file.

–The pastor preaches a subject he has not thought through, a topic he has never spoken on, or anything he is unfamiliar with.  This is no time for something new.

–The sermon is on a subject which may be foreign or uncomfortable to this new congregation.  If the candidate becomes their pastor, there will be time for dealing with controversial subjects and hot-button issues. But the trial sermon is neither the place nor the time.

–The pastor preaches much too long, too short, too loud, too soft, too deep, too silly, too anything that is to the extreme. He should do nothing different from his usual practice.

–The pastor tries to entertain the congregation.

–The pastor tries too hard to please the congregation, giving the impression he is insecure and seeking their approval.

What should he do?  What are the “rules” of a trial sermon?

What should a great “trial sermon” look and sound like?  What are the “few good things” which the preacher should do?

–Pray. As in everything else we do, the preacher should ask the Heavenly Father.  He knows the plans He has for this church and this preacher.  The Father has heard every sermon ever preached from this pulpit, and even inspired some of them (smile, please).  No one knows better than He what would work best today.

–Preach the Word.  In most cases, he will want to choose a subject basic to the Christian faith.  The text should be easy to follow.  He will not want to read a lengthy chapter in the service, but what he does read should be well rehearsed and well spoken.

–The sermon should be on a topic the preacher is well familiar with and has thought through.  If he feels uncomfortable with it, he should choose another message.

–His delivery style should be his usual procedure.  If the new church uses PowerPoint, but he is not comfortable giving his sermon outline a week in advance and trying to synchronize his delivery with points on a screen, the preacher will want to inform the leadership that he will not be using the screens for his preaching.  If they insist (“the congregation has come to expect this”), ask them to project the scripture text on the screen and leave it for the duration of the sermon.

–The sermon should be delivered with such authenticity that the pastor can walk away feeling “Okay, they heard me at my best.  That’s who I am.  Whatever happens, I’m good with.”

When the pastor has chosen the sermon and decided on the stories and scriptures and insights, he will want to…

–preach it several times during the week to get it just the way he wants it.

–plan for his opening remarks.  The typical preacher gives a lot of thought to the right message, but none to his introductory remarks. Neglecting this may cause his ad libs to be poorly expressed or even embarrassing.  Nothing should be overlooked.

–know how the sermon should end and work with the worship leadership for a smooth transition to whatever comes next (invitation, response hymn, whatever).

Give yourself permission to be nervous. But do not tell people you’re nervous.  If you must tell anyone, tell the Lord. But don’t be surprised if He comes back with the words He gave Jeremiah: “Do not get stage fright before these people, otherwise I will humiliate you before them” (Jeremiah 1:17).

Worship the Lord. Preach the Word.  Enjoy yourself.

In the 1960s, the African-American comic Flip Wilson had a popular variety show on television.  In a recurring feature, he played a pastor of “The Church of What’s Happening.”  He had the black preacher down perfectly, even to the cadence of his preaching.  On one occasion, the preacher was delivering a trial sermon.  As he preaches, the congregation answers him back.

“If I’m called to be pastor of this church, this church is gonna WALK!”  The people responded, “Let ‘er walk, boy.  Let ‘er walk.”

“If I’m called to be pastor of this church, this church is gonna RUN!”  The people answered, “Let ‘er run, boy.  Let ‘er run.”

“If I’m called to be pastor of this church, this church is gonna FLY!”  They replied, “Let ‘er fly, boy. Let ‘er fly.”

“If this church is gonna fly, it’s going to take MONEY!”  The congregation answered, “Let ‘er walk, boy.  Let ‘er walk.”

(Don’t make the mistake I made, pastor.  In the fall of 1967, preaching a trial sermon in the Mississippi Delta city of Greenville, I began my remarks with the two stories that open and close this article.  What I had not counted on was my predecessor at that church had been humorless.  The people hadn’t laughed in ages.  So, they did not appreciate my humor. Next morning, the chairman of the search committee gave me a stern talking-to, like he was a principal and I a junior high kid.  The referendum the following Sunday, had quite a few negative votes. My first inclination was to turn this down.  But the chairman, 25 years older and much wiser than me, asked me to consult with the Lord before deciding.  An hour later, I informed him that God wanted me to become his pastor.  We had some wonderful years in that church. )





9 thoughts on “What to do in a “trial” (candidate) sermon

  1. When the sermon is close to being done, finish it. Don’t preach another sermon. Don’t drag it out. Just invoke the trinity and be done.

  2. I thank you for your well spoken words and encouragement. I will be bringing forward my first trial sermon August 12th. 2018 and I came not landed on what to Preach. I know God Will provide, i’m using every source that God has made available. If there is anything that God has laid on your heart please don’t hesitate to let me know. I don’t know why i’m telling you this, but thank you anyway for listening. Jesus Loves You and God Bless You .

    • Richard, thanks. If you see this, my advice is NOT to preach some cutesy idea you found while reading some text or quote. But what passage in the Scriptures really resounds with you? What is God teaching you? Preach about whatever the Lord is speaking to you about these days.

  3. I am 58 and just entering the pastoral ministry and am getting ready to preach a trial sermon. Ive done youth ministry but have been doing ministry outside the church for several years. I was wondering would it be a bad idea to share my testimony of how Good has moved through my life, protected and provided. Basing the message on Matt 6:43 and Rom 12:1-2.

    • For what it’s worth, Ken, I’d save that for early in my ministry in the new church. People will want to know these things. But the question before the search committee (or congregation) is “Can he preach?” So, pick a favorite text, one the Lord has made precious to you, and give them some insights that will bless/guide their lives.

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