Taking Care of Supply Clergy

12.09.15 | by The Rev. Dr. Peter Powell

    Since I retired in 2010 I have spent most of each summer supplying in various churches in Connecticut and New York.  My experience this summer (2015) has led me to put together the following comments on the experience of being a supply priest.  While I enjoy preaching and I'm glad to be of use to the churches that engage me, this is a list of what goes wrong.  This is a compilation from several years and no one church is intended.

    I have shared this document with several friends and I have taken their comments to heart and tried, where possible, to incorporate them.  What I learned is that this is a much larger problem than I realized and as one of them responded, is at heart a problem of hospitality.  How do we welcome the stranger, whether ordained or not, into our midst?  Fortunately clergy are willing to meet the congregation more than halfway, but they nevertheless need some response from the congregation. 

    My intention when I supply is simply to be of service.  I don't want to change the congregation or say or do anything that will make life difficult for the rector.  I never follow-up with suggestions on how to improve or change the liturgy.  I have only once been asked for my advice or observations.

    These suggestions are intended to help the experience of having a supply priest be as positive as possible for everyone concerned.  As you probably know, your parishioners miss you and they have certainly met a wide variety of clergy as supply priests.  Some prepare nothing, I remember hiring one who preached for 40 minutes and I had to ratchet him back.  Still there were few parishioners coming on a Sunday for most of the time he spent with the parish and the next summer many were suspicious of any supply priest.

    1. Doors not open:  Most supply priests arrive early, at least ½ hour before the first service.  Please have someone there even earlier.  It is very discouraging to begin the morning at the site without being able to get in and get organized.

    2. Coffee:  On Sundays when supplying many of us don't drink coffee at home.  We have to leave too early or drive too far for that to be practical.  However, we very much look forward to coffee before the first service.  If there is no one to prepare it, or no easy way to provide it please let the supply priest know where it can be purchased close to the church.  Please warn him/her in advance that she/he will need to do this.  Frequently the laypeople look aghast when asked if coffee is available.

    3. Your Supply Priest is a guest:  I know you're paying him/her, but believe me, she/he is a guest in your church especially if he/she has never been there before.  Please school your laypeople to treat the supply priest as a visitor and not as someone who has any idea what's going on.  We don't know where the bathrooms are, coffee, vestments, etc.

    4. Gratitude:  Please thank the supply priest as soon as you're back in your office.  You may think the check is enough but it isn't.  In Connecticut we're paid $175 for 1 service and $220 for 2.  New York is better at $180 for 1 and $270 for 2.  If we write a new sermon for every Sunday then it takes about 10 hours to get it finished.  If it takes 30 minutes to get to you, that's another hour.  We arrive ½ hour early and leave no sooner than ½ hour after the end of the service so that's a total of at least 2 hours.  So we have an investment of 13 hours in one service or, at Connecticut rates about $13.50/hour.  (Before I retired I refused to do supply at this rate.  Since retirement I've feel like supplying is something I can offer the church.  I do it for that reason and while I agree it should be enough to be paid, it would engender warm feelings towards you and your congregation if I were thanked when you're back in the office.  Likewise if I have somehow offended your congregation please let me know.  Feedback is always welcome.)

    5. Coffee Hour:  We enjoy talking with your parishioners.  However we frequently find ourselves standing alone during coffee hour.  This is especially true if you provide tables and chairs.  By the time we get to the coffee hour everyone is seated.  I suggest detailing someone from the vestry to speak to and host the supply priest.  She or he has just preached, celebrated and would like to know that he or she made contact with someone.  Most of us will stay as long as we're engaged, but we'll leave if neglected.  If your church sellsdonuts and bagels at coffee hour please let us know if we too are expected to pay.

    6. Quiet Place:  If we're celebrating at 2 services, particularly if they're an hour or more apart, please provide us with a private place, your office for instance, so we can have some time to make the transition.  Sitting in a library, parlor, parish hall or my car is not conducive to being in the right frame of mind to preach and celebrate.

    7. Local Practices:  Supply clergy always appreciate directions on how your parish celebrates.  Fortunately it has become common practice in my experience for churches to email me a copy of the upcoming Sunday Bulletin.  This helps clarify many things but the following questions remain: For instance when do you do announcements?  Is passing the peace holy confusion or dignified and stilted or somewhere in between?  Do your people stand for the Prayers of the People?  Eucharistic Prayer?  Post-Communion Prayer?  What do you do with the offering plates?  Where is the key to the Aumbry?  Do you announce hymns?  Especially if your church is not air conditioned, what do you want done at ablutions?  Reserved sacrament rarely does well in a humid church.  So should we save, consume, dispose of respectfully?  Who reads the psalm?  What does responsively mean in your context?  Where is the Gospel read from?  Is it different at 8 than at a later service?  Do your people intinct?  Do you place the bread on their tongues?  How many chalice bearers?  Where do you stand at the end of the liturgy and how long do you remain there?

    8. Emergency phone number:  This has never happened, but it might.  If we are delayed, flat tire, accident on the highway, or sick, who do we call on Sunday morning?

    9. Eucharistic Prayers:  Please ask which Eucharistic Prayers the priest prefers.  (For instance in Rite I, I prefer Prayer 2.  For Rite II I prefer, especially in summer, Prayers A or B.  If you do a Rite III (which doesn't really exist) I will need to be prepared.)

    10. Healing:  According to the rubrics prayers for healing should follow the confession.  If your practice is to offer prayers for healing after receiving the Eucharist, or at the end of the service, please let me know and if possible give me options.

    11. Inadvertent Changes:  I frequently announce at the beginning of the Mass that any changes I make to the liturgy are inadvertent.  Usually this goes over well but occasionally the laity assisting will act like sheep dogs and try non-verbally to get us to conform to a practice we don't understand.  Verbal communication is always preferable so we don't have to guess what is desired.  Supply clergy sincerely try to conform, and we do well if warned in advance, but otherwise please help the laity to go with the flow, especially if we're only with you once.

    12. Pastoral Care and Offices:  Supply Clergy are only rarely asked to do weddings, funerals or visitations at churches when supplying.  However, it does come up.  Unless we have negotiated this in advance the supply priest will probably say no.

    13. What do they call you?  Are you Pete, or Father Powell, or Mother Powell, or Dr. Powell, or Pastor Powell, in other words how should we refer to you?  We don't want to offend you or the congregation.