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preaching from the second chair – greg liston

Someone once asked a famous conductor which orchestral instrument was the most difficult to play. “Second fiddle,” he quipped. He may have been joking, but he wasn’t wrong.
Most Kiwi churches have one person who is the predominant preacher. Let’s call this person preacher A. In any given congregation, preacher A delivers the sermonic goods about 60%-80% of the time. But many churches also have a preacher B who speaks less but not infrequently. What makes a good preacher B? As it turns out, after a long stint of being a preacher A, I now have a part time role which includes being a preacher B. Here’s a small sampling of some tips/traps that I’ve tried to adopt/avoid.
Trap #1. Don’t Compete. Particularly if preacher A is any good (and in my case he’s exceptional) the strong temptation is to measure your sermons in comparison to theirs. Don’t! Any short term gains in quality are quickly overridden by long term losses in relationship. It seems to me the best attitude to adopt is celebrating preacher A’s successes and mourning their shortcomings as if they were your own. Easier said than done, of course, for “Brother Ass”* is strong, but something to strive towards.
Tip #1. Be Yourself. Initially I hawkishly watched preacher A’s styles and mannerisms with the intent of replicating them. Mostly deductive or inductive? Sermon length? Content to story ratio? Type of jokes? “They’re here because they like what he offers,” I reasoned. Maybe there was something in this, but mostly I’ve ended up just preaching like me. Of course being yourself is virtually unavoidable, but what I’m saying here is that preacher B’s should revel in being themselves. We should “embrace our suckiness.” The best gift we can give the congregation is not who we think we should be, or who we want to be, but who we are, with all the sense and silliness that is inherent in that. As it turns out, variety is very welcome. Even if hearty roasts are people’s favourite Sunday feed, they still enjoy fettucine carbonara every now and then.
Trap #2. Don’t Complain. A strong memory from being a preacher A was the constant pressure to fit everyone into the schedule. There’s only so many preaching slots, and lots of people want pulpit time. Some even demand it. Forcefully. Repeatedly. However, if preacher A can be trusted as the congregation’s primary feeder and leader, they can also be trusted to determine the right mix of pulpit speakers. Pressure (even unspoken pressure) from speaker B doesn’t help. To be honest, I have found preaching less than previously quite hard, as I enjoy it a lot. But equally honestly there’s a lot of good that comes from deliberately choosing restraint. “In this way, you should serve one another.”
Tip #2. Be United. Both personally and pastorally it should be very obvious to everyone in the congregation that Preacher A and Preacher B are on the same page and headed in the same direction. And I see it very much as preacher B’s job to align themselves with preacher A and not vice versa. The most obvious way of doing this is simply to “talk up” preacher A. While important and necessary, my observation is this wears thin quite quickly, and congregations often perceive excessive “talking up” as false flattery, even if it is genuine. A better and longer lasting strategy is simply to use their stuff. Preacher B’s sermons should intentionally build on Preacher A’s offerings at their core, and not just summarise and repeat them before getting onto their own material. Mimic their themes, build towards their vision, echo their words. And do it intentionally and obviously. Treat them as the “giant on whose shoulders you stand.”

Clearly there could be a companion piece to this that talks about how Preacher A’s should treat Preacher B’s. And no doubt more could be said, and more nuance brought to the comments above. But hopefully the preacher B’s reading these tips and traps find something thought provoking and valuable here, beyond the fact that I’ve managed to (mis)quote Leonard Bernstein, St Francis, Ben Stiller, Jesus and Albert Einstein all in one post, in itself a unique and singular achievement. Bernstein finished his quip like this: “To find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm [as first violin] is a real problem. … And yet, if no one plays second fiddle, we have no harmony.” May those of us who are preacher B’s continue to serve God with endurance and enthusiasm, adding rich undertones of depth and colour to the sermonic song being sung each Sunday.

* St Francis often referred to the sinful tendency of his human flesh as “Brother Ass.” See for example


  1. Andrea McDougall says:

    Hi Greg
    some very thoughtful comments here – as I expected! I am also preacher B (or maybe C or D or E) at the moment, and think that you make some very pertinent observations. I completely agree that, while most churches quite rightly have one main preacher, it is good for people to hear a variety of preachers.

    With regard to Trap #2, I would suggest that while the exhortation “Don’t complain” is good, some need to be told that it’s ok to offer, and that the offer can be repeated, taking care of course that it is not a complaint. It is important to encourage those who may be reticent about using their God-given gifts to offer themselves, and not to assume that preacher A is aware of preacher B’s ongoing willingness and eagerness to preach.

    Your advice about not competing but instead pointing to the wisdom to be found in preacher A (and the others in the preaching team) is also good advice.


  2. Dale says:

    Helpful stuff Greg, I’m ‘B’ in our AM service, but ‘A’ in our PM service (and C or D in the afternoon Mandarin-speaking service!), which I find a nice dynamic 🙂

  3. Grant says:

    Nice Greg. I am preacher ‘A’ but have been away the last couple of weeks and let’s call him preacher ‘M’ has preached; I’ve been flooded with comments about how great preacher ‘M’ is. As preacher ‘A’ I have to be careful that I don’t suffer some insecurity because of this! And we have a preacher ‘B’ about to start – the same comment applies. Whether we are ‘A’ or ‘B’ or preacher ‘M’ we should all be on the same page for the sake of unity. Actually, just quietly, I love it when people think ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ are great! Takes the pressure off me!

  4. Greg Liston says:

    Hi there,

    Thanks for these comments. All insightful, interesting and valuable. My thoughts on them below.

    Re: Andrea’s comment, fair enough point. Was it C.S. Lewis that said something like mistakes come into the world in pairs? Having said that, I think I’d stick with my overall feeling that for preacher B’s there is a stronger tendency to push yourself forward too much rather than not enough. Perhaps for preachers who speak less commonly there may be some case for putting yourself forward a bit more, but I would think in most situations preacher A is pretty aware of what preacher B has to offer and doesn’t need to be reminded.

    Re: Dale’s comments, yes the whole multi congregational thing and different services adds a new dynamic and another layer of complexity. Where I am there is just the one sermon repeated several times, so I haven’t really thought much about that.

    Re: Grant’s comments, thanks and good stuff, maybe you should write the companion piece on how Preacher A’s should treat Preacher B’s? 🙂 The point about not being insecure is very good advice indeed! It’s even more impressive that you actually do it. I do think there is a difference between preacher B’s and others who don’t preach as much, though. A preacher M (and I think I pick up the subtle allusion here!) is essentially a guest preacher who happens to go to the same church. I’d be much less concerned whether they are as “on message” as preacher B’s are. Do you agree?

    Final point is that we have added a footnote and a small change above. Apparently my reference to “Brother Ass” was a bit too subtle (i.e. literally no one got it) and so the editors originally amended it to “Brother A.” They thought it was a “Freudian” typo, but alas it was just my (apparently!) crass way of speaking. Of course given St Francis used language like this too, I think I’m probably safe.



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