Pulpit swap: What happens when churches switch preachers?

Churches seeking to bridge divides are reviving a trend that was petering out: the pulpit swap. But it doesn't stop with preachers. It also include church choirs.

Bob Miller
Craig Biondi (l.) and Janice Wilson, music coordinators, brought their Birmingham Baptist choirs together. Preachers from the respective churches also swapped pulpits.

Decades after it arose as a way to help heal the racial divide in the postsegregation South, a tradition known as pulpit swapping is making a comeback in Birmingham, Ala.

In the 1970s, pulpit swaps became common in the city that played a central role in the civil rights movement. Predominantly black and white congregations would exchange pastors – and often choirs – on consecutive weeks, promoting a message of healing and unity.

The practice eventually petered out. But recently churches in Birmingham have begun reviving it. With an emphasis on community, the swaps have even expanded beyond their original intent of bridging racial divides to include churches of the same race but different denominations.

“It was just beautiful – there were tears, there was laughter, we stayed overtime just talking,” says Janice Wilson, music coordinator at Sixth Avenue Baptist, a black congregation, of a pulpit swap with Liberty Park Baptist Church, a predominantly white congregation. “It was just finding more things alike than finding things different.”

Scott Guffin, Liberty Park’s pastor, said pulpit swaps had a lasting impact on him during his teen years, and so he was thrilled to participate in the tradition himself. One of the highlights of the recent swap, he says, was the joint performance of both choirs together, which he described as “breathtaking and awe-inspiring.”

The Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the historic 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, said his church often carries out pulpit swaps with neighboring congregations. “Heaven is not going to be a place where we’re all going to think alike, sing alike, and worship alike,” he says. Pulpit swapping “gives us a chance to demonstrate unity in the body of Christ and also demonstrate diversity.”

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