This is my personal practice, which I set forth here for your edification or amusement.
I read scripture, preach, and issue proclamations from the pulpit.
It’s okay to preach from somewhere other than the pulpit, but I never leave the chancel during the sermon. Saying “You are forgiven!” from the pulpit is much stronger than saying it from anywhere else, while jokes work best when they are not from the pulpit—unless they are the self-spoofing kind (a dangerous kind of joke, because if it backfires, you discredit yourself). It is best to follow up a self-spoof with a strong assertion. For example, (playfully ) “or maybe I’m mistaken.” (forcefully ) “No! For scripture says...”
I preach from the chancel, facing the congregation.
Since my sermons are extemporaneous (with some memorized parts), I tend to be more dramatic in the delivery and the pulpit either puts it over the top or makes me look insecure. I move around within the chancel as I preach. It helps me dramatize the scripture reading, which is how I always begin the sermon. It is more visually interesting and thus commands the congregation’s attention, and there is no one who cannot see me because of the architecture and no one gets a stiff neck from sitting in one position all the time.
I never preach from the nave. In my view, preaching from the nave violates the social contract between the congregation and the preacher—the congregation expects me to be an authority figure during the sermon. If you throw that authority away just to be one of the gang, you can’t easily retrieve it when they need your authority to console or absolve them.
I pray from the nave, facing the same direction as the congregation.
I always pray from the nave in the eastward position—that is, facing the same direction as the congregation. Symbolically, I am standing at the front of the company, as part of them, facing God. This way I am leading them or representing them before God, not praying at them, and I’m not intoning a corporate sentiment.
Drawbacks and Exceptions
There’s nothing wrong with a written sermon. I used to think it was bad form to write a sermon in advance and read it from a manuscript, but alas, I was wrong. It turns out that how the preacher is inspired is the Holy Spirit’s business, not mine. Many gifted preachers simply don’t have the gift of memorization or extemporaneous speaking, just as others can’t seem to put their thoughts down on paper. The manner of preparation and delivery is not as important as the effectiveness of the sermon—and I’ve heard many excellent sermons that were read from typewritten manuscripts.
However, the positions I described for preaching only work if you preach extemporaneously or from memory, or a combination of the two as I do. People who read their sermons need to stay behind the pulpit all the time—in this case, walking around looks contrived.. I’ve seen a preacher put his leg up on the chancel railing and casually read from the papers on his knee. It was a great sermon, but it didn’t come across very well, because the informal delivery clashed with the inherent formality of reading the sermon. People who read their sermons develop a natural presentation style that works with them standing behind the pulpit all the time, and that’s where they should stay.
If your church has an auditorium instead of a sanctuary and you have a stage instead of a chancel, you have to stay on the stage all the time. Otherwise, you may look as though you are hamming it up as you jump down from the platform, and you may even risk personal injury. If you walk the long way around, which is safer, the travel time ruins the moment. However, auditoriums usually have hard, reflective back walls, and you may be able to pray in the eastward position very effectively. The problem with having church services in an auditorium is that the congregation can lapse into the role of audience, which is inappropriately passive. You can even end up with the clergy and the choir worshiping the congregation, instead of leading them as they worship God! Praying in the eastward position, even though you can’t leave the stage, can remedy that problem somewhat by making it clear that you are leading and not entertaining the congregation.
In most churches, it’s safe to pray with your back to the congregation, because the east wall (that’s the architectural term for the wall that the congregation faces) is usually hard and reflective, and your voice booms out over the congregation even though you are not facing them. However, if the east wall has a lot of hangings or sound insulation, it may absorb your every word. In that case, you can’t face the east wall at all.
High-Pitched Voices and Elderly Parishioners
When people lose their hearing, the upper registers go first. So if you are a soprano or a tenor, your natural speaking voice may actually be inaudible to some of your elderly parishioners, because your natural pitch fits right within their deaf range. They can buy the best hearing aids, you can install the most sophisticated sound systems, and you can project your voice in Cinerama for all I care, and they still won’t be able to hear you. If you have a high-pitched voice and a lot of elderly parishioners, you may need to face your congregation at all times. They may be getting visual cues from your lips without realizing it, and when you turn your back to them, they can’t follow you at all.
Recently, I prayed a lengthy pastor prayer in the eastward position. There was an elderly man with a very conspicuous hearing aid in the congregation, but since I am a baritone, he had no difficulty hearing me at all. In fact, he made a point of telling me that he could hear me better than the regular preacher!
My Rule of Thumb
I use the pulpit for scripture readings and proclamations. Because the pulpit is the Place of Authority, I want to use it appropriately and skillfully.
I preach from the chancel facing the people, because in preaching I’m representing God to the people. I never preach from the nave, because in doing so, I am abdicating my role as preacher.
I pray from the nave facing the Communion table or the sanctuary cross, because in praying I’m representing the people to God.
I never, never look at my watch. A former U.S. president found out the hard way that it’s a bad idea.