Episcopal Preaching Foundation transforms annual conference into innovative online experience

Response to COVID-19 teaches those training for ordination about new world of digital worship

In just two months, as the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Episcopal Preaching Foundation (EPF) transformed its annual week-long, in-person Preaching Excellence Program (PEP) for seminarians into the innovative Preaching Excellence Connection, a three-day online seminar held via Zoom.

“By adapting our flagship PEP conference to the online space in response to the COVID-19 virus, our team managed to compress five years of learning into three months – to an overwhelmingly favorable response,” said A. Gary Shilling, EPF’s founder.

The dates were set for May 26-28, and organizers began to mold the program’s tried-and-true method of helping prospective preachers devote serious thought and practice to the art of preaching into a new context – on the internet, not at a bucolic retreat center.

The Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church; the Very Rev. Randolph Hollerith, Dean of Washington National Cathedral; and Vanderbilt Divinity School Professor Amy-Jill Levine, author of many works of commentary on Old Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures, keynoters who had already agreed to participate in the week-long program, willingly adjusted to the new format. Christine Parton-Burkett, lecturing fellow in speech at Duke Divinity School, specifically discussed preaching during a pandemic.

Dean Micah Jackson of Bexley Seabury Seminary, a long-time supporter of EPF and its programs, offered the insight and practical help of Dr. Julie Lytle, the seminary’s Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Director of Distributive and Lifelong Learning. Bexley Seabury has moved long-distance learning under Lytle’s direction and thus understands the demands of delivering of online coursework.

The re-tooled conference combined elements of EPF’s annual PEP conference, especially its small groups in which students preach and are critiqued by their peers with the help of a trained facilitator, and the online moderated preaching groups offered to clergy participants in the EPF’s other annual conference known as “PEP-II.”

The organizers opened the conference to seminarians and those in ministry formation from other denominations. The move attracted participants from the Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist churches, as well as the Anglican Church of Canada, ecumenical seminaries and local formation programs. More than 100 prospective preachers participated.

The program included four keynote presentations, all of which included informal questions-and-answer sessions, either live on Zoom or pre-recorded, 10 workshops and 24 preaching groups. Each day included morning and evening worship. Participants could gather in The Café to eat meals together. There was even a Zoom social hour.

Organizers advised participants to pace their “Zoom-selves,” acknowledging that such gatherings can be tiring. The Rev. Kate Spelman, a preaching group facilitator, encouraged participants to, as much as possible, bring most of their Zoom energy to the interactive setting of their preaching group. One participant commented: “A supportive environment that offered both practical tips as well as a broader understanding of the importance of preaching. I found the emphasis on the importance of spiritual care and spiritual growth helpful.”

Spelman and others acknowledged that participants would be learning about how to do church services in a new way. For instance, Spelman said, they would explore the challenge of preaching to a screen of tiny photos of people who “are not giving you any feedback.” Even getting used to preaching sitting down is challenging for some, she said.

Brent Norris, conference liturgist, told the participants that such exploration was vital because the church must assume that online services, no matter the format, are “going to be part of the way most churches move forward.”

*****

The mission of the Episcopal Preaching Foundation is to support and encourage excellence in preaching in the Episcopal Church. The EPF strongly believes in the foundational role of preaching to energize and build church membership and attendance in today’s challenging environment, as recently documented by Gallup and the Pew Research Center.