Message From A. Gary Shilling
Preaching in the Episcopal Church is Being Improved
As a life-long Episcopalian, I’ve been concerned about the quality of preaching in the Church for some time. It’s basically not, as a New York Times article stated, because I heard one too many boring sermons. Rather, I’ve seen so many nominal members, including intelligent, successful people who could do so much for themselves and others through the Church, who are simply not involved. The Church’s alumni, if you will. People are attracted to church for many reasons—fellowship, counseling, the liturgy, youth programs, etc.—but preaching is my passion and, I believe, excellent preaching will bring in and retain many of the uninvolved, as well as inspire regular attendees.
Determined to shed some light on this problem rather than curse the darkness, 33 years ago I resolved to promote excellent preaching. There was lots of encouragement. When I asked laity and clergy alike “Do you believe that preaching in the Church can stand improvement?” the answer was always a resounding “Yes!” Far too often, the rich liturgy of the Episcopal Church masks the need for good sermons, and until recently, many clergy and seminaries did not see preaching as a vital function.
My aim was to raise the overall level of preaching, not just reward the best of available preachers. It also seemed best to hit them while they are young and still impressionable. Some of today’s seminarians aren’t all that tender in years, but they still are at the beginning of their ministries. I also wanted to avoid duplicating programs that were already available. The Church has far too few resources to squander on border wars.
I talked to a number of people, and soon found, much to my surprise, that the emphasis on preaching varies considerably among Episcopal seminaries. What was needed was a basic course in the art and practice of preaching, a “boot camp” for budding preachers.
Consequently, we began our annual Preaching Excellence Program (PEP) Conferences in 1988. Every year, the deans and homiletics professors of the Episcopal seminaries and other institutions preparing students for Episcopal ordination, nominate seminarians who show promise in preaching to attend PEP. This select group of between 50 and 60 students spends an all-expense-paid week honing their preaching skills led by a faculty of distinguished homiletics professors, highly-regarded parish preachers, and nationally recognized guest lectures who have included over the years Walter Brueggemann, Katharine Jefferts Schori, Sam Wells, and Tom Long.
For one week, the pep attendees are exposed to a uniquely rich program of plenary addresses, workshops, and small groups led by a faculty who are not only heard from the podium, but also mix informally with students at meals and in-between sessions. This rich environment provides a unique opportunity for seminarians to meet their peers in other seminaries, exchange experiences, and form enduring network relationships.
At the very heart of the conference are small preaching groups mentored by faculty members, at which the students deliver a prepared sermon and receive appreciative critique from the student group and faculty. Not surprisingly, an invitation to PEP is regarded as one of the highlights of a seminary career for future leaders of the Episcopal Church. We also publish annually a book of sermons and addresses from the PEP conference, and copies are available for you.
For me personally, attending these Conferences has been thrilling. I’m not an emotional person, but I am always moved when I see some 70 seminarians and clergy in a community dedicated to excellent preaching. After the first Conference, I came home and told my wife that for the first time I thought I’d definitely seen the Holy Spirit at work. She asked if he would help me get the basement cleaned out. That took another 20 years.
For practicing parish clergy, the EPF gathers a select group of ministers nominated by their diocese to attend PEP II, our 2 day residential Preaching Excellence Program once a year. Most often, these are priests in their first 3-5 years of parish ministry with a solid foundation in preparing and delivering weekly sermons, who are now ready to embark on their next growth track as preachers and are at the point in their preaching career where they “know what they don’t know.”
With all registrants receiving a 90% scholarship for registration, travel, and accommodations, PEP II is a special opportunity for diocese to develop their most promising talent into the leadership that the Episcopal Church needs for tomorrow. Many PEP II participants have attended PEP as seminarians, and PEP II is part of our strategy of providing career-long help for preachers.
The EPF also conducts preaching Conferences in dioceses around the country for active parish priests, cosponsored by their diocesan bishops. Diocesan preaching intensives provide a timely refresher for the polished, and a welcome deepening for those relative new to parish ministry. Considering the Church’s 5,000 active priests, this program has tremendous room for expansion beyond the 2,500 that have experienced our seminarian Conferences.
Introduced earlier this year, the EPF Annual Seminarian Award of $1,000 is open to each of the 9 Episcopal seminaries to be awarded at Commencement to the student showing the greatest improvement in preaching. The award was presented this year at: Bloy House, General Theological Seminary, Nashotah House, Sewanee, Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Feedback from the seminaries have been positive, with appreciations expressed to the EPF for shining a needed extra spotlight on improved preaching.
The EPF website becomes a more welcoming and a relevant resource each year. Extensive photographic coverage was secured for PEP and PEP II 2019, which enabled a robust visual record to be posted to the website.
The Iona Collaborative, organized by 29 Episcopal bishops, train people for ordination outside residential seminaries with heavy reliance on online instructions. We are providing the preaching component of this program with 35 to 45 five-to-eight minute video segments each focusing on a specific preaching theme. The faculty we’ve recruited for this project includes Bishop Robert Wright, Bishop of Atlanta, and well-known preaching professor, Dr. Tom Long.
We plan to create and manage a clearinghouse for guest preachers, starting in the New York City area, where there are a large number of excellent preachers in the Episcopal Church and other denominations. Many rectors welcome the opportunity to bring in outside voices and take an occasional preaching break.
Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA hosted an EPF-delivered preaching program for the Anglican Studies students with the title: Preaching in the Anglican Tradition, January 7-10th, 2020. This program provides academic credit and may be expanded in the future.
We are working with the Episcopal Church Foundation to bring together many Episcopal organizations and coordinate their activities, and in the connection, EPF participated in Rooted in Jesus Conference in Atlanta, GA in January 2020. As an ECF partner, the EPF produced the preaching track segment.
EPF is actively involved in the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, and at the 2020 annual meeting will present two programs, in partnership with the Anglican Theological Review, titled Preaching Against the Grain: When Politics and Culture Collide with the Gospel and a program on the topic of leveraging the internet for sermon preparation and delivery.
In response to EPF’s Honorary Chairman and the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s Care for Creation Initiative, the EPF is leading a consortium whose goal is to deliver a series of two symposia on exploring the topic of preaching environmental sustainability from both Biblical and scientific viewpoints.
Our Foundation’s programs are financed entirely by contributions from individuals, parishes, bishops, Episcopal seminarians and charitable foundations. With endowment contributions and good investment results, we have accumulated net assets of $2.4 million. With an annual budget of approximately $400,000, however, we still depend primarily on annual contributions.
A. Gary Shilling, Ph.D
Founder and Chairman