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, 30 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. Most 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 preaching was not being emphasized in many Episcopal seminaries. Most offered only several homiletics courses and some required just one. 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 10 Episcopal seminaries and other institutions preparing students for Episcopal ordination select 50 to 60 seminarians who show promise in preaching. They spend an all-expense-paid week honing their preaching skills, led by four or five homiletics professors, an equal number of skilled parish preachers, a faculty dean and well-know guest lecturers who have included the Rev. Drs. Jim Forbes, William Sloan Coffin, Robert Bellah, Will Willimon, Dan Mathews, Walter Brueggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor, Tom Long, John Claypool, Sam Lloyd, Fred Craddock, Gene Sutton, Cleo LaRue and Tom Troeger, as well as Presiding Bishops Ed Browning and Katharine Jefferts Schori and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
The seminarians deliver sermons they prepare ahead of time, in small groups that are then discussed by the seminarians in each group and their faculty leaders. They listen as well to sermons by the Conference faculty of excellent preachers who also give them practical tips on the craft and lead workshops.
Those Conferences are held in late May each year, after the seminarians finish classes and before they start summer assignments. We’ve held them at various locations since we started in 1988.
The response to those Conferences from the seminarians involved and the Conference faculty as well as seminary deans and laity has been excellent. I believe we have been lucky in timing in that many people now believe that preaching is important.
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. Not yet, at least not completely.
In 1991, we started a second program designed to recognize, encourage and publicize excellent preaching in parishes. Each year, we publish the faculty sermons and addresses from that year’s seminarian Conference, as well as selected sermons preached by attending seminarians. The project, including the distribution of the sermon books to clergy and laity, is made possible through the generosity of former Deputy Secretary of State and active Episcopalian John C. Whitehead.
More recently, we are conducting preaching Conferences in various dioceses around the country for active parish priests, cosponsored by their diocesan bishops. Considering the Church’s 10,000 active priests, this program has tremendous room for expansion beyond the almost 2,500 that have experienced our seminarian Conferences.
Conferences have been held in the Dioceses of Minnesota, Southern Ohio, Maine, Georgia, Southeast Florida and East Carolina, Central Gulf Coast and Southeast Florida, West Tennessee, Louisiana, Nebraska, Iowa, San Diego, Ohio, Upper South Carolina, Maine and in Cambridge, England, to name a few.
This is the fourth year we have held an annual week-long preaching conferences for Episcopal priests who have been out of seminary and in parish work for three to six years – long enough that they “know what they don’t know.” This Preaching Excellence Program II (PEP II). Like the PEP seminarians, the PEP II priests delivered sermons in small groups where they were critiqued and they also heard sermons by the pros and attended workshops on such topics as “Instant Preaching” (sermons when there’s no time for preparation), “Stewardship” and “Preach the Paint Off the Wall: an actor’s toolbox for bringing sermons to life.”
Many PEP II participants had attended PEP as seminarians, and PEP II is part of our strategy of providing career-long help for preachers. We had a long waiting list for the 16 PEP II spots this year and if funding is available, we plan to expand PEP II in time to 40 priests annually.
We also are initiating peer groups of parish preachers who meet monthly in person, by phone or email to hear and critique each others’ sermons and prepare future sermons. In addition, we plan to start a mentoring program which enlists skilled parish preachers to coach newcomers.
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 $1.6 million. With an annual budget of approximately $300,000, however, we still depend primarily on annual contributions.
A. Gary Shilling, Ph.D
Founder and Chairman
The Episcopal Preaching Foundation