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Lay Preachers Meet Growing Need

| Posted: November 8, 2023
Dr. Salem Saloom, a surgeon-turned-forester, holds a sprig during training in Lee Chapel at Roslyn Retreat Center. | Kay Wild/Diocese of East Tennessee

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Attending worship in Episcopal congregations increasingly means hearing a homily from a layperson rather than a priest. The faithful are hearing heartfelt accounts of what it’s like to follow Christ in today’s messy, complex world. And a new program is making sure laypeople are trained in the homiletic craft — more trained, in fact, than most priests are — when they step into the pulpit.

The Lay Preacher Training Initiative (LPTI) of the Episcopal Preaching Foundation is completing a two-year training pilot program funded by a three-year, $400,000 grant from Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City. A pioneering cohort of 30 lay preachers from six dioceses will graduate in a November ceremony at Washington National Cathedral.

What’s emerging from the pilot is a curriculum that will be made available churchwide next year. Once trainers are prepared in participating dioceses, this new method for developing lay preachers will be rolled out.

“The whole point is: yes, the church staffing is changing and changing rapidly, and yes, we’re going to need new lay preachers to step up and to help us with that transition,” said the Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith, a semi-retired Southern Ohio priest who directs LPTI.

“But to say that’s the primary or only reason why we’re training lay preachers is to handicap the program,” Smith added. “It’s more than that. It’s much more than that. It’s about the full proclamation of the gospel by every order.”

Smith sees the laity order taking its place in the pulpit alongside the other orders of deacon, priest, and bishop. For laypeople, it’s about expressing the view from the pew: the gospel as it’s received and lived day to day in local contexts.

Voices that wouldn’t have been heard a few years ago are now moving hearts from the pulpit. Among them is 75-year-old Salem Saloom, an Alabama general surgeon-turned-forester and forestry educator. He gleaned sermon material one evening this summer when he was atop a 110-foot fire tower fixing his internet receiver. He looked down to see Coco, his Boykin Spaniel, climbing a narrow staircase past 16 landings to reach him at the apex.

“One misstep and she could have fallen and died,” said Saloom, an LPTI participant from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast and a member of St. Stephen’s Church in Brewton, Alabama. “Coco’s devotion to me is like the kind I need to have for the Father. She kept her eyes focused on where she was going the whole time. … People remember the latch, the story — it’s something they can remember and relate it back to the gospel.”

LPTI comes at a time when growing numbers of Episcopalians don’t see a priest at Sunday worship. In one telling sign, 622 U.S. congregations had openings for clergy last spring, yet only 87 clergy were searching for positions, according to an “approximate snapshot” that the Office for Transition Ministry shared with Executive Council in June.

Even in churches that have priests on staff, lay sermons aren’t as rare as they used to be. Church Pension Group data from 2022 show 56 percent of active Episcopal clergy don’t serve full time in one setting. That means many are serving part time in one or multiple congregations and sharing ministry duties, including preaching in many cases, with laity.

“Are there more pulpits that are open post-pandemic? Yes,” said the Rev. Dr. Joy Blaylock, missioner for discipleship in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast and dean of its School for Ministry. “We are quickly approaching the mark where half of [our 61] congregations do not have a full-time clergyperson or are in a long-term transition period.”

Her diocese is piloting LPTI, she said, as part of its effort to develop laypersons’ gifts in this context where they’re increasingly needed. Central Gulf Coast laypeople have been eager to minister ever since the pandemic drew them into roles from IT to leading Morning Prayer. Their passion to preach fits how homiletics has been evolving, Blaylock said, which is to include more reader response and dialogic formats.

“The sermon is not based on the sage on the stage bringing one voice,” Blaylock said. “It’s based on the Spirit moving in a whole community. And so you can’t just have one voice that’s always the defining point.”

Lay preachers from the Diocese of North Carolina include (from left, standing) Jason Franklin, Cecil Haynes, Robin Williams, and Earnest Graham (trainer); (seated) Jenny Beaumont (trainer), Connie Sessoms, and Anne Stokes. | Kay Wild/Diocese of East Tennessee

Trying out a variety of sermon types is part of the training experience. After an initial year covers such skills as identifying quality commentaries, interpreting texts, and crafting deliveries, the second year is devoted largely to practice. All that focus on the preaching craft adds up to more than the semester course or two that seminarians are able to give homiletics en route to the priesthood.

Giving feedback and responding to it is a bedrock of LPTI — so much so that its students and cohorts in their home congregations are coached in how to help preachers improve.

“It’s helping train the congregation to be better listeners to sermons,” said Beverly Hurley Hill, canon for mission and lay ministry in the Diocese of East Tennessee. “They get a glimpse of what it’s like to sit with the Scripture ahead of time and then to bring that gospel message to the people in the pews.”

Dioceses that opt to use the curriculum in 2024 will have a roadmap for training lay preachers who meet a widely recognized standard. That marks a change from today. Though many dioceses offer licensing for lay preachers, training criteria and quality controls have varied widely. Some are licensed only to preach in their home parishes. A network of reliable lay preachers who can travel and deliver consistent quality has been more dream than reality thus far.

But appetites for inspiring, theologically sound lay sermons show no signs of abating. When LPTI was announced, 33 dioceses applied for just six slots in the two-year pilot.

LPTI’s soon-to-be-graduates aim to honor the bounds of sound doctrine. In proclaiming the gospel, preachers have a mandate to steer clear of heresy, whether they’re lay or ordained. Though no training can guarantee heresy-proof preaching, Smith said, the LPTI is equipped to help.

“I have heard lots of heresies in preaching, from all orders of the Church,” Smith said via email. “I do not think lay people are more prone to it than the other orders. That said, the trainers in our program are people of substantial learning who would be more than capable of pointing out when and where a line got crossed. … We trust the Holy Spirit in community to help steer us on the right path.”

Dioceses that have schools for ministry might find LPTI adds depth to their homiletics programming, said the Rev. Mariclair Partee Carlsen, LPTI’s communications director. And those lacking funds to create and run such schools will be able to use it, too.

“This pre-existing program can be adapted for their use in a way that’s much simpler and less resource-intensive than setting up an entire” school for ministry, Carlsen said.

Freida Herron preaches at St. Andrew’s Church in Maryville, Tennessee | Kay Wild/Diocese of East Tennessee

Support for lay preaching is bringing out people who felt called to the pulpit long ago but didn’t act on it until now. They include Freida Herron, a 69-year-old retiree who lives at the edge of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. She felt called to open God’s Word for the faithful even as a child growing up in a devout Southern Baptist home. But because she was a girl, she recalls, she wasn’t encouraged to pursue preaching, and neither she nor her parents knew “what to do with that” call she felt.

Now after successful careers in telecommunications and social work, Herron is responding to the call that never went away. That means spending part of her retirement reading books by Fred Craddock and Thomas Long, devoting up to 10 hours to prepare for an LPTI session, and preaching once a month.

“It’s been a clear point of this program that you do this because you feel a pull of the Holy Spirit — a sense of calling,” Herron said. “It’s not that you are here as the backup emergency person.”

The LPTI might not be for every layperson who aspires to preach. A small number have left the program because they couldn’t devote sufficient time to it while also working and raising kids. Others have found it rigorous but doable in retirement — more so than going back to school full time would have been.

“It’s possible to learn how to do this without blowing up your whole life and going to seminary,” Herron said.

No matter how they make time for the craft, lay preachers are modeling a way of practicing faith that many in the pews haven’t seen before, but might find intriguing.

“A lot of people see the lay preachers and they go, ‘Wow! Maybe I could do that,’” Blaylock said. “The confidence level is buttressed when they see other people doing it. … They think, ‘Is this something that I’m being called to do? Maybe not every Sunday, but a few times a year?’”