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Preaching In The Era of a Pandemic

| Posted: December 4, 2020

Recent news reports in both the secular and religious media describe clergy as tired, challenged and over-stretched by an unfamiliar environment and a forced, unrelenting, and steep learning curve due to the coronavirus pandemic. They are producing online videos, improving the congregations’ website and communications along with meeting heightened pastoral needs.

The Episcopal Preaching Foundation (EPF) hopes to help with at least another of those challenges: preaching in the era of COVID-19. Questions that have arisen in connecting with an essentially invisible audience. Should sermons be shorter? Do their structures need to change? What about video production quality and style? How should preachers deal with video technicalities from equipment to bandwidth to technical staffing?

“This is an unprecedented time for us all, with an extreme level of burden falling on clergy. As a minimum, clergy need road-maps and hands-on guidance to navigate the steep learning curve to digital ministry, preaching and pastoral care – with little advance warning,” EPF Executive Director Peter Wild said. “The conference is designed to equip participants practically and mentally to better navigate this new environment.”

During its January 11-15, 2021, a Zoom-based Preaching Excellence Program (PEP-II) will help preachers consider how to preach effectively to a remote congregation via an unfamiliar medium.

The program will consider the fact that the sermon in the age of COVID-19 is a unique opportunity for preachers to connect with congregants during services that may no longer offer Eucharist, may have compromised presentation of music, and have limited opportunities for active participation by the congregation.

The conference will lift up best practices in preaching, with particular emphasis on the “new normal” of preaching to a virtual congregation in the COVID-19 era. The schedule, adapted for “Zoom Time,” will require only 3 hours per day online between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. EST.

A central component of each day will be small, intimate preaching groups where participants will preach to constructive feedback from peers, guided by a trained moderator. Participants are also encouraged, but not required, to attend conference Morning and Evening Prayer each day. Participants are expected to have a robust connection, plus camera and audio capability.

Episcopal Preaching Foundation Founder and Chairman Gary Shilling commented: “With all the changes of the past year the need to communicate a message of hope is felt even more deeply today. The opportunity for preachers is that in this era of virtual ministry the sermon remains one of the few elements of Sunday that is still delivered in a recognizable form. The flip side is that parishioners also google around the digital church for worship and preachers, so the stakes have risen considerably for parish clergy.”

The faculty includes

  • the Rev. Judy Fentress Williams, Ph.D., professor of Old Testament, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, Virginia;
  • the Rev. Dr. O. Wesley Allen, Jr., Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology, SMU;
  • the Rev. Magrey deVega, senior pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Tampa, Florida,
  • the Rev. Kim Coleman, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia and president of the Union of Black Episcopalians.

The first plenary, by Allen, is titled “There is no going back. How shall we speak God’s good news of mercy and justice in 2021?” He calls it “Preaching Virtually in a Virtual Apocalypse,” noting that the pandemic, protests over black lives lost to police, and a nation divided by its democratic process has been crushing for everyone. “And it forced preachers out of the comfort zones of their pulpits into a virtual, apocalyptic reality searching for a new word to offer and new ways to offer it,” he says.

Allen has special interest in rethinking the role of preaching and liturgy in the shifting, postmodern world of the twenty-first century. His writing includes Determining the FormThe Preacher’s Bible HandbookPreaching in the Era of TrumpPreaching Resurrection, and Preaching and Reading the Lectionary: The Three Dimensions of the Liturgical Year.

Wednesday’s plenary session will be titled “The Timeless Word in a Digital World, Part 1: Adapting to Zoom and Helping a Congregation Go Deeper” and led by the Rev. Magrey deVega.

Throughout the church’s history, communicators of the good news have utilized means of communication resonant with the culture around them. Today, digital tools must be effective for the church to teach, inspire, and evangelize. DeVega will address ways to strengthen a congregation’s spiritual discipleship, including how digital culture involves different ways of hearing and relating to the communicated word, how the internet and social media can be used to deepen people’s commitment to Jesus, and how to create a culture of healthy interactions, both in person and online, in a time when social media usage can be so divisive.

DeVega is the author of eight books, including Hope for Hard Times: Lessons on Faith from Elijah and Elisha and the forthcoming Savior: What the Bible Says about the Cross (Abingdon Press). He has been a featured preacher and workshop presenter throughout the country, most recently speaking at the Leadership Institute at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leewood, Kansas.

A follow-up workshop presented by John Barolo, director of discipleship, and Rob Hotho, director of worship technology, at Hyde Park United Methodist Church will continue this discussion in “The Timeless Word in a Digital World, Helping a Congregation Reach Wider.”

The workshop will offer practical ways for church leaders and congregation members to communicate the mission and vision of a local church, with tools including websites, social media profiles, podcasts, text message applications, and email. They will discuss how to

to develop a basic “digital toolkit” for congregational use; what constitutes an effective digital presence and why it matters; and offer some simple ways for congregations to promote their church’s online presence.

Fentress-Williams will lead a plenary session, titled “Prophetic Preaching in a Time of Uncertainty.” Dr. Fentress-Williams’ areas of expertise include Hebrew Bible, dialogic interpretation, religious studies, Afro-American studies, and literary criticism. Dr. Fentress-Williams received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Yale University in 1999. She earned her M.Div. from Yale Divinity School in 1990 and her A.B. in English from Princeton University with certificates in African-American Studies and American Studies in 1984.

The Episcopal Preaching Foundation encourages excellent 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.

Founded in 1987, the foundation began its programs in earnest immediately. Since then, more than 1,800 seminarians have passed through its Preaching Excellence Program, including numerous bishops and one presiding bishop. More recently, the EPF has expanded programming to embrace practicing parish clergy through the annual conference (“PEP-II”) and ad hoc diocesan and deacons’ conferences.

For more information, please contact

Episcopal Preaching Foundation
Peter Wild (Executive Director)

500 Morris Ave., Ste. 304
Springfield, NJ 07081
(203 448 8801