[Episcopal News Service] If you attend Episcopal worship services and assume the preacher always wears a clerical collar, consider lending an ear to Salem Saloom on a Sunday morning. As a lay preacher in the Central Gulf Coast Diocese, he could expand your expectations.
Saloom, 74, is licensed by the diocese and usually preaches once a month at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Brewton, Alabama, where he has worshiped since 1979. Although he has never attended a seminary, Saloom attended a lay preaching course at the diocesan school. for ministry and is now participating in the two-year test phase of a church-wide program program developed by the Episcopal Preaching Foundation.
The experience was “really enlightening,” Saloom told Episcopal News Service. For him, writing and delivering a sermon means “trying to find a way to bring the gospel to life and to preach so that the listeners in the congregation can see how vivid the gospel is in their daily lives.”
As more episcopal congregations forego full-time clergy and lay members take on more parish responsibilities, some dioceses are encouraging lay voices to be heard in the pulpit. “The dioceses recognize the value of secular preaching,” said Reverend Charles Cesaretti, president of the Episcopal Preaching Foundation, though he noted the phenomenon had ancient roots. “Lay preaching has always been in the church. It starts in the book of Acts, so it’s in our DNA.
Central Gulf Coast, which includes southern Alabama and part of the Florida panhandle, is one of six dioceses selected to test the Episcopal Preaching Foundation’s new lay preaching program. The other dioceses are East Tennessee, Lexington, Minnesota, Nebraska and North Carolina.
For its initial phase in 2021, the foundation has developed a train-the-trainer program and started spreading the word to dioceses. Sixteen applied to test the program, and each of the six finalists recruited two trainers and trained a cohort of approximately six students.
Last January, diocesan trainers began guiding their cohorts through all aspects of preaching, from careful examination of scripture to effective use of body language during sermons. At the end of this first year and throughout the second year, most of their time will be spent writing sermons, preaching to their peers, and receiving feedback.
The program “is brilliantly created. It’s inviting and very spirit-filled,” said Jenny Beaumont, one of two lay preaching trainers in the Diocese of North Carolina, where she serves as a missionary for adult education and lifelong learning. the life. In an interview with ENS, she described a series of weekly assignments that participants complete on their own, such as watching videos and writing reflections. Afterwards, the group meets twice a month, once on Zoom and once in person.
They discuss how to analyze the meaning of religious texts and practice reading their writings aloud. “It really helps people reflect on their life and their walk with God and how they can bring their voice to this journey,” Beaumont said.
Lay leadership development and lay preacher courses are growing amid declining church membership and attendance, trends in the Episcopal Church that mirror what is happening in other Protestant denominations main. At the same time, the parish leadership changes. Data compiled by the Office of General Convention shows that the number of parish priests in full-time positions has fallen from nearly 60 percent in 2010 to about 54 percent in 2020.
The Episcopal Preaching Foundation received $400,000 in grants from Trinity Church Wall Street in New York to launch its lay preaching training initiative. Trinity Wall Street aims to help all people of faith “develop their leadership skills so that they can be effective in their work in a way that is true to their faith,” said Rob Garris, chief executive of the church. Leadership Development Initiative.
The goal is not to completely replace the clergy, Garris told ENS, but rather to prepare and empower lay leaders to take on greater responsibilities in the church. “We find different ways to engage people rather than having them become passive recipients of programming,” he said.
For most of its 34-year history, The Foundation for Episcopal Preaching has sought to raise the standards of preaching in The Episcopal Church by working with seminaries and dioceses to strengthen the formation of seminarians and priests. Now is the time to extend that reach beyond the clergy, said the Reverend Stephen Smith, a priest in the Southern Ohio Diocese who coordinates the lay preacher training initiative.
“Interest and need meet right now,” Smith told ENS. Rural dioceses, in particular, have expressed a need to train lay preachers to help small congregations that lack full-time priests, Smith said, and lay leaders across the church have shown a willingness to help. to step in and help guide congregations through the upheaval of the past two years. Some see preaching as a fulfilling new ministry opportunity.
Congregations also benefit from hearing a diversity of perspectives from the pulpit, Smith said, and not just sermons from bishops, priests and deacons. “The layman preaches to talk about the role of the Gospel in everyday life.”
In the Central Gulf Coast Diocese, preaching is one of three paths, in addition to worship and pastoral, that lay people can choose when they participate in the 10-month lay leadership program offered by the ministry school. The diocese launched the program in 2020 and graduated 24 lay leaders in its first year, including 10 in the preaching track. This year, nine of the 20 students are completing preacher training.
“We realized the laity had something to say to each other, especially when we are going through something as big as a pandemic,” said Reverend Joy Blaylock, Dean of the School of Ministry and Diocesan Missionary for Discipleship. . “Sometimes the secular voice can speak outside the institution.”
The Episcopal Preaching Foundation program is longer and more intensive than the School for Ministry program, but both will result in participants being licensed to preach in the diocese, with the approval of the bishop. Russell Kendrick.
Even before the pandemic, some congregations in the diocese struggled to recruit, pay and retain permanent priests. A third of the diocese’s 62 churches do not have full-time clergy, Blaylock told ENS, so lay training can make a big difference locally. And lay preachers “just have a whole different perspective to bring that sometimes enlivens and gives hope in a whole different way, in a beautiful way,” she said.
On February 27, the Gospel reading designated by the lectionary was Luke’s Account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. After the reading, Saloom ascended the pulpit at St. Stephen’s and began his sermon by reminiscing about good hunting memories.
“In about three weeks, spring turkey season will open in Alabama,” Saloom began her sermon, which was broadcast live on Facebook. He recalled the sensations of walking in the woods as dawn approached, the sounds and smells of the wildlife around him, the feeling of the fresh air, the sight of the sky lighting up.
It’s “a magical transformation,” Saloom said. “A transformation from darkness to light awakens the world. And you literally feel the presence of God touch your spirit. Jesus may not be revealed to us as the son of God with the same drama the apostles experienced, he said, but our daily moments can be eye-opening if we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit.
“That light is within you and is reflected in creation,” Saloom said. “It’s about listening to the voice of God.”
In addition to serving his church, Saloom is a surgeon, arborist, and outdoor enthusiast. He told ENS that he draws on these experiences when he writes a sermon. “I think everyone, whether ordained or lay, brings something special to the table, and it has to come from your own experiences and your own way of doing things.”
Not everyone may feel comfortable standing in front of a congregation and preaching, but Saloom said he feels a personal call to this ministry. “Everyone has a ministry, whether they know it or not, and preaching can be one of those ministries,” he said.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].