Good preaching begins in good seminary homiletics programs, study suggests
A study released June 6 finds that Episcopal Church seminarians receive uneven preparation for their lives as preachers.
The study, “Looking Again at Teaching Homiletics,” was produced by William Hethcock, an emeritus professor of homiletics at the University of the South’s School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee. It was commissioned by the Episcopal Preaching Foundation and released during its annual six-day Preaching Excellence Program (PEP).
In an article Hethcock wrote on the study he made of seminaries, seminarians and congregational search committees, he calls for an update and revision of the teaching of homiletics in Episcopal seminaries.
“In spite of the renewed emphasis on preaching in the church dating from the mid-70s, some of our seminary graduates are discovering themselves less well prepared for the week by week crafting and delivering of effective sermons than they might be,” Hethcock writes. “The problem suggests that insufficient time and emphasis are being devoted to homiletics instruction and supervised preaching practicums in our seminaries.”
This comes despite what the study found in contacting congregational search committees. “We repeatedly learn from our lay people that preaching is very important among them,” the report says.
“Preaching is the primary contact people in the pew have with their clergy and their church,” Hethcock notes.
He adds that “effective speaking from the pulpit is a basic tool of the competent priest.”
Hethcock told the Episcopal News Service that the study and resulting article is meant to “raise awareness, appreciation and enthusiasm” among the seminaries. He said that none of the seminarians he contacted as part of the study criticized the preaching program at their seminaries; they simply wished more time was devoted to learning and practicing the art of preaching. In his conclusion, Hethcock in part calls on all Episcopalians to support theological education so that seminaries have the resources they need.
Being able to preach a “reliable, reasonable sermon when a person leaves seminary ought to be the norm,” he said. “People want to be fed with the Gospel and they want to be sustained in their Christian life, and a good preacher can do that.”
Seminary homiletics offerings are varied
Hethcock’s research, collected over an 18-month period, showed that one seminary required no course in preaching, five required one course, and the remaining five ranged from four to two courses in the their requirements. Two seminaries of the 11 Episcopal seminaries have two full-time homiletics professors and four have one full-time position for homiletics, according to the report.
Most seminarians preach one to four times in class, with most preaching three times. All seminarians must preach at least one sermon at worship, with some seminaries requiring more worship-related preaching. That experience is usually supplemented by preaching in the congregations in which seminarians fulfill their field-education requirement, according to the report.
Hethcock suggests that frequent preaching does not necessarily improve preaching.
“Merely preaching over and over does not insure growth in skill; the feedback component from trained listeners is critical for the process to be fruitful,” he writes. “The measure of excellence the student can achieve as an effective preacher is related to the frequency with which this round of preaching and critique can be accomplished during the seminarian’s career. In other words, the more times students preach for skillful evaluation, the more accomplished preachers they will become.”
Fellow seminarians also learn about their own preaching as they “observe what is effective and helpful in the preaching of others,” he adds.
Hethcock says that those who believe a good preacher from the neighborhood can be brought in as an adjunct professor are mistaken. Teaching homiletics has become a specialized skill that has shifted the discipline from teaching what a sermon ought to say to how it ought to be said.
“Ordinands need to leave seminary having been steered by a competent professor especially trained to coach them in how to speak the pulpit message so that it will be heard,” he writes. “New writings in homiletics focus on this contemporary theory of preaching. A good course in homiletics is a course in effective communication.”
Learning how to communicate
The emphasis on communication skill is prompted in part by a change in how people listen these days. Barraged by information, Hethcock writes, many worshippers come to church accustomed by the world to “turning off any communication coming at them that is not a consequential message specifically designed to draw them into listening.”
“Carefully designed preaching aimed at getting the message heard is not a trick or a gimmick,” Hethcock says. “Rather, secular tools are being used for a sacred purpose.”
At the same time, seminaries must remember and teach ordinands that scripture study and personal worship and prayer “are always under girding the careful preacher in the pulpit task,” he writes.
Hethcock suggests four obstacles that must be overcome to improve homiletics teaching in Episcopal seminaries. First, there is a shortage of trained faculty, in part, because of the second obstacle Hethcock cites: homiletics as a discipline attracts few doctoral candidates to prepare for seminary teaching. “Some see it as a field requiring less academic challenge than others, or perhaps less employment opportunity,” he writes.
A third obstacle Hethcock cites is a sense that some seminary faculties find it difficult to “surrender classroom time” to something they sometimes consider to be just another practicum.
Fourth, the cost of the space and electronic equipment needed to effectively teach preaching is too high for some seminaries. All members of the Episcopal Church must be willing to support seminaries in their task of educating ministers, Hethcock writes. He told ENS that he suspects that some lay people assume that preachers simply pick up the ability to preach during the course of their preparation, rather than realizing that seminaries teach courses in how to preach effectively.
Preaching Excellence Program adds to seminary training
PEP brings together rising Episcopal senior seminarians and just-graduated seminarians together for six days of intensive preaching and study. The 2007 group of 61 spent June 3-8 at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania, working with their peers, preaching professors and parish priests. They preached and received feedback from all of them about their own preaching, and listened to others preach.
The keynote preacher for the week was Thomas Troeger, the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School. His books on preaching, poetry, hymnody and worship include “Preaching and Worship,” “Preaching While the Church Is Under Reconstruction,” and “Above the Moon Earth Rises: Hymn Texts, Anthems and Poems for a New Creation.” Ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1970 and in the Episcopal Church in 1999, he is dually aligned with both traditions. He is a former president of the Academy of Homiletics and currently serves on the board of Societas Homiletica (the international guild of scholars in homiletics).
A. Gary Shilling, founder of the investment advisory firm bearing his name, began the Episcopal Preaching Foundation in 1987 because he was convinced that excellent preaching is a key to engaging all of the church’s members, but especially those who were relatively uninvolved. Working together with the Rev. Roger Alling, his aim was to improve preaching in the Episcopal Church by offering seminarians an immersion experience in the art and practice of preaching. Alling left the foundation in 2006 and the Rev. Timothy Mulder is now its executive director.
The foundation has sponsored the annual tuition-free program since 1988. Approximately 10 percent of the clergy active in the Episcopal Church today have participated in the program. Participants are nominated by their seminaries.
Three years after the first conference, the foundation developed “Sermons That Work,” a collection of outstanding sermons preached by Episcopal clergy all over the church. The series, published by Morehouse Publishing, is now in its 15th year.
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