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“The Liturgy is About All of Us”: Backstory Preaching Provides Training for Lay Preachers

On Easter Sunday, Ed Nilson stood at the pulpit for the first time. “Jesus is standing at the door of your heart this morning gently saying, ‘invite me into your life,’” he preached. “Let me help you.”

Nilson had recently finished a preaching course offered by the Diocese of Vermont in partnership with Backstory Preaching. “It was a real honor,” he says. “The priest at our church [the Rev. Christine Moseley], St. Mark’s Newport, asked if I would do the Easter sermon – one of the two ‘big days’ of the year!”

Founded by the Rev. Dr. Lisa Cressman, Backstory Preaching offers courses and mentoring, and fosters connection among preachers across the Episcopal Church. “Here we were in the pandemic wanting to offer training formational opportunities for lay ministry that have to do with liturgy, and we needed to focus on morning prayer and lay preaching,” the Rev. Susan Ohlidal, canon for missional vitality, says. For preaching, Bishop Shannon turned to Backstory Preaching as a way for members of the diocese to receive training. “The diocese has offered two courses so far,” Ohlidal says.

“It’s intensive, and you really have to focus on it, because it’s a six-week program,” Sandra Redmond, a member of St. James in Essex Junction who took the spring course with Nilson and thirteen other members of the Diocese of Vermont, says. “You get all the tools and all the know-how, and you write one sermon.”

Nilson started seminary after graduating from college, but eventually left to go to law school. “All these years later it’s pretty exciting to have a chance to do something I always had a calling to do,” he says. “I would recommend this course if you have a sense of calling — maybe not like Martin Luther with the lightning bolt, but a sense of ‘I believe in my soul that this is something that I’m called to do.’”

As a lay preacher, he points to the benefits of having rich life experiences to draw from. “I’ve had lots of different chapters of my life,” he says. “One of them was working for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana and Idaho, and having a chance to spend a lot of time outdoors in the wilderness. That helps form your soul … It becomes much more real when you realize the writers of the psalms had a real appreciation for nature and God’s creation because they were likely in it more than we typically are.”

“Lay preaching is important because liturgy is not only the territory of an ordained person,” Ohlidal says. “It takes all of our orders to create and have meaning in our liturgies.”

Redmond was impressed with course design and curriculum. “I would really recommend it because it gave you the tools, and you had others going through the struggle too,” she says. “And beyond that there’s follow-up, so there’s continuing contact, and they have additional ongoing courses if you want to take them. It’s a well-set-up system.”

Anyone interested in becoming a licensed preacher should start by talking to the clergy person in their congregation, Ohlidal says. If there is not a clergy person in the congregation, they are encouraged to speak to the senior warden or the vestry. “If those conversations deepen, then it’s about ‘well, let’s see when the next class is.’”

“We have very gifted lay people in many of our congregations,” Ohlidal says. “Being able to identify those people at the local level and say, ‘Wow, we think you have these gifts for liturgy, preaching, worship leading, or pastoral care – would you be willing to try it on? Would you be willing to deepen this, add skills, refine skills that you already have?’ It starts at the local circle.”

While lay liturgical ministries such as preaching and leading worship work particularly well in the new constellation model, Ohlidal is quick to say “they are wide open to anyone” and valuable in any congregation, whether it has full-time clergy or no clergy. Lay liturgical leadership is “very much in keeping with the Episcopal Church’s teachings that the liturgy is about all of us, lay and ordained,” she says.

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