At its 2019 assembly, the Delaware-Maryland Synod set a goal of having everyone in its congregations regularly engaged in reading Scripture over the next year. To encourage members toward this goal, it turned to technology and, last June, launched a biweekly podcast on Scripture, word for Word.
“We realized that most of the podcasts that center around Scripture were created by or for people with advanced theological education,” said Julie Stecker, a deacon who serves as the synod’s assistant to the bishop for communications, youth and family ministry. “We wanted to create a podcast that featured only [ELCA] lay voices—people who have deep faith and who care deeply about what the Bible says to us here and now, whose voices aren’t always taken seriously when discussing Scripture.”
Living Lutheran spoke with word for Word host Yolanda Tanner—a judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court and a former synod vice president—about the podcast and her experience making it.
Living Lutheran: For those who aren’t familiar with word for Word, what is a typical episode like?
Tanner: A typical podcast is anywhere from 35 to 50 minutes long. We don’t time the conversations. What people get is an organic, real conversation. … After a brief intro to the episode, I read the Bible text, introduce the guest and then ask an opening question. I usually ask if the guest is familiar with the text, or I ask the guest about their daily vocation as an opening question.
We have chosen to use the Gospel text for the upcoming Sunday as our text, and the podcast [is released] the Wednesday prior to that Sunday. Sometimes we get to lots of nuggets in the text, and other times we only get to one or two. I try to ask questions that engage the guest—sometimes I have strong feelings and express them as well. Once we get to a natural ending point, I give the “Final Word,” a summary in one or two sentences of what has been raised in the discussion.
What have some of your favorite conversations on the podcast been, and why?
I don’t think there has ever been a time when either the guest or I could have predicted how our conversation would develop. … People have trusted the conversation enough to talk about tough topics. One guest talked about how it felt to be a newly divorced mother of an infant walking into a new congregation, thinking that people would judge her. One guest talked about the financial hardships her family endured when she was a child. Another guest talked about how inclusion matters for our LGBTQIA community.
“It is really a blessing that our guests trust us with these precious conversations.”
People also talk about good experiences, how they love being a parent, how they find fulfillment in their profession or how they enjoy their worship community. People have talked about tithing, devotional practices, the Lutheran Youth Organization, our outdoor camp ministry, students being bullied in high school, food pantries, remembering the baptism of their children, caring for the environment, crafts and hobbies, and sharing the peace.
The most profound for me, however, was the week we explored Matthew 24:36-44. As we explored the concept that “one will be taken,” our guest shared that she and her sister had been “taken” as young children in Africa and subsequently rescued by their father. It is a reality that we don’t often think about in America. It is really a blessing that our guests trust us with these precious conversations.
How has the podcast been a resource for people?
It is amazing to me that, for almost every text we read, there is some connection with the issues we wrestle with on a daily basis. Issues [related to] criminal justice, economic justice, equity and fairness, inclusion and diversity, and love for neighbor confront us every day, and we find in the Gospels the lens that God uses to guide us in those matters. I love that I can sit with a stranger and have a conversation about a text that we wrestle with together.
I really hope that the podcast is a model for other laypeople. One guest talked about how intimidating it can be to read the Bible [aloud] in public, fearing that the words would be mispronounced. I hope that this has shown that we can have a safe space for expression, even when we disagree.
What would you say is your main takeaway from your experience with word for Word?
My main takeaway would be what we call the “Final Word” [on the show]: “We have much more in common than we know. We all feel lonely at times and want someone to reach out to us. We can see ourselves in others and act with mercy.”
What do you think makes word for Word special?
The podcast is decidedly lay, so that there is a distinctly lay perspective. None of our guests have been rostered leaders. We do explore the background of the texts, but spend far more time on how our current lives intersect with the texts.
I especially love that we see such different things as the highlight of those texts. We have had several guests who are youth and young adults. Those conversations were so delightful! When I asked one young adult what we were missing, she told me we were missing “the point” of Jesus’ message. And she was right. We are so accustomed to rationalizing what we do that we sometimes forget to look at what God has directly that we do and how we are to live.
I shared this story on an early episode; it is my perspective on Bible study. My oldest niece sent the family a text message after her first sleepover. The message read, “We had a great time. We stayed up until 3 a.m. watching movies and drinking Pepsi out of wine glasses.” Her father’s response was, “3 a.m.!” Her mother, a dentist, responded with, “Pepsi!” My response, after working with juvenile substance abuse issues, was, “Wine glasses!”
That’s how I see Bible study. We all have the same text, but may have very different initial responses based upon our life perspectives.
Listen to episodes of word for Word on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher, and at buzzsprout.com/377534.