Behind the scenes at Lent Madness: Interview with Tim Schenck

The countdown clock on shows there are only 30 days until the start of Lent Madness. Started in 2010 by the Rev. Tim Schenck, Lent Madness allows people to vote for their favorite saints in an elimination-style tournament. The final saint standing is announced the winner of the Golden Halo. Part smack-down, part spiritual exercise, Lent Madness helps people explore exemplars of the faith in a new way. Here's what Tim has to say about it:

Hello, Tim! Tell us a little bit about yourself by way of introduction.

I’m just a simple country parson, Laura. I’ve served parishes in Baltimore, New York, and I’m currently the rector of St. John’s Church in Hingham, Massachusetts, located on Boston’s South Shore. I’m an author, blogger, husband, father to two middle school-aged boys, dog owner, and coffee snob. Oh, and we have a ferret named Mimi whose litter box I’m always stuck cleaning out despite the boys’ insistence they would do it when we first got ferrets.

You started Lent Madness on your blog Clergy Family Confidential, writing all the posts yourself. How did it go that first year? Are you surprised about the way Lent Madness has caught on? 

I wrote all the posts the first year I did this in 2010 and all but four of them in 2011 when I engaged four “Celebrity Bloggers” for the four saints left standing at the end. Not surprisingly, I can’t really remember Lent 2010 or 2011. 

I’m delighted with how Lent Madness took off especially last year when I decided to partner with Scott Gunn at Forward Movement. In previous years it had a smallish but dedicated core of fans. Last year we had 50,000 people visit the website. This year we’re trying to take over the world one saint at a time. 

How do you pick the saints who play in Lent Madness? And which saints have surprised you by their performance? 

I’d love to tell you that it’s entirely the work of the Holy Spirit and not just my trusty Ouija Board. Actually for 2013 we solicited names from the general Lent Madness public and a number of them made it in. I’m pretty intentional about trying to pull together a broad and diverse slate of saints Biblical and modern, ecclesiastical and monastic, famous and obscure. Saints who went deep into the tournament the last few years are ineligible to give others a chance at glory while allowing participants to learn about a whole new crop of saints.

You just never know how Lent Madness is going to shake out. Who could have predicted that Emma of Hawaii would make it all the way to championship round last year? Or that the folks at Kenyon College would make a big push for their founder Philander Chase

How have people used this creatively for their own (or their church’s) spiritual growth? Do you have any ideas for how people can use it as a Lenten discipline?

Last year a bunch of parishes turned it into a friendly competition by having people fill out brackets in advance. We’re encouraging people to use Lent Madness as a Lenten program in its own right and have developed a basic outline for doing so. We heard reports of people using Lent Madness for adult education programs, with youth groups, or making it a family affair for those with kids. But it can also certainly be used as an individual Lenten disciple. A lot of people turn it into a daily ritual -- logging onto the website at the same time every day, spending some quality time reading about and reflecting on the saints, voting, and then checking back later in the day to scroll through all the comments.

How do you suggest responding to people, such as our Executive Director, Molly Darling, who deride Lent Madness as mere “Anglican Geekery”? Can I call her a party pooper? How about “poopy head”? 

You work with a heretic?! I’ll be sure to bring some holy water by to sprinkle around your office. Actually, if you take a look at this year’s bracket it transcends mere “Anglican Geekery” -- we have people like Oscar Romero, Martin Luther, Harriet Tubman, and Dorothy Day. And there’s no requirement to eat a scone while you vote. As to the “geekery” charge, maybe we should start marketing Lent Madness pocket protectors. 

What are you looking forward to in this year’s bracket?

The surprises. And learning about unforeseen voting blocs lurking out in cyberspace. It’s not called Lent Madness for nothing! 

What have you personally gained from being part of Lent Madness? 

You mean besides becoming an Episco-rock star? I’ve been heartened by the fact that people are open to a devotion that combines light-hearted spirituality with deep faith. I’m convinced there’s room for playfulness in our relationship with God and one another and Lent Madness bears this out. I also love the sense of online community that forms throughout the season. If you read the comments that follow each match-up you learn a lot, hear people’s personal experiences with various saints, and get to know others in a new way. I feel like I’ve personally connected with people all over the world and that brings me much joy and satisfaction.

Finally, do you know who’s making book on this year’s bracket? Because if he makes it past the tough first round match-up against Martin Luther, I think MLK stands a good chance to win the whole thing. You are keeping the Lutherans from voting, right?

I’ve stopped trying to predict how things are going to turn out because I’m always wrong. I’m not sure what the lines are in Vegas but some of the heavyweights besides the two you mentioned would be Oscar Romero, Benedict of Nursia, Hilda of Whitby, John the Baptist, Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day, and Luke. But who will win the coveted Golden Halo? Your guess is as good as mine and that’s half the fun!

You can subscribe to receive daily emails to alert you to voting (including play-in rounds) and other news on the Lent Madness website.