For a reverend who seems at his happiest preaching sermons to the congregation, Luke Powery, the new dean of Duke Chapel, still gets the jitters each time he takes the podium.
“You’re always going to have butterflies, but the key is to have the butterflies fly in formation,” Powery said. “The butterflies are there for you to control. When you are in the moment, you’re focusing on what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.”
Powery’s nerves are understandable given the quick transition he made this Fall. Powery became the first black dean of the Chapel in July following an international search for someone to fill the role. His predecessor, Sam Wells, served as dean of the Chapel for seven years before moving to St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London this summer.
Powery was nominated anonymously—to this day, he does not know who it was that nominated him. In June, he was brought down to preach at the Chapel and to tour the University. As Powery describes his selection process, the transition was nearly instantaneous.
Powery’s appointment as dean is symbolic because the Chapel had, in fact, been segregated until the Civil Rights Movement. Kameron Carter, associate professor of theology and black church studies, said Powery’s role at the Chapel will benefit the Duke community.
“This is a very wise and forward-thinking appointment,” Carter wrote in an email Sunday. “Rev. Dr. Luke Powery is at the vanguard of a new generation of young African-American scholar-preachers.”
Powery’s interest in religion has been present since birth. His father was a minister from the Wesleyan Pentecostal tradition, and Powery spent much of his childhood traveling while his father preached. He attended Stanford University with the intention of working in Silicon Valley but was inspired by his mentor, Rev. Floyd Tompkins, to pursue a career in ministry. After receiving a degree in music at Stanford University, Powery went on to receive a Master’s of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a doctorate of theology from Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto.
“[It was] an ecumenical journey for me with a cosmopolitan context, crossing borders within the denominations,” Powery said of his education. “[It was] a huge part of my journey, a bridge of faith.”
Powery’s arrival at Duke has been warmly received by locals. He noted that everyone has been kind and welcoming to his family—his wife Gail, his daughter Moriah and his son Zachary.
“Some people have brought meals for us in the transition,” Powery remarked.
Sunday marked Powery’s second time preaching in the Chapel as dean. Congregation member Richard Heitzenrater, William Kellon Quick professor emeritus of church history and Wesley studies, complimented Powery on his engaging sermons.
“He used a lot of literary and cultural references,” Heitzenrater said. “You can’t go wrong when John and Charles Wesley are mentioned in the same sermon.”
Now Powery is turning his attention to better understanding the Duke community and his role within it.
“Classes in preaching, some classes in worship—I’m looking forward to that when I get there,” he said. “[Right now] I’m in the practice of listening to what has been and where we are now.”