Duke names new dean of Duke Chapel

Dr. Luke A. Powery aims to build on the chapel’s relations with Durham

CorrespondentJuly 26, 2012 

Reverend Dr. Luke A. Powery of Princeton Theological Seminary will become the new dean of Duke Chapel, making him the first black dean ever of the chapel.


Its former dean was an Anglican theologian who left Duke Chapel to lead an upper-crust congregation in London that caters to government leaders.

Its new dean grew up in a Holiness-Pentecostal church, where ecstatic prayer and faith healing rituals are common. He is an ordained Baptist minister.

The Rev. Luke Powery, who was appointed the new dean of the Duke Chapel Thursday, stands in marked contrast to his predecessor. But Duke’s search committee hopes he will bring a down-to-earth dynamic to the towering stone church in the heart of Duke University’s west campus.

Powery, an assistant professor of homiletics (or preaching) at Princeton Theological Seminary, will also become the first black man to lead the chapel, known as much for its Gothic architecture as for hosting some of the world’s most noted preachers.

“For so long, the chapel has been perceived as a ‘city on a hill,’” said Richard Lischer, chairman of the search committee and a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School. “Luke will help us open doors between the chapel and the city.”

Powery was among 130 candidates for the position after the Rev. Samuel Wells returned to England this summer to become the vicar of London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

Powery was already on the short list before he was invited to give a sermon at the chapel on June 24. He opened by singing the first stanza of a traditional hymn “Spirit of the Living God,” popular in Baptist churches, both black and white.

Powery, 38, loves to sing. He received an undergraduate degree in music with a concentration in vocal performance from Stanford University. And he’s not afraid of lifting his voice – even in the imposing expanse of the Duke Chapel.

He said his philosophy was that Sunday worship is “the source and summit of life,” but that worship should flow into service and social witness during the week.

Powery said he wanted to build on the chapel’s relationship to the larger Durham community, including its black population. But he emphasized he wanted to be a minister to all. The Chapel has historic ties to the United Methodist Church, but it is not affiliated with the denomination.

“I’m coming in to minister to high church folks, low churches and no church folks,” he said. “We’ll see where God leads us.”

Born in the Bronx to a father from the Cayman Islands and a mother from Jamaica, Powery grew up in Miami. His father was a minister in the Holiness-Pentecostal Church but worked most of his life for the American Bible Society. Powery said he remembers traveling with his father to a variety of different churches when he was growing up.

After earning a master’s in divinity from Princeton, he served for two years as associate pastor of the interdenominational International Protestant Church in Zurich.

Unlike his predecessor, he does not have a Ph.D., but the less rigorous doctor of theology, a Th.D., which he earned from the University of Toronto after his return from Switzerland.

Lischer said Duke liked his international experience and ability to bridge cultures. He said he saw in Powery a man of solid faith and quiet integrity.

Powery has taught at Princeton, a Presbyterian-affiliated seminary, since 2007. He has also filled in frequently at an inner city Presbyterian congregation in Newark, N.J.

“He has it all,” said Martha Simmons of Atlanta, creator and director of The African American Lectionary, an online resource for black church leaders. “He’s a world citizen, a world preacher and a world thinker.”

Ashley Crowder Stanley, a university trustee, Methodist minister and member of the search committee, said of the new dean, “He impressed me with his commitment to engaging both the Duke and Durham communities in dialogue, noting, ‘Before I ever speak, I have to listen.’”

For Powery, adopting a “posture of listening” is as important to ministering as preaching and singing.

He said, “I look forward to continue, as the Chapel motto says, ‘keeping the heart of the University listening to the heart of God,’ which beats with love for the world.”

Powery begins his new post Sept. 1.

Staff writer Amanda James contributed to this report.

James: 919-829-4870

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