From the pulpit of Goodson Chapel on the morning of April 3, Peter Gomes scanned the crowd for the faces of his students—the eight seminarians he spent the spring semester teaching something he firmly believes is especially challenging to teach.
“Preaching is an art, and it is difficult to teach an art,” says Gomes, who spent spring semester as the Nannerl O. Keohane distinguished visiting professor, a joint appointment at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On leave from Harvard University, where he is the Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in The Memorial Church, Gomes taught a small graduate seminar, “Introduction to Public Preaching,” at Duke, and a course on the history of biblical interpretation for undergraduates at nearby UNC.
“We can’t make great preachers,” says Gomes. “The goal is to make bad preachers better.”
And better preachers, insists Gomes, preach extemporaneously, which he quickly adds “does not imply without preparation.”
For the men and women in his seminar, this translated into weeks of preparation followed by preaching before Gomes and classmates in Goodson Chapel. Once the student took the pulpit, the only text permitted was the assigned Scripture.
For Alexis Carter, a first-year divinity student, this daunting prospect was outweighed by the opportunity to learn from a master preacher. Her goal, she says, was to “sharpen my homiletical skills and to become better at articulating and communicating the Word of God.”
Gomes stressed the importance of diligently studying Scripture, she adds, and “inviting [the congregation] to travel with you through the gospel message.”
The essence of preaching is “the process of moving the text toward proclamation,” says Gomes. “Too many preachers go into their sermons with their own particular agenda.” He urges them instead to “let Scripture lead the way.”
Many preachers write sermons for the eye, not for the ear, neglecting the power of preaching as an aural art. “Well-prepared extemporaneous sermons,” he says, “are usually more effective than those written out and read from notes.” Once a pastor has adequately prepared and settled on an approach, says Gomes, preaching extemporaneously should come as easily as having a conversation: “If you know what you want to do, you’ll be able to do it.”
Acclaimed as one of America’s greatest preachers, Gomes is also the author of such best-selling works as The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (1996) and The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need (2002). He has long been a friend of Bishop William H. Willimon, former dean of Duke University Chapel, where Gomes preaches each year through the Sterly and Pelham Wilder Distinguished Guest Preachership. “I’ve read almost everything Willimon’s written,” quips Gomes. “Of course, no one can read everything he’s written.”
To avoid “being intimidated or intimidating,” as Gomes advises, preachers must strike a balance of comfort with the congregation and the text. That was a particular challenge for students learning from one of the country’s best preachers. As first-year student Leif Bergerud put it, “They broke the mold when they made him. There is only one Peter Gomes.”
William E. Pike D’03 works in the development office of DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. He heard Peter Gomes preach many times at Harvard University, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1995.