09 December 2013

Mentoring from Afar: The Continuing Influence of the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes

Christian Century asked for submissions on the subject of mentoring.  I submitted this piece as a tribute and thanksgiving to the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes:

I reckon that by the time I was 24 I had heard approximately 1,018 sermons, but none of them prepared me for the one I heard at the 1999 commencement service at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. 

The preacher was the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, then minister of The Memorial Church of Harvard University. After the service, as he greeted each person by the door just like my Baptist pastor did back in West Virginia, I thought to myself, "For an Episcopalian, that dude can preach." It took me a couple years before I discovered that he too was an American Baptist.  The experience of that sermon altered my view of pastoral ministry; I dare say it propelled my vocational choice. 

I graduated sure of my talents and wisdom. I never thought to seek the advice of other preachers, much less Peter Gomes, until two years after graduation. By then I had used all the divinity bells and whistles. Let me say that Dr. Gomes never knew that he was mentoring me, but he did, from afar. 

The mentoring process began with his books; one day I found a copy of "Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living" at the Brown University bookstore, and devoured it that night. The process continued with more books of sermons, and the weekly online worship services made available by Memorial Church. 

I followed the weekly sermon schedule the way others follow the daily box score of their favorite baseball team. His sermons were witty, engaging, intelligent, challenging, and marvelous. His preaching pushed me to take the craft of sermon-writing more seriously. He also taught me to take the theatrical and historical aspects of preaching to a deeper level: Why look like an insurance salesperson when you can look like a preacher?

I could imitate his approach but I had a difficult time figuring out the how and why of his Sunday liturgical wear: a cassock, with preaching tabs, and a preaching gown. How could a Baptist wear such an outfit? My question was quickly answered when I looked at portraits of the pastors of the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, R.I.; they all wore the same liturgical outfit! 

But it was not until I discovered the 1996 New Yorker profile of Gomes written by Robert S. Boynton that I found one of the greatest descriptions of a Baptist pastor with liturgical leanings. Gomes referred to himself as "a Baptist with an Anglican Oversoul." That description was my “aha!” moment that parted the waters, enabling me to embrace my own high-church proclivities. Soon after, I called Dr. Gomes’ personal assistant and inquired where he purchased his ecclesiastical uniform. She directed me to an English clerical company named Whipple. I located J. Whipple & Co. and ordered my own cassock, preaching gown, and a set of preaching tabs. A few weeks later a package was delivered, via Royal Mail, on a Sunday afternoon, to the parsonage. 

The first Sunday I wore the outfit, the congregation giggled and scratched their heads. But after a few weeks they agreed that the outfit improved my preaching by at least 15%. 

Over the years I discovered the treasure-trove of lectures on preaching that Dr. Gomes delivered: online, printed, on CD, and on cassette tapes. I listened to and read the lectures as if he were sitting in my office offering me personal advice on preaching and the pastoral life. The advice is practical: the time constraints of a Protestant service (one Lord, one faith, one hour); listener attentiveness (keep them on the edges of the pews), and the dos and don’ts of the pulpit (don’t preach your doubts, do take the congregation on the roads you travel in preparation, even down a dead end).

Here and there, colleagues shared their favorite Peter stories. One recalled walking past Memorial Church at 2 a.m. and hearing the organ. She opened a door and found Peter at the organ, belting out old Baptist hymns. 

I treasure the only time I talked to him face-to-face. After he finished a lecture on preaching at Andover Newton Theological School, a rather righteous seminary student took him to task for his participation in the inaugural ceremonies of Presidents Reagan and Bush. I knew how he would answer, but it was precious to see it in person. Peter rolled his eyes and asked, “Do you think you are the first person to ever pose this question to me?” Then he gave his classic response. “I can only answer this way: imagine how terrible it would have been if I had not been there!”

When Peter died in 2011, I felt the passing of my mentor deep in my bones. I give thanks for his influence and impact on my life every time a congregant says it is apparent that I love what I am doing. More than anything, he gave me the image of pastoral life as one of meaning, challenge, purpose, and joy. With him as a mentor for pastoral ministry, I am having the time of my life.

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