Chautauqua’s pastor: Campbell reflects on 14-year ministry at Chautauqua

Michelle Kanaar | Provided Photo
The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Chautauqua Institution Department of Religion, presides over the final Sunday morning worship service of the 2012 Season, on Aug. 26 in the Amphitheater. Chautauqua Institution President Thomas M. Becker read a statement at the beginning of the service announcing Campbell’s retirement at the end of 2013.

“I told Tom Becker that this is best job I have ever had.”

In the midst of a very busy Chautauqua day, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell sat down to reflect on her 14-year ministry as Chautauqua Institution’s director of the Department of Religion. Campbell will retire from her position at the end of the year.

“The National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches introduced me to the world and the people who have made an enormous difference in it,” Campbell said. “This job taught me how to be a pastor.”

“It was a part of life I didn’t realize was missing,” she said.

One of the most surprising and satisfying aspects of the job, Campbell said, has been the intense engagement with the Chautauqua congregation.

“It is a real congregation, and they look to you as a real pastor,” she said. “Without question, for me the most rewarding aspect was to do weddings, funerals, baptisms — the things that are part of normal church life.”

Preparing worship services and writing prayers at Chautauqua was life-changing. These very personal tasks, Campbell said, force her to examine the deepest core of who she is.

“I did not give up social issues,” she said. “I learned that times of prayer and reflection don’t  make you less of an activist, they make you more of an activist. Those times gave me a basis for what I believe, and I became more deeply committed to those things I have done all my life.”


When Campbell began her tenure at Chautauqua, she wasn’t given a detailed agenda or objectives to fulfill, but it became clear what Daniel Bratton, then president of the Institution, wanted to see her accomplish.

“He was very intrigued with my ecumenical experience and my national and international contacts with people of note,” she said. “He hoped as the first woman senior staff member I would make my mark and set the groundwork for more women. That has certainly happened with the hiring of Sherra Babcock in education and youth.”

Bratton also looked for Campbell to continue the work of the Institution’s Abrahamic Initiative, begun by her predecessor, Ross MacKenzie.

The beginnings of the Abrahamic Initiative and the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, created a context for several new program directions in the Department of Religion. Chautauquan Helen Boyle came to Campbell soon after she joined the staff and wanted to support the department’s interfaith and ecumenical programming. She provided funding for 10 years, and worked closely with Campbell to develop the program — particularly a focus on Islam.

“We were faced with a challenge after 9/11,” Campbell said. “We had already decided to focus on Islam in 2002 and Karen Armstrong had already been asked to be at Chautauqua for all nine weeks.” Armstrong led a program on Islam every Friday.

“It was a deep, profound challenge for her to help people see Islam in historical perspective and at its best when so many people at that point were focused only on the tragedy and that people at that point were focused only on the tragedy and that people from the Islamic world had created the World Trade Center [attack],” Campbell said.

With Boyle’s support and through meetings with Muslim scholars, the Department of Religion began its work toward making the Initiative truly Abrahamic.

The Abrahamic Program for Young Adults (APYA) was one of the results of Boyle’s vision. For eight years, the four college-age coordinators have had a season-long presence on the grounds. Their influence, Campbell said, is not one of formal meetings but in encounters with Chautauquans.

The APYA coordinators found a community of fine and performing arts students, young Daily reporters and others — including many adults — who came to learn from one another and hear different perspectives on controversial and serious issues.

The department’s decision to rename the afternoon religion lecture to the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Series also helped communicate to the Chautauqua community that the platform would focus on “lived religion” — what religion and ethics mean in everyday life.

“We continually look at our themes first through the Abrahamic faiths and, within the last two years, we have [more formally] expanded to include Hinduism, Buddhism, and Eastern religions,” Campbell said. “Our goal is to have representatives of world religions looking at ethical subjects relating to the morning themes.”

One of the most memorable Interfaith Lecture weeks for Campbell was Week Four of the 2011 Season, themed “Art and Soul” and featuring Chautauqua’s artistic directors.

“It made the staff nervous,” Campbell said. “Would these people be able to talk about their beliefs? Yes, they could, and it was wonderful. For me it was important to help people see that religion does not just happen in the religion department. Especially because we deal with ethics in everyday life at these lectures, it is important for all the departments to contribute to the consideration of this aspect of life.”

Another outgrowth of the change in the focus of the Interfaith Lectures is the Friday Chautauqua Dialogues — facilitator-led discussions among community members.

“It was borne out of the need some Chautauquans saw to talk about what they were hearing in the lectures,” she said.


One of Campbell’s most memorable worship services involved the Rev. Robert M. Franklin, incoming director of the Department of Religion. Franklin was joined by members of Chautauqua Theater Company to perform part of the play All My Sons.

“Robert did the sermonic piece and the theater people acted out a part of the play,” Campbell said. “There was a profound ecumenical message. The drama piece was a big experiment. It is probably time to try again.”

Campbell said if she could predict how worship at Chautauqua will change, she sees more experimentation. She believes that Franklin will try to include more than the organ in worship, with music from School of Music students. She also hopes there will be more efforts in drama.

As director of the Department of Religion, Campbell has been in the forefront of making Chautauqua openly welcoming for gay and lesbian people.

“I came [here] from New York City where gay and lesbian issues came to the fore more than others or sooner than other places,” she said. “I feel good that when Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson was here, people heard a wonderful speaker and Chautauquans came to see him not as a gay bishop but as superb preacher. That was the goal.”


Looking to the future, Campbell said it was unlikely she would do nothing.

“The season is so intense, there is so little time to think about what future holds,” she said. “I have every reason to believe I will continue to do some pieces of work at Chautauqua in conjunction with Robert Franklin.

She touched on the conversations the Institution is having to develop a Martin Luther King Center at Chautauqua. She believes there is strong administrative support but also an interest from many community members to further explore the idea.

“When it can be a finished product is yet to be determined,” she said. “We have to put out dreams that in fact change reality. Chautauqua is a community that wants to be fully integrated and struggles with how to make it happen. A Martin Luther King Center for Peace and Justice will be one of the tools to make it happen.”

When one of her granddaughters asked Campbell what it was like to have more years behind her than years to live, she told her it depended on how you lived the years behind you.

“No one’s perfect, and everybody makes mistakes, myself included,” she said. “If you have learned what really matters in life then years ahead of you are of value. The quality of the years ahead is deeply built on those behind you.”

Campbell’s ministry has been shaped by her work in civil rights, South Africa, women’s rights and gay and lesbian rights, but her time at Chautauqua has been equally profound.

“One of the many moments I will remember from Chautauqua was of a gentleman who asked for prayer from me,” she said. “We did not agree on much, and I told him I was interested that he came to me for prayer. He said he was going in for life-threatening surgery, and I could be right.

“He said, ‘I love your prayers and it does not matter [that we disagree],” Campbell recalled. “‘Prayer matters more than whether or not I agree with you.’ This was the learning of Chautauqua: They can disagree with you on issues, but if you care about them in tough moments there is still a bond there and you can be their pastor.”

Summing up the life and work of a person who has achieved as much as the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell can be hard. What should be included?

Chautauqua prays for peace at 8:55 a.m. every day. New clergy come to receive support for ministry. The Interfaith Lectures overflow the Hall of Philosophy and now have closed- circuit TV in the Hall of Christ. At the Sunday Vesper Service, the chaplain of the week tells very personal stories about his or her faith journey. The congregation responds with laughter to Campbell’s humorous ways of asking people to give generously to the offering at the 10:45 a.m. Service of Worship and Sermon on Sundays.

Campbell immediately pointed to the guidelines for the newly created Joan Brown Campbell Department of Religion Endowment.

“The guidelines say it all,” she said.

Her tenure at Chautauqua Institution “has been marked by her life’s commitment to building the beloved community and more specifically to establish at Chautauqua a lived community reflective of the diversity of our times and welcome to people of all faiths.”  She has tried to “build understanding among people of different and all faith systems and those without any faith systems.”

As Chautauqua Institution has sought to be a genuinely diverse, interreligious community, Campbell has assisted in attracting people from a broad array of geographic, religious and ethnic backgrounds. These people have enriched the community of Chautauqua and helped the Institution model what a diverse community might look like.

Campbell anticipates that over time the understanding of what ‘interfaith’ means will change, as will the make-up of the Chautauqua community.  The opportunities and challenges the Institution will encounter in the future are unknown, but she has contributed her life’s work and understanding to help Chautauqua think about these issues creatively.

“Chautauqua is a rare treasure, and people know that,” she said. “It is not perfect, but there is no other place just like it on the planet. I became a Chautauquan, and I will always be a Chautauquan.”