Eugene Sutton reflects on first season as pastor to all Chautauqua


“I love my title. I like that Chautauqua has a pastor, not just another vice president or director,” said the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton. “I wear my collar deliberately as a sign that religion has a place here.”

Sutton will preach at the final 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title is “What Are You Afraid Of?” Melissa Spas, vice president for religion at Chautauqua Institution, will preside and Michael E. Hill, president of Chautauqua Institution, will read the scripture.

Finishing his first full season at Chautauqua, Sutton described the experience as amazing, stimulating, humbling and thrilling. 

“It is also thought-provoking,” he said. “I am privileged to be in a place where the big questions facing the world are addressed from the perspectives of the humanities, arts, science and religion. I can’t think of any other residential community where you can think, pray and play together in any given week.”

Sutton and his wife, Sonya Subbayya Sutton, are grateful for the welcoming spirit they have found at Chautauqua. People approach Sutton to say hello, ask how things are going and to say something about how they appreciate the place or the ministry. 

“It is uplifting to hear words of appreciation. There are suggestions and some complaints, but 90% of the time people come up to say ‘thank you’ — not just for my work, but things I had nothing to do with but they want the thanks to get back to the right person,” he said.

This season has been a tough one for the staff, he said, and too many employees have been confronted not just with disagreement, but by “people just not being nice. Words of appreciation mean something, they mean so much to the staff.” 

While he is very optimistic and hopeful for Chautauqua’s future, he has one concern: that Chautauqua will become a playground for the rich. 

“That will be the death of the vision; then we will have failed,” he said. 

Being senior pastor does not mean Sutton is the only pastor. 

“There are other pastors, ordained or not, who are people who offer pastoral care to those in need. The denominational chaplains make a big difference,” he said. “I want to be a pastor to everyone, no matter what religion you practice, if you are nonaligned or atheist. I want people to say, ‘This is the pastor for me.’”

He continued, “I am a Christian, an Episcopal bishop and I am devoted to my faith. I want to help people know the face of Christianity that Jesus would want, not bigoted, exclusive, narrow-minded or conquering but compassionate, open-minded, welcoming, hospitable, serene, affirming and justice-doing.”

One of his ideas, implemented during the Sunday morning worship service, is to tithe part of the Sunday offering to organizations outside Chautauqua Institution. Working with Spas, the tithe is directed to nonprofit organizations serving Chautauqua County, including the United Way of Southern Chautauqua County, Child Advocacy Program of Chautauqua County, St. Susan Center in Jamestown, Chautauqua Lake Child Care, Jamestown Juneteenth, and Habitat for Humanity.

Sutton is excited when he walks around Chautauqua and can ask “How are you doing?” when he sees people on their porches.

“I can be a pastor here,” he said. “That is why I got ordained — to be a pastor.”


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.