Protestant Chaplain Supports Students With Christian-Based Spiritual Guidance

Rev. Joan Cooper Burnett leads Sunday worship services that include music, dance and other artistic talents of Wesleyan students. She encourages students of any faith to attend the 2 p.m. services.
Posted 11/05/07
Q: Q: Rev. Burnett, what attracted you to Wesleyan, and when did you begin working on campus?

A: My term at Wesleyan began the week of new student orientation, and I’m so excited to be here! The motivating factor for my accepting the position as Chaplain was the desperate quest for some Christian students to practice Christianity at Wesleyan without trepidation. During my employment interview I was asked, “Rev. Burnett, what will you do on a campus where a student is on his way to church, runs into a colleague and when asked where he was going he responded, to a friend’s house?” Days following the interview I pondered the question in my heart, prayed and was determined that Wesleyan was a place I desired to be, even for one student. It is important whatever one’s faith tradition; you should be able to openly worship your God without intimidation.

Q: What denominations do you attract?

A: It is my belief that Jesus is not of any denomination, denominations are man-made. Jesus said, “Whosoever will come.” That is my philosophy about Christianity, that whosoever believes in Christ and accepts Him as the Son of God is part of the Christian community.

Q: What is your interaction with the students?

A: Students interact with me as pastor, someone that holds their beliefs, has their best interest at heart and respects them as individuals of faith seeking spiritual formation. There are a few Christian groups on campus and I lend my support as someone available to advise them as needed. Also, this is a decisive and critical period in students’ lives and I’m able to bring support through individual counseling and pastoral care to anyone seeking assistance, churched or unchurched—Christian or non-Christian. On Sundays, in Memorial Chapel at 2 p.m. there is an All-Campus Christian worship service open to all.

Q: When are your services and what goes on during a service?

A: The All-Campus Christian Worship services are held most Sundays in the Chapel. There are two Sundays this academic year we will have services in other locations, this Sunday, Nov. 11 and Sunday, Feb. 17. Worship is a time to reverence God, give thanks, leave debilitating issues and concerns at the altar, and to edify each other. The student worship leaders organize teams of singers and musicians, dancers, and theatrical performers to edify their colleagues and to bring glory to God through the use of their artistic gifts and talents. If you were to attend a worship service (and you should) you will experience students demonstrating their love of God through song, dance, music, and acts of love and kindness towards one another. And, we are just getting started!

Q: What are messages you share with students who question their religious identity?

A: There is no set message, I seek to understand. And upon understanding, wisdom then guides me with, I pray, an appropriate response for the individual. One message I share with students is “To thine own self be true.” (Shakespeare).

Q: What is your personal mission? What do you hope to accomplish by working with the Wesleyan community?

A: My personal mission is to provide a venue for students to worship freely and openly express who they are utilizing their gifts and talents to worship God. To provide a safe and sacred space that frees them to let their lights shine. We are to let our light so shine before men, that they may see our good works, and glorify our Father which is in heaven. (Mt 5:16). To support Christian students in being as open in expressing their beliefs and faith as do other traditions on campus, no longer being the silent majority. I aspire to see students do well at Wesleyan, as they prepare to enter the global marketplace.

Q: Prior to Wesleyan, where were you preaching or working?

A: Currently, I am serving as the senior pastor at the First Baptist Church on Main Street here in Middletown. Formerly, I was the chaplain at Connecticut Baptist Homes, Inc., an assisted living facility for the elderly, and pastor of the Black Church at Yale; a student-led Christian interdenominational Church at Yale University. Prior to accepting the call to ministry, I invested more than 15 years in corporate America, in management positions with The Travelers Insurance Companies, and Heublein, Inc. I am also the former president and founder of PathWays International, an executive recruiting and human resources consulting firm and Strategies to Employ People (STEP), Inc. a job placement and training firm that partnered with faith-based organizations to support the employment and training of at-risk youth and young adults. After managing and operating the two business enterprises, I launched in 1994 and 1999 respectively, I suspended my entrepreneurial ventures in September of 2001, to answer the call of God to ministry.

Q: Where did you receive your divinity degree?

A: I earned a master’s of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, a master’s of education in human resource education from Boston University Graduate School, and a bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Tennessee at Martin.

Q: What other local religious affiliations do you have?

A: As an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church, I serve on the executive board of the Ministers Council of Connecticut and the American Baptist Churches of Connecticut Board of Managers. As a local pastor, I am affiliated with the Middletown Clergy Association and the Middletown Ministerial Alliance. Also, I am a member of the Board of Directors for The Children’s Home of Cromwell, St. Vincent De Paul Place, and Judah House. And I was most recently elected to serve on the Yale Divinity School Alumni Board.

Q: What are your hobbies, interests or other interesting tidbits we should know about Rev. Burnett?

A: I’m rediscovering my interest in dance and golf, following years of dedicated work. I love music and enjoy singing. Perhaps, some students and faculty will assist me with revitalizing my passions.

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor