An interview with David Dault, President and CEO of the Chicago Sunday Evening Club

By Pam Spano

This interview originally appeared in the Tribune's Chicago Now blog on August 20, 2015. You can access that article here.


I had an interview with David Dault, president and CEO of the Chicago Sunday Evening Club.  The Chicago Sunday Evening Club was founded by Clifford W. Barnes in 1908 to minister to the business community.

 Tell the readers about the Chicago Sunday Evening Club and what it does.

We tell stories that inspire people to put their faith into action for the benefit of Chicago.

We were founded in 1908 as a ministry for the Chicago business community. After the Great Fire, most of the churches had left the Loop and rebuilt farther out in the surrounding area. A group of business leaders, led by our founder Clifford Barnes, saw the need for an organization that would bring a moral and religious voice back to the Loop. Not a church, per se, but a non-denominational charitable assembly that would inspire and enliven the city.

These were the same leaders who - around the same time - founded the Chicago Community Trust. Where the Trust was charged with supporting the best in the city from a financial standpoint, the Sunday Evening Club was charged with supporting the well-being of the city from a spiritual standpoint.

From 1908 to the mid-1950s, gatherings would be held weekly from October to May in Orchestra Hall on Michigan Avenue. The event was an immediate and continuing success - with standing-room only crowds spilling out into the street from the 3000-seat theater. In the 1920s, we added radio, and broadcast the proceedings coast to coast in a program called "The Nation's Pulpit." At our height, we had hundreds of thousands of listeners nationwide, and the opening of each season we'd receive congratulations from the likes of FDR and Lord Halifax.

In the 1956, we partnered with the new public broadcasting station in Chicago, "Window to the World," or WTTW. We became their longest-running program, and one of the first religious programs on television anywhere. Many later programs (more Evangelical and more well known), including the 700 Club and the PTL Club, learned from us and copied our format (in case you ever wondered why they both called themselves "clubs"!)

In moving to television, we traded our 3,000 person weekly face-to-face audience for a 30 person studio audience and a wider, but more remote, broadcast audience. We were still reaching people with "An Hour of Good News" (as the show came to be called), but the connection was not as immediate.

Over time, our audience aged, and our format remained pretty much the same as it was in the 1950s. In the 1990s, at the suggestion of WTTW, the hour of good news was shortened to "30 Good Minutes." We still had a nationwide presence through distribution by the Odyssey Networks, but our vision for its impact began to wane.

With the start of the new century, and with our own hundredth anniversary, our Board of Directors took a deep look at our mission and our programming, and suggested some bold and dynamic changes. A new vision was brought to our work - instead of focusing on one television show, we would use our resources to produce a variety of types of programs. Each would have a focus on bringing inspiring stories of faith into the media landscape. We would look at problems that cities like Chicago share - poverty, incarceration, immigration, violence - and we would highlight how communities of faith are making a positive impact to help those problems.

In conversation with WTTW, we began a new series of hour-long documentaries that look at issues like violence and poverty and tell stories of the good that congregations and faith communities are doing. We have aired three so far, and we are at work on two more that will air in 2016.

We have also incorporated other programming, including a daily two-minute "Religion Moments" podcast, an weekly hour-long interview show for public radio called "Things Not Seen: Conversations about Culture and Faith," and a variety of face-to-face events. These include our annual citywide Leadership Prayer Breakfast (first Friday in December), and a number of monthly salons that bring together religious and business leaders from across the city.

How did you get involved with the CSEC and what part did your own faith play in it?

I was a professor of religious studies at Christian Brothers University, a small Catholic liberal arts school in Memphis. In 2011 I had started a weekly radio show on a local AM station in town - an early version of "Things Not Seen." When the CSEC Board began its process of rethinking the vision and mission of the organization, they were looking for candidates who could combine a strong religious understanding with good media skills. As they conducted their nationwide search, several folks suggested my name to the Board. After many months of conversations, where we talked a lot about their vision and my ideas for implementation, the Board made an offer, and here I am.

I am the first Catholic to take the helm of this historically Protestant organization. That said, I feel I have a unique set of skills for the task. I was raised as an atheist in the deep south - right in the Bible belt. I came to faith in college and after. I attended a Presbyterian seminary and became Catholic while in my doctoral program at Vanderbilt, which has deep historical roots with the Methodist Church.

This is all to say, I can speak many dialects of "religious," and am comfortable in conversations across a spectrum from atheist to Evangelical. I have also spent more than a decade involved in a movement called "Scriptural Reasoning," which creates opportunities for Muslims, Jews, and Christians to have deep and honest dialogue about the differences and commonalities of our faiths.

I don't talk publicly about the inner aspects of my own faith very much, but I will say that my approach to my work is a prayerful one, and that I give a lot of thought to how I might incorporate the truths I learn from the Gospels into my daily life with family, colleagues, and coworkers.

How do you get others involved?

Because we recently pretty much "started from scratch" with our vision and programming, a lot of what I have done over the past two years has been face to face. I have tried to meet as many folks as possible, and form friendships and partnerships with organizations that have a similar set of goals and vision to ours.

As we work on new programs, we actively seek partnerships with congregations and nonprofit organizations that are doing good around an issue. That is our main source of involvement right now. Around that, we are building networks of professionals here in the Chicago Loop that get together on a regular basis, share fellowship, and learn from each other. Each month we have an open house at our offices called "Wednesday Wisdom," where we have a cocktail hour followed by a guest speaker, who talks about some aspect of their work in terms of the bigger picture of morality, ethics, and social good.

Because we're such a small staff, by far our greatest asset is the word-of-mouth positivity we've been getting. People watch our documentaries, or listen to the radio show, or come to one of our events, and they tell their friends. I hadn't anticipated that the positive response would be so strong, and it has really been tremendous.

What obstacles have you faced in any of your endeavors involving CSEC?

For a number of good reasons, the leadership of our organization made a decision in the 1990s to focus public attention on the name of our show, "30 Good Minutes," and to eclipse the name "Chicago Sunday Evening Club."

Though that was a wise choice at the time, it means that we have more than a generation of Chicagoans who have never heard of our organization. I can go back to newspapers and business magazines from thirty years ago, and the Sunday Evening Club would get regular and prominent mentions. We were a moral voice for the whole city. But that has not been the case in these last decades.

So a major obstacle has been just letting people know that we exist, and that we have something of great value to add to public conversation today.

Another obstacle has been the process of creating a new vision and context for our programming. The broadcast landscape has changed radically in the past ten years, and is still undergoing huge shifts. So diversification of our content, and the ways we distribute that content, while keeping a coherent vision, has taken a lot of work. We are still experimenting, but on the whole, the experiments have been very successful.

Who inspires you in this work?

Daniel Burnham, the chief architect of the city plan of Chicago, said, "Make no little plans!" Carl Sandburg wrote that, "When you build, build strong!" I reflect on the wisdom of both these men on a  near-daily basis.

I am a newcomer to Chicago, so first and foremost I am inspired by the vision of our Board of Directors, and all the leaders of the Sunday Evening Club through the years. Captains of industry - the heads of major corporations like Quaker Oats and Standard Oil and LaSalle Bank - would retire from a successful career, and then would come to work leading the Sunday Evening Club. I spent my first several months here reading through the archive files of correspondence from years past, and I am deeply inspired by the depth of character, and the integrity, shown by those who have associated themselves with the Sunday Evening Club.

I am especially inspired by our founder, Clifford W. Barnes. When he first challenged the business leaders of Chicago to found the organization, he used a phrase that echoes even today with its relevance: "When the world is at its worst, we certainly need religion at its best... and that time is now!"

So we keep a portrait of Barnes here in the office, placed so that he can observe the big work table where we meet and where we do a lot of our work. I'd like to think that he's part of our "cloud of witnesses," our patron saint. In the evenings, when the staff has gone home, I sometimes sit and contemplate his portrait, and think about how he might attack the challenges we face. I hope he is pleased with my work so far.

What is your next project?

We are hard at work planning our next Leadership Prayer Breakfast, which will be held Friday, December 4th at the Hilton Grand Ballroom. Last year over 600 people from across Chicagoland attended.

We have begun pre-production on our next two documentaries for public television. The first is looking at how congregations support people facing old age and the end of their lives. The second will focus on the changing face of our educational system, as dwindling funds and increased privatization create both new opportunities and hardships for our youth.

Our radio show, Things Not Seen, is now available to public radio stations nationwide through the PRX (Public Radio Exchange) network. This fall we will feature interviews with national figures like Senator John Danforth, Eboo Patel, and Jim Wallis.

We are launching a bold new citywide venture, partnering with the Chicago Ideas organization and several seminaries in the area, to create a "Faith and Values Hub" - a focus point for conversations that bring together civic and moral issues for the benefit of the city.

And we are continuing to develop our national partnerships with Commonweal Magazine, Sojourners Magazine, and the Council on Foreign Relations "Religion and Foreign Policy" Project.

David and I had a great time on the phone talking about the Chicago Sunday Evening Club.  I learned so much about this great organization.

You can read the original article on the Tribune's Chicago Now blog here.