“I See Deeply Caring People”: Sharon Kugler

As university chaplain at Yale, Sharon Kugler oversees a teeming organization – associate chaplains, administrative staffers, and members of Yale Religious Ministries – dedicated to enhancing dialogue, personal growth, interfaith collaboration, and pastoral leadership in a pluralistic campus milieu. Kugler was named university chaplain in 2007 and was recently reappointed. A Roman Catholic and native Californian, she has more than two decades experience in ministry. She came to Yale from Johns Hopkins University, where she had been university chaplain since 1993. Her master’s degree at Georgetown University culminated with her thesis, “The Limits and Possibilities of Building a Religiously Plural Community,” used by the U.S. Department of Defense Office of the Chief of Chaplains as a training tool for new chaplains in the military. She talked with Reflections earlier this month.

REFLECTIONS: Are students today carrying a different set of values than previous generations did?

SHARON KUGLER: Some things don’t change. Students are pondering life’s big questions about meaning and purpose while adjusting to life outside the parental purview and exploring what it means to be an adult. Our young people are carrying a burdensome weight.  They worked very hard to get here and now they think they must have everything figured out in this very moment.  The chaplain’s office tries to help by offering them opportunities to experience a more contemplative mindset: Answers to life’s big questions aren’t found quickly. We encourage them to live with the questions for a time; this is counterintuitive to our solution-oriented students.  We often remind them that we are all still flesh-and-blood human beings who crave rest, which is something our smart phones don’t seem to need! Maintaining balanced lives allows room for blessed clarity in thought and deed. Our faith traditions can offer them a kind of “retraining” – prayer, meditation, service to others. These things can feed them in new ways, providing some distance from the frantic pace they feel.

REFLECTIONS: Do you find young people to be optimistic about the world?

KUGLER: They want to make changes in the world, but they think more strategically, with a patient view of change. They’re a lot more astute than I was back in the 70s!  Before even arriving at Yale, most students have had significant experience in service to others – since middle school it has been built into their curriculum as part of the fabric of the way they encounter the world. For some it’s a religious call.  Others fit it comfortably into a secular humanist viewpoint.

REFLECTIONS: How were you drawn to this work?

KUGLER: I was lucky to have some gutsy Jesuits in my life as an undergraduate. They believed in empowering women and gave me the opportunity to explore and ultimately embrace my faith through social action.   

REFLECTIONS: Has college chaplaincy work changed during your ministerial career?

KUGLER: Up until the 1970s, the focal point was on a singular chaplain, who was often a Protestant and likely male. It has evolved to more aptly reflect the religious diversity and changing needs of our students. Chaplaincy work is no longer pulpit-centered. We now have a team approach to nurturing the community. I oversee an office that works with nearly thirty richly diverse religious and spiritual traditions. We forge partnerships across the campus so that these groups come to know each other better in authentically healthy ways.

REFLECTIONS:  What sorts of campus or service projects work best?

KUGLER: There are literally hundreds available at Yale.  Ours intentionally offer ways to link faith and action. We organize “alternative spring break” experiences. Spring Break New Haven is one where students spend time in the city looking at it with fresh eyes, repairing low-income housing, holding conversations with officials at city hall or taking children to the Peabody. We have taken groups to New Orleans to do post-Katrina relief work and visit sacred sites – mosques, temples, churches, and synagogues – while hearing stories about life after the hurricane and lessons learned. This is what is so rewarding to me: to be with the students as they put hammer to nail, then later encounter sacred places that might initially feel quite strange, then watch them experience profound hospitality. I feel quite blessed to witness how transformative that can be.

REFLECTIONS: Many Americans worry that the nation is moving away from its traditional foundations. What’s your impression on the Yale campus?

KUGLER: This global campus welcomes Buddhists, Baha’is, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and those who claim no formal faith tradition. Yes, there’s more uncertainty now, and that’s always unsettling. However, with these students I find a sense of genuine hopefulness. Yes, it’s messy and complicated because so many people are bringing their own perspectives to an issue. But from where I sit, I see deeply caring people. They feel the burden of being tomorrow’s leaders, and I want to help them be the best-balanced human beings they can be so that they are not eaten up inside or overwhelmed. The gift we can give them is a way to look at things so they can be in the moment – and exhale.