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In the 300 years of Yale University’s history, the role of university chaplain has never been filled by a woman, a layperson, or a Catholic—or, for that matter, a Santa Clara grad. Until now.
A conversation with Sharon M. K. Kugler ’81
Conducted and edited by Steven Boyd Saum
The first time Sharon M. K. Kugler was offered a position in Campus Ministry, she tried to turn it down. She was living in Cleveland, working at a home for battered women after a stint serving with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. On the phone was Dan Germann, S.J., director of Santa Clara’s campus ministry. He asked her to consider coming back to her alma mater to help minister to students.
“I can’t do that stuff,” Kugler told him. “I’m a girl.”
Germann was unfazed. “Be who you are,” he told her. “You have something to contribute, and you maybe contribute it in your own unique way, not in someone else’s way.”
Kugler followed Germann’s advice and took up his offer. She came home and she learned to preach. She began shaping her own approach to working with a campus community. After a few years on the Mission campus, she headed for the East Coast, where she’s been since. For 14 years she served as chaplain at the Johns Hopkins University and earned a national reputation for cultivating a chaplaincy that defines itself by serving diverse cultural and religious traditions. Last year, she accepted a new post as university chaplain for Yale University. That appointment broke three centuries of tradition: She is the first woman, the first layperson, and the first Catholic to hold the position.
“They’ve nicknamed me ‘The Trifecta,’” she says, and she laughs.
She gets a little more reflective when she recalls Fr. Germann’s words that brought her into campus ministry work in the first place.
“Those are real gifts when someone can tell you that at a young age,” she says. “It’s even better when it sticks.”
At Johns Hopkins, a distinctly secular institution, Kugler once enunciated the work of campus ministry so: “We don’t look to blend everyone together and say this is one happy religion... Each tradition has a beauty, majesty, and mystery that are gifts to the world.”
She has served as president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. Her master’s thesis, “The Limits and Possibilities of Building a Religiously Plural Community,” has been used by the U.S. Department of Defense for training new chaplains in the military.
Kugler assumed the post at Yale in summer 2007. I caught up with her shortly after she’d marked her oneyear anniversary in New Haven. We talked about tradition—and breaking it; how her own work has changed—with the passage of time, and with a new campus to call home; and, most deliciously, what she calls the “ministry of gastronomy.” It was 11 a.m. in Connecticut and she had already wrapped up four meetings, with plenty more in store. And this was summertime.
SCM: How would you describe the transition from Hopkins to Yale?
At Hopkins, weeks would go by that people wouldn’t take notice one way or another of the chaplaincy, unless there was a crisis. Then we would be on the front line taking questions and helping assist the community.
Here, it was a year filled with twists and turns. It was a bit of a struggle, because my family wasn’t with me. My youngest daughter was just finishing high school, so my husband stayed back with her in Baltimore for her senior year. But they’re here now, which is a great relief. And the dog is here.
She’s an English springer spaniel—7 years old. She’s currently having real adjustment problems. We live right in the heart of New Haven, and we lived in Baltimore city, but our neighborhood was a bit quieter.
All of us had adjustments, too, but none of us bark—except for Maggie! She’s quite loud.
SCM: Why is the chaplaincy much more high-profile at Yale?
SCM: You’ve been involved with campus ministry for a while now; is there anything that’s different today as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago? Are the millennials any different from the Gen Xers?
When I started doing the work in the early 1980s at Santa Clara, it was a different era, too. Students were not as socially active—in an overt way. They were more concerned about things in the world that scared them, and they didn’t quite know how to solve some of these things.
When I was in college, I thought I should save the world. In the '80s, kids were asking, “Who am I in this world?” In the '90s, I noticed a tendency toward deliberate thinking about service: “How can I contribute?” Now I see that played out even more fully.
Particularly fun for me has been watching that evolve, and then seeing if you can have conversations with students about how their faith tradition informs service—or are you doing these things independently? Are you practicing your tradition and not being mindful of what you can do for the world? Those are very rich conversations.
I feel lucky that I get to do this work and still be surprised by what students can teach me. Some who were doing this work in the '80s were a little frustrated that students were—they would use the word “apathetic.” I don’t think that’s what was going on. Students weren’t quite sure how they should be. They were disillusioned by certain events. When I was at Santa Clara in 1986 we had both the Challenger disaster and Chernobyl. I remember students coming into my office and feeling hopeless, as though technology was failing them. “How can you have any power, any impact on the world, when something like this can happen?” These aren’t questions that can be answered easily.
I’ve retained a kind of optimism about this age group, and a certain kind of thrill in what they’re teaching me. That’s why I stay in this work. If I stop learning from them, it’s time for me to get something new to do!
SCM: So what are some of the things that you’ve learned?
I go back to service, because that pulls people out of a preconceived notion of what someone else is like, because they’re working together to improve a third thing. Then when you come around the table and talk about what has formed your faith—your spiritual autobiography— you’re able to listen to others differently. It’s not about, "Who is Muslim and who is Jewish? Who is wrong, who is right?" It’s about, "How do we put a roof over a family’s head? How do we help people who have nothing, and were stripped of everything?"
Heart of the matter
SCM: What are your observations about Santa Clara when it comes to what its faith tradition means now?
When someone says, “Is Santa Clara still Jesuit?” or, “Is it still Catholic?” that sort of assumes there’s one fixed reality. We’re always evolving into what it is we’re intending to be.
There are things Santa Clara has done that have made me enormously proud, more so than when I was a student there, in terms of tapping into the community and making a concerted effort to bring people opportunities to have an education that they would never have had before. Santa Clara is a different place now than it was when I was a student there.
Some of the questions I get here at Yale are from people who really cared about the chaplaincy; it meant a great deal to them in the '50s, and it looked different then. So as I affirm what that meant to someone 50 or so years ago, I encourage them to open themselves up to what the Yale campus looks like now and what are the hopes and dreams of an 18- to 22-year-old today.
Santa Clara is flourishing in new and important ways. The Jesuits taught me how to think critically and to come to a level of self-understanding. That still hasn’t shaken. The early years taught me, You can do this, and if someone is upset about it, that’s an invitation to dialogue, it’s not an invitation to shut up. The critical thinking that you get in a Jesuit institution creates a foundation, where you’re less fearful of the engagement around a touchy issue. You’re more likely to take it apart and see what’s at the heart of it.
What’s on the table?
SCM: And then there’s the “ministry of gastronomy,” whereby you invite students to your house.
It’s also a way for students and faculty and staff to disarm. We all need to eat. And there are ways to prepare meals, to have them ready so everyone can enjoy them. Figure out where the good kosher Chinese restaurant is, where a kosher pizza place is, and learn how to read labels correctly, to find out if there are some fresh items that can be served and how to do it. It leads to wonderful moments of connection between people.
I buy a lot of snacks. I do a lot of feeding. When I first started at Johns Hopkins, during budget time, the business manager looked at the entertainment line item and saw that it was larger than any other item. He said, “Must you feed everyone?”
“Yes,” I said, “I really need to try to do that.”
When at all possible, I still try to cook everything myself. It matters so much to be invited into someone’s home and cross traditions. You are less likely to demonize when you have broken bread together.
Something else I learned at Santa Clara: The notion of how to serve others means physically serve them. Get up out of your chair, go bring someone a plate of food, give them a refill. Those are things Jesuits did for me and others. And they mean something.
Steven Boyd Saum is the managing editor of this magazine.