‘How lucky I have been’: Yale chaplain reflects on pioneering tenure
She’s known on the Yale campus for her eloquence and compassion, a community stalwart able to deliver words of solace and hope, delivered with elegance and grace, in times of crisis and uncertainty, and as a spiritual leader for students, faculty, and staff alike, regardless of their religious persuasion.
As Yale chaplain for 16 years, Sharon Kugler has provided comfort to those dealing with pain or loss, whether the death of loved ones or the anguish and isolation of pandemic, and offered words of inspiration and celebration during moments of triumph.
On June 30 Kugler — who was the first woman, the first non-ordained person, and the first Catholic to serve as Yale’s chaplain — will retire following a distinguished career in ministry in higher education, pastoral and social ministry, and interfaith collaboration. Associate University Chaplain Maytal Saltiel will serve as interim university chaplain.
In a recent interview, Kugler spoke with Yale News about her memorable tenure as chaplain, her efforts to foster interreligious understanding on campus, and the need for lightheartedness in an uncertain world — even in the form of bounce castles and pink flamingos. The interview is edited and condensed.
From an outsider’s perspective, your job seems like one of the most challenging on campus yet also an enviable one, since you are able to interact with people on such an intimate level. Is that how you’ve experienced it?
Sharon Kugler: It has felt like a true privilege because it can be an intimate experience to walk with people during some of their hardest moments. The pandemic certainly tested all of our mettle, and it tested mine in particular because the amount of loss was so hard across the board. So much so that I don’t think we still really know the full extent. People within each department suffered losses in their families. There was loss of life, loss of livelihood, and loss of a sense of certainty or calm, if that ever was even true for any of us.
But you’re right, I have found chaplaincy to be an incredibly beautiful vocation. And as I reach the end of it now I feel a sense of how lucky I have been to be able to do this work.
Still, it must take enormous fortitude to have such a personal role during those difficult moments.
Kugler: There’s a lot to this work that’s unseen. I don’t talk about it much, but it’s there. I think most people who understand the chaplaincy or who have had occasion to interact with me or my staff understand that.
For example, we run a service during Commencement weekend called the Service of Remembrance, and it’s a beautiful, simple service that the whole staff puts together.
We invite people who have come to campus for this great celebratory weekend but who have someone missing — maybe a parent or sibling or a grandparent or a member of the graduating class — to come together. We have a moment where we invite people to say the names of whomever they’re remembering. This year, in a moment of reflection before the service, I was recalling my first Service of Remembrance and on up through the last, and so was saying in my head “all of them, all of them” — remembering them all.
I was cleaning out my office, and I had these files of memorial services that I’ve done in the last 16 years. Each one is different. But the stunning bravery of the families I’ve walked with through their loss has stuck with me. Some of them I keep in touch with to this day. There are students who have lost their classmates. They are so young to have to process something like that, and so full of a sense that they can affect change — and they can — and yet they also realize that there are some things they can’t change. When you are chaplain-ing people through that, it’s holding a lot.
You came to Yale as the first woman chaplain, the first non-ordained person, and the first Catholic. Did you feel a sense of pressure?
Kugler: Certainly early on I did. I felt pressure to live up to what people were hoping that I’d be able to do or what I was about. It’s not that I didn’t think I was up for it, but I felt a weightiness to this appointment because it was so new. People had maybe one idea of what [the position] means, and I certainly had an idea of what I wanted to bring to it that may or may not have matched what other people thought.
It’s a little bit of a running joke internally for me because people would ask me what I do. I’d tell them, and then they’d want to know what denomination I am. The minute I say “Catholic,” heads tilt. They’re puzzled. But I have a good sense of humor! So most of the time I can usually find a lighthearted way of responding to it that doesn’t feel like I’ve just been insulted.
Some people are not religious themselves, so they don’t care to interact for whatever reason. I can’t take myself too seriously in that regard because I would probably never want to go to work again.
At the end of the day, everybody who encounters a rough moment in their lives needs a shoulder. They need a soft place to land and feel the things they’ve got to feel. This does not need a direct tie to a specific religion or spiritual persuasion in particular. It really has so much more to do with a human connection, and I do feel I’ve been able to offer that, to provide that to this community, and I am proud to be able to do so. If they want to talk about God, we’ll talk about God. I certainly am a person of faith and I believe in God, but I don’t feel that I need to persuade anybody about anything other than helping them delve into their humanity.
What are you proudest of during your time at Yale?
Kugler: I’m especially proud of the chaplaincy staff and what we have been able to do and offer this community. I think the hardest thing for me to leave is the team of people I have the good fortune to work with, to help cultivate and nurture along.
When I started there were two chaplains under direct report to me and three administrative staff members. Now there are seven chaplains, including me. And we have 35 members of religious ministries, which is that broader circle, and that has become a stronger, more cohesive group on campus.
We also now have a full-time Muslim chaplain, a full-time Hindu chaplain, and a part-time Buddhist chaplain. We have the pastor to the university church. We’ve got two associate chaplains who really are spread throughout the campus — one working with graduate and professional student needs and nurturing the LGBTQ community, and one who is an expert in interreligious engagement and community support.
You’ve worked hard to foster interfaith communication and engagement on campus. Has that been an important mission for you?
Kugler: I have really tried to figure out those arteries that we can tap into to create opportunities for greater religious literacy. You don’t know what you don’t know. When I first got here, not only were people scratching their heads over who I was, but they wondered what my agenda was going to be and whether that would be a threatening thing or a good and fulfilling thing. Certainly, my thought was for it to be a fulfilling thing, but I could never assume that people wouldn't feel threatened by that in some way.
I think if you’re comfortable with what you’re about, you can project that in some way to help bring people along to learn more. And I am proud of that. There’s a long way to go — there always is. But we’ve made progress.
You talked about helping people during hard times, but you’ve also worked with people during joyous times.
Kugler: Sixteen years ago, I think people knew that we in the Chaplain’s Office were there for them when hard things happened. But I was really anxious for that to not be our lead story. That’s part of who we are, but we are all these other things, too. To be able to be with people during happy times and do goofy things is also a part of who we are. So we bought a bounce castle and we put that up spontaneously around campus. We were distributing inflatable pink flamingos during the pandemic that we were giving away at random, just reminding people to embrace whimsy whenever possible, even during such a difficult period.
From the first week I started in July of 2007 we had a Good Humor ice cream cart in my office. It’s still there. Hopefully it will still be there after I’m gone.
Yes, you are known across campus for your hospitality. Do you believe that’s a must for a chaplain?
Kugler: It’s definitely central to the chaplaincy. I’ve been teaching a class for 12 years at the Divinity School about college and university chaplaincy. And I feel like my students absorbed the thing I especially wanted them to learn when they would start to talk about hospitality as an essential component to a strong chaplaincy.
I do love that people are drawn to visiting us and spending time without feeling like they have to identify with any particular group. They can just come as they are. And this extends to our administrative staff at the frontline. Our front line staff love it when people visit and serve as our strongest ambassadors welcoming people, offering them ice cream or crayons to color with if they just need a little break from the day.
Can it sometimes be hard to promote whimsy in an academic setting?
Kugler: Yes, I think we can tend to take ourselves so seriously that we don’t allow for the human foibles, the goofiness, the things that at the end of the day really can feed us and allow us just to pause. People talk a lot about the heightened anxiety levels that everyone has right now, and not just young adults. It’s a worry, especially coming out of the pandemic.
So offering opportunities for people to nurture their inner child and not have to prove themselves, to not be worried about how they are being evaluated if they bounce in a bouncy castle or hug a flamingo or have an ice cream — that’s timeless to me. I think we’re always going to need that in our lives. And when we stop needing that I wonder if we’ve really lost touch with what it means to be human.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
Kugler: I think that’s for others to decide. I’d like to think I graced the place. We’ll just leave it at that.