In light of the recent appointment of a new University Chaplain, students have started to debate anew the role of a religious leader in a secularized college setting.
As Yale’s religious community has become more diverse over the last century, the role of the University Chaplain — historically responsible for lending services and facilities specifically to Protestant denominations — has expanded to overseeing all religious life on campus. The appointment of Sharon Kugler to the chaplaincy has sparked new interest in the debate over whether the chaplain’s own religion comes into significant conflict with his or her duty of expanding multi-faith activities.
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In July, Kugler, a lay Roman Catholic and the current chaplain of Johns Hopkins University, will become Yale’s first female, non-ordained and non-Protestant University Chaplain since the position was created in 1927.
While some students expressed doubt in a chaplain’s ability to successfully support faiths other than his or her own religion, administrators and other students said the role of a chaplain is not contradictory, though it may be difficult for many to understand.
Yale President Richard Levin, who announced the appointment on Feb. 9, said Kugler will prove to be a great asset for Yale because of her extensive experience working in a multi-faith environment and promoting interfaith conversation.
“We aspire to be a truly global university, and Sharon Kugler has experience in bringing together people from different world religions,” he said.
In addition to serving two terms as the president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, Kugler led the Association of College and University Religious Affairs and oversaw the opening of the John Hopkins University’s interfaith and community center in 1999.
Kugler acknowledged the challenges that someone in her situation faces and said that humility plays a large role in the job.
“The chaplain has to navigate many waters on a college campus, not the least of which is helping people from varying backgrounds engage in meaningful conversation,” she said. “One has to ask the question, ‘Am I engaging in dialogue to learn more or to prove someone wrong or myself right?’”
Yale Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer led the search for a new chaplain to succeed Rev. Frederick Streets, who has served in the post for 15 years. Lorimer said the committee was specifically looking for a candidate who could be a leader for all religious traditions on campus.
“We wanted someone who could be an articulate spokesperson for religious values in a pluralistic society,” she said. “We are no longer a college of white Protestant men.”
Yale’s religious administration currently operates under University Chaplain Streets and several associate chaplains, and includes a variety of religious ministries representing different systems of belief, including the Christian, Buddhist and Muslim faiths.
Streets said most chaplains are themselves members of a particular faith, and that an effective University Chaplain must be aware of his or her personal, social, institutional and denominational values and not seek to impose them on the University. But Streets said no one, including the University Chaplain, can be completely “value neutral” when assisting others with religious issues.
“He or she has to decide how and when it is appropriate to share their personal views and how they differ or reflect the values of the religious community of which they are a member,” he said. “The fact of the matter is there is more complexity, ambiguity and contradiction that exist alongside our religious certainty of which we are aware or want to admit.”
Kugler will be the first head chaplain in the University’s history not to serve as the pastor in the Protestant University Church, which worships in Battell Chapel, and the University will need now determine how to fill that now vacant position.
Kurt Nelson DIV ’07, an intern in the chaplain’s office who works primarily with the multi-faith council, said he thinks Kugler’s selection will open the doors of chaplaincy to a more diverse community, even though it may put a temporary strain on the Protestant community.
“I think the campus, especially the Protestant community, will have some adjustments to make as far as the life of the University Church, but we have a number of excellent Protestant leaders in the chaplain’s office already,” he said.
Although many students in the religious community said they are glad to welcome a chaplain who specializes in interfaith work, others expressed concern that the appointment signals a growing rift between the Chaplain’s Office and the Protestant University Church and is evidence of the school’s developing confusion about where it stands on religious issues.
“Yale is stuck in a weird position where it wants to please everyone at once,” said Stephen Schmalhofer ’08, a practicing Catholic.
Schmalhofer said he thinks the position of University chaplain is inherently contradictory because it requires a person to encourage interest in faiths that are not their own. He said he would be in favor of retaining the associate chaplains who represent and cater to specific faiths if the influence of the figurehead position is reduced.
“Beyond having an administrative or clerical position, I don’t really see the role of a University-wide chaplain here,” he said.
But Ben Bokser ’09, a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, said since the University Chaplain’s duty is to cultivate the understanding of faith, he or she should be personally familiar with a religion. He said having a chaplain whose faith comes into conflict with his own is less cause for concern than having a chaplain who is entirely indifferent to religion.
“It can become an issue, but I’d rather have [the issue of contradictory faith] than someone who doesn’t have a strong personal connection to any religious tradition,” he said.
Kugler said she plans to regularly visit the University this semester before taking on her new position in the summer.