Protestant roots a focus for chaplain

This summer, the University Church got a new pastor. But for the first time in the church’s 251-year history, that pastor is not the chief religious official on Yale’s campus. Staff reporter Raymond Carlson reports on the latest addition to the Chaplain’s Office.

Yale chaplain Sharon Kugler, a lay Catholic, appointed Rev. Ian Oliver to the post in May. In addition to his role at the University Church, which holds non-denominational Protestant services in Battel Chapel, Oliver will act as Yale’s first senior associate chaplain for Protestant life after his appointment in May.

The Rev. Ian Oliver, who was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1990, was appointed as pastor of the University Church in May of this year.
Chris Young
The Rev. Ian Oliver, who was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1990, was appointed as pastor of the University Church in May of this year.

The appointment marks yet another watershed moment in the congregation’s history within the last three years. In 2005 it ended its two-century-long relationship with the United Church of Christ.

Oliver was ordained by the United Church of Christ in 1990.

Traditionally, the University chaplain was a Protestant minister who served as pastor of the University Church. When Kugler was appointed University chaplain last summer, the University formed a search committee to find someone to lead Yale’s oldest church.

The shift reflects Yale’s evolution, said Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge, who was involved in the selection processes of both Kugler and Oliver.

“The division of responsibilities between University Chaplain and pastor [of the University Church] recognizes the facts of religious life at Yale in the 21st century,” he wrote in an e-mail to the News. “The new strurcture should facilitate dialogue and mutual understanding among the different faiths rerpresented in this community.”

The shift makes Yale one of the first institutions to broaden its approach to religious life on campus, said Rabbi Serena Fujita, the president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains and Jewish Chaplain at Bucknell. Oliver served as Bucknell’s head chaplain for 12 years before his appointment at Yale.

“What Yale has done … is the new model for what chaplaincy should look like at a larger university or even a smaller university,” she said.

Prior to working at Bucknell, Oliver served as an associate chaplain at the Kodaikanal International School in India.

Oliver stood out from other candidates because of his knowledge of the changing nature of Christian groups on university campuses, as well as his involvement in developing the protestant community at Bucknell, Kugler said.

During his time at Bucknell, Oliver was known for his involvement in campus life, said Fujita, who became Bucknell’s first Jewish chaplain under Oliver’s tenure.

“He had the ability to know everything that was happening on campus all the time,” she said. “He is the kind of person you would want as your pastor.”

Protestantism has been central to Yale since its founding by a group of ministers disgruntled by the prevailing liberalism at Harvard. The University church celebrated its 251st birthday this year, and until the turn of the 20th century, the president of the University had always been an ordained Protestant minister.

Oliver pledged to serve individuals on campus of all faiths, adding that his position allows him to focus on supporting Protestant groups at Yale.

“In this position, I can work alongside my Catholic, Jewish [and] Muslim colleagues on campus as an advocate for the Christian groups within the University,” he wrote in an e-mail to the News.

The changes in the structure and leadership of the University Church are emblematic of Yale’s founding religious priciples, said David Washer ’11, a member of Yale’s newly formed Inter-Religious Leadership Council.

“Both [Kugler and Oliver] will be welcoming to all students regardless of their religious affiliations, and that is staying true to Yale’s Protestant tradition,” he said.

Contact Raymond Carlson at raymond.carlson@yale.edu 

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