Getting to know Yale leaders—Sharon Kugler

Sharon M.K. Kugler became the seventh university chaplain to Yale in July of 2007. She is the first woman, first lay-person, and first Roman Catholic to hold this position here. Sharon came to New Haven from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where she had served as the university chaplain since 1993.  Her main focus at Yale is to further cultivate a chaplaincy for students, faculty, and staff, which defines itself by serving the needs of the richly diverse religious and spiritual traditions on campus allowing for deeper dialogue, increased accessibility, personal growth, creative educational opportunities and pastoral leadership.  Sharon has received honorary doctorates from St. Joseph University in West Hartford, CT; Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, CA; and Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT.  She is married to Duane Isabella, has two daughters, and five grandchildren.

What book are you reading?
I just finished Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” and loved it. I felt like I was in a conversation with her. It’s written in such a way that you’re brought right into the apartment where she grew up, and you feel a close sense of her relationship with her parents. Now, I’m reading a book of short stories entitled “All the Names They Used for God: Stories” by Anjali Sachdeva. It’s really powerful and beautifully written, but somewhat haunting.  It was a gift from one of my daughters. One last thing, I recently picked up my first graphic novel “Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso.  It’s a whole new genre for me and I am really moved by it.

What do you think is the best advice a manager can receive?
I think more of modeling behavior rather than dispensing advice. My first boss in the work of campus ministry was a Jesuit who was one of the most accessible people I had ever met. I never felt like I couldn’t approach him. He was also very open to changing his way of thinking. He would never ask an employee to do something that he wouldn’t do himself. He was also a big cheerleader for professional development and believed in empowering women. Now I know this is not a unique model, but it was one that certainly stuck with me as a young professional. In my leadership positions, I’ve always emulated some of what I learned from him—don’t be afraid to seek advice from others, including those in leadership positions; you can’t be effective in isolation so you’ve got to be accessible and engaged with others even beyond moments of crisis.

What musical artists are you listening to at the moment?
I love listening to music with my ear buds as travel back and forth to meetings and walk around campus. I listen to a lot of Angelique Kidjo. I’ve recently taken a little side trip back to Queen, and have the Hamilton mixtape always in the rotation. I’m also a big fan of NPR’s Nerdette podcast, which is just so much fun and is always teaching me something new along with giving me homework.

When faced with a challenge on the job, what do you do first?
As a chaplain and a spiritual leader, the first thing I do is to take a breath, say a quick prayer, and try to remain calm. Certainly, there are times of crisis that require a quick reaction; you just have to spring into action. But if the circumstance is not of this nature, then thinking it through without reacting right away is important. I also want to make sure that my staff members feel included, that the lines of communication are open in a meaningful way. I think I’ve learned calmness professionally, but also growing up in my family household. I’m pretty resilient from having challenges in my young life that demanded resilience. And I’ve always sought out work that tries to make people’s lives a little better.

What would be your ultimate vacation destination?

Well, I have a couple of places. One is Ireland. I went there for the first time in 2016 and loved it. I have Irish roots and I always wanted to get my father over there. But I couldn’t convince him to go before he died. My husband and I went the year that my dad would have turned 100.  I know he would have loved it. For me, it felt like I was going home and I was surprised by this, how I felt completely relaxed and at peace. The other place is in California near where I grew up. When I was little, and again when I would bring my children home to visit my parents, we would go to a tiny beach town called Capitola near Santa Cruz. I just love that little place and I would be perfectly happy to spend some extended time there and invite my children and grandchildren to visit.

Tell me about the first time you learned an important lesson on the job?
This brings me back to my first boss again. I remember a time when he had to fire somebody. And I was very upset with him, and asked, ‘How could you?’ But what I learned most about that experience was how he suffered too. He was trying to be as compassionate as possible, but at the same time clear. I’m not afraid to make hard decisions now, although I’ve suffered through many during my career. You know that it will be difficult and not everyone is going to be pleased. But everyone is going to be heard and that’s essential.

What New Haven restaurant would you recommend to a new employee?

I would say The House of Naan on Howe Street in New Haven. It is really wonderful for lunch and it has a very warm atmosphere. My husband and I like to go for date night to Mezcal, a Mexican place on Mechanic Street in East Rock. I also love Caffe Bravo.

What are some favorite memories from childhood?
You know I grew up in a time and place where I rode my bike all around.  I vividly remember the freedom I felt when I was finally old enough, maybe in third grade, to travel off the street and meet up with a girlfriend to ride to the 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee. It’s a very stereotypical California summertime memory, but a real one. I remember a lot of sweet moments with my grandmother, my mom’s mom. She lived until I was 25 and we were very close. There are meaningful memories of my mom, of course, who died at an early age of Alzheimer’s. Her name was Grace, which was a good name for her, as she embodied it. The work that we do in the Chaplain’s Office is really about offering radical hospitality, and that was my mom. Growing up, our door was open to anyone and all people who were in bad shape in their lives. She was always the first at the hospital when someone was sick. She would cook for huge numbers of people. She always offered a warm place to be; she provided a soft landing.

If you could solve one human problem in today’s world, what would it be?

To combat ignorance and hate and the isolation that leads to this. I feel that if we can promote education, if we can help people learn about and encounter what is not familiar to them, then we can help demystify and destigmatize what proliferates so much ignorance and hate. There could be a lot more healing with this approach. Religions do damage when they are not at their best. People often take a hard line when they ought to consider a more compassionate perspective. As a religious person, I rely on my religion, but I also tremble at the damage that can be done when one’s perspective is dangerously narrow.

What are you most grateful for?

I’m most grateful for my family. My husband—we’ve been married for 37 years. My two daughters and five grandchildren. I’m also grateful for work and for my colleagues. I have an amazing team in the office and we’re lucky that we enjoy being around each other. We know how to tackle serious issues, but we also know how to have a light heart and affirm each other.