Ministering to the Carleton that is and could be: Q&A with new chaplain Schuyler Vogel ’07

Schuyler Vogel ’07 began work as a chaplain’s associate in his junior year at Carleton. Sixteen years later, he is back on campus, hired to carry on his mentor’s legacy and establish his own vision as Carleton’s new chaplain.

Paul Schmelzer 6 September 2023 Posted In:
Schuyler Vogel ’07Photo:

When Schuyler Vogel ’07 began work as a chaplain’s associate in his junior year at Carleton, he remembers an email coming in—signed “In faith”—from chaplain Carolyn Fure-Slocum ’82 P ’12.

“It struck me that I had joined an organization that didn’t just talk about religion, but actually lived it,” he recalls. “As someone who didn’t identify as especially religious, I found this intimidating—and also wondered if I’d been hired by mistake.”

Sixteen years later, Vogel is back on campus, hired—on purpose—to carry on his mentor’s legacy and establish his own vision as Carleton’s new chaplain. Based in Skinner Memorial Chapel and overseeing chaplains from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, he’ll be focused on both the contemplative life of campus and the more outward manifestations of spirituality, including social justice advocacy. In this introductory interview, we discuss that mission, his aim to minister not just to the campus of today but also the spirit that’ll guide it into the future, and his aim of offering welcome equally to people of all faiths and to those, like him, who have many more questions than answers.

Were you raised in a religious tradition, and what from those early years resonates with you still?

My family attended a Unitarian Universalist congregation until I was in high school, when we switched to a Presbyterian church. I appreciated how the ministers genuinely cared about me. They encouraged questions and honored doubt, which opened up the space I needed to belong. I learned from them the beauty of religious communities that care about people without conditions or strings attached. I’ve tried to model that in my own ministry. 

How do you define yourself spiritually today?

I don’t identify as Presbyterian, or even Christian, today. I love the Christian tradition, its rituals, its stories, its sense of justice, but I don’t believe in its core theological assumptions. Eventually I returned to Unitarian Universalism, where I was ordained as a minister. I probably don’t believe in God, although I believe that we human beings have a moral calling to serve love and justice. I believe in the beauty of the world—and that this beauty is expressed through us and all things—and that we would be happier if we became more sensitive to it. I believe that the universe is too vast and complex for us to understand, and that this should lead us to a place of wonder, and also humility, about what we think we know. I believe that human experience is incredibly diverse, yet we share enough to lead us toward creating societies grounded in care. 

Skinner Chapel has been called “the conscience of the College.” How will you work to live up to that ideal?

Like everyone here, I’m employed by Carleton and fall within the organizational structure. But as the “conscience of the College,” the chaplain is unique in that the role is designed to serve not only Carleton, but what Carleton represents. Not the College of this moment, but the Carleton that could be. The chaplain is a steward of our essential spirit, ensuring that not only is it preserved but that, as time passes and the world changes, the spirit of Carleton is interpreted and applied faithfully. 

Practically, this leads to dynamic, open-ended, and constantly evolving work. It means working with students to cultivate their own moral centers and supporting them to become agents of change. It means collaborating with campus leaders, identifying areas of growth. And it means envisioning Carleton’s moral responsibility, looking to change Northfield and the world beyond for the better. 

My role reports directly to President Byerly and Dina Zavala, the vice president of inclusion, equity, and community. Being included within this new division speaks hopefully to the College’s deep commitment to social change, both within our community and outside it. 

Many religious traditions have individual contemplation at their core, while also helping guide followers in interacting with the world. How will you balance those inward and outward experiences of the spiritual?

To quote the book of James, “Faith without works is dead.” To quote Karl Marx, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world… the point, however, is to change it.” Religion without a commitment to justice and collective liberation is hollow. It seeks to reassure us of our virtue, without asking from us. It invites us to abdicate our responsibility to our fellow human beings, many of whom are suffering, often very close to us. 

In Northfield, we can think of those living in subhuman housing conditions just blocks from campus. We can think of those struggling to afford quality medical care, those who fear the police because of the color of their skin, those who are undocumented and fear they will be separated from their families. 

Religion throughout time and place has both an inward and an outward nature. At best, we carry both within us. To not look inward is to be without heart or conscience. To not look outward is to be selfish and callous.

Skinner Chapel is stunning, but, as an English Gothic Revival building, it may not feel welcoming to everyone. How will you practice welcome, inside and outside of this space?

Skinner Chapel was created for a very different community than we are today. Beautiful as it is, it communicates and prioritizes Christianity, a tradition which, although well-represented at Carleton, no longer represents a majority of our community. For many Jewish, Muslim, Indigenous, queer, and non-religious students, the Chapel space may not feel welcoming, and those who have been actively harmed by Christianity may find it difficult to feel safe and at home there. It’s important that we as a community honor these sentiments. 

Many college campuses have designated multi-faith spaces, designed to lift up the faith diversity on campus and ensure that all traditions feel at home. Until such a space can be created here, we’ll do our best to communicate our values of welcome. We’ll be hanging a pride flag prominently in the Chapel for the first time. We’re installing art that highlights our religious diversity and creating better signage about the multifaith aspect of the Chapel. It also means broadening the definition of “the Chapel” to include other sacred sites on campus: the Japanese Garden, the Indigenous sacred site, the Druid Circle, and the Labyrinth. And it means continually reinvesting in the Muslim Prayer Room and the Buddhist and Hindu Meditation Room, located in the Chapel basement, and making sure those spaces are not overshadowed by the main sanctuary space. 

We often turn to spirituality during times of trauma and uncertainty, and many faith traditions focus on discipline, self-restraint, self-awareness. All admirable… but what about joy? How, in your work, can you cultivate all facets of an engaged, spiritual life: healing, community, self-love, celebration?

What a great question! Religion can do many things. Hopefully it will make our lives better. By engaging with religious and spiritual questions, we should find ourselves experiencing more joy, more happiness, more peace, and more hope. It should offer us solace and comfort, healing, and wholeness. 

One way we do this at the Chapel is to make space for people to feel safe and loved. When we feel judged, or controlled, or fearful, we hide our real self. We are trying to shield ourselves from others, but often we end up building a barrier within ourselves, too, walling off our ability to feel free and cared for. When we experience acceptance, we feel comfortable as our real selves. We smile more readily. We trust more. We breathe more easily and feel lighter. We do so because we know we are OK, we are not alone, and we know our true self is worthy of love.