Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, PhD

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.  


Vennly: In your opinion, what does the future of interfaith relations look like in the US? What are some of the biggest challenges?

Stephanie: It’s natural to feel a bit uncertain when we encounter different viewpoints. But we can’t stay in that uncertain place—we have to keep going, so that we can learn and be good neighbors and civic participants. This is the work of interfaith.

Religious and ethical leaders should be teaching their communities how to engage with difference. Any of us can read our sacred texts, or Google what we should believe. What we need help doing is engaging with people who don’t believe like us.


Vennly: As the director of the Claremont Core you are helping your students become the next generation of change-makers and leaders. What is your advice for individuals who are thinking about getting into interfaith work?

Stephanie: True dialogue means relationship, and dialogue done well leads to change. If we can’t listen to one another, we will never see other points of view. We’ll remain entrenched in our current patterns. Being open to other ideas is important. Being open to changing your view is revolutionary. Dialogue is an invitation to do this—and the more we participate, the more likely we are to find ways to solve conflict.


Vennly: In what ways have your personal experiences informed your professional endeavors?

Stephanie: I want to know people. I love people. I love talking to people. I wonder: Who do you love? Where do your children play? What’s your dream job? What are you worried about? Who looks after your health and long-term security? Who will come help you in an emergency? I think if you made a list of all of the people who connect to all of those answers, you will find that your beautiful life is already surrounded by diversity. My invitation to you is to go ahead and embrace it. Get to know those people. They need you. Your life will be enriched—or at least made a little more joyful, a little more bearable, a little more secure—when you meet others just where they are, and when you’re okay with the fact that they’re not exactly like you. I don’t call this “interfaith” work necessarily, but as it turns out, that’s been the framework for all of my professional work.


Vennly: As the host of a podcast on religion and culture, what are the benefits of audio as a vehicle to discuss and explore issues of faith and spirituality?

Stephanie: Stories are ancient. There is something powerful about needing to tell someone something. Our experiences make us unique, and tie us to others. Audio allows me to hear your voice, and to share my own. We find ourselves in relationship more immediately (and more immersively) than with text. These are fraught issues, we fail and share our fears–audio allows you to hear how I’m making sense of the world, beyond just the words I’m saying.


Follow Stephanie:


Podcast: In Times Like These


Apple podcasts:


Twitter: @SVarnonHughes

Instagram: @panoramicgreen, #InTimesLikeThese, #InterfaithGrit

What is pastoral care and why does it matter?

At Vennly, one thing we talk a lot about is the importance of pastoral care. Definitions of what pastoral care covers can vary, but to us it means counsel, support, and guidance provided by spiritual and community leaders related to life topics. For many of our contributors, providing pastoral care is among their most important responsibilities.

Yet, our research indicates that many people don’t seek out pastoral care because they view it strictly as a forum for asking religious questions, or they fear getting judged by spiritual leaders. At Vennly, we want to change that. We view the content our leaders are creating as a form of pastoral care, which we like to call spiritual care. And our hope is that Vennly will provide the opportunity to access this much-needed life guidance on-demand.

To better understand spiritual care and what motivates people to seek it out, we surveyed our Vennly leaders and you can check out their responses below. We’re looking forward to sharing the Vennly version of spiritual care in the coming months!

Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Rev. Dr. Erin Raffety

Rev. Dr. Erin Raffety is a Lecturer in Youth, Church, and Culture in the area of Education Formation in the Department of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. She earned her MDiv from Princeton Seminary and her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Princeton University. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA. Her interests include culture, family, disability studies, ethnography, and theology.

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Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Rabbi Avram Mlotek

Rabbi Avram Mlotek is a Base Hillel co-founder and the Rabbi of Base MNHTN. In May 2015, Avram was listed as one of America’s “Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Jewish Daily Forward. In 2012, The New York Jewish Week selected him as a “leading innovator in Jewish life today,” as part of their “36 Under 36” section. Prior to joining Base, Avram served as a rabbi in training at The Carlebach Shul, The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, The Educational Alliance and Hunter College Hillel.  Avram’s writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Forward, Tablet, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Week, The Huffington Post, and Kveller, among other blogs. Read more

Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Murali Balaji

Murali Balaji, Ph.D., is a journalist, author, academic, and spiritual leader with nearly 20 years of experience in diversity leadership. Balaji has served as the education director for the Hindu American Foundation, where he was recognized as a national leader in cultural competency and religious literacy. He co-founded The Voice of Philadelphia, a non-profit geared to help high school dropouts (or pushouts) develop media literacy and citizen journalism skills. He has also been a professor at Temple University and Lincoln University, where he chaired the mass communication department and engaged in multi-method research. He is a certified anti-bias trainer through the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and serves on the national advisory board of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute. Read more

We’re Thankful for Those that Believe in Us

A short message of gratitude to our spiritual leaders

We’ve been working on Vennly full time for a little more than a year, and the journey to this point has exposed us to ideas, beliefs, and realities that we had never considered before. Read more

Finding Spirituality on the Sidewalk: Creating Moments of Ritual and Spiritual Practice in your Daily Routine

Finding spirituality during daily routine

It’s not an easy exercise to define spirituality, or what it means to be spiritual. As shared in a previous post, in our research we asked people to define spirituality in their own words and the dominant theme we saw is that spirituality is personal and flexible. This provided some general guardrails, but we wanted to know more. Read more

Does Religiously Unaffiliated Also Mean Spiritually Unsupported?

As part of the Vennly team’s search to better understand how people express their spirituality, we found ourselves facing some interesting questions. We started to wonder about the impacts of feeling spiritually engaged, but not expressing it by identifying with organized religion. Personally, I started to think more about what it meant to identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR). Read more

What does it mean to be spiritual?

One of the most interesting questions we’ve tried to answer since starting Vennly is how to clearly and succinctly define “spirituality”. Formal definitions of “spiritual” tend to be connected to sacred, ecclesiastical, and religious matters, yet in contemporary culture, the word is being used quite differently (you’ve seen those “Spiritual Gangster” shirts, right?). Read more