2024 Alumni Council Service Awardee: Khristi Lauren Adams - Princeton Theological Seminary
Khristi Adams

Khristi Lauren Adams felt called to ministry, but uncertain where that call would lead.

She didn’t see herself preaching from the pulpit. And she saw needs beyond church walls that seemed just as compelling as those within.

“I never felt led to be a senior pastor,” said Adams MDiv ‘08. “And during my time at Seminary it became clear there were so many possible directions that I could go in.”

In the 16 years since graduating, Adams has stayed true to that sense of possibility, finding her calling as a writer, educator, and Black girlhood advocate, while putting her ministry and leadership skills to work across a range of different communities.

An ordained Baptist minister, she has most recently served as dean of spiritual life and equity at a renowned boarding school in the Delaware Valley. She has also counseled and mentored young girls in New Jersey struggling with trauma and hardship. She has ministered to college students on the campuses of Georgetown University and Azuza Pacific University and to youth in one of New Jersey’s most prominent African American congregations.

And, with the 2020 publishing of her first book, Parable of the Brown Girl, Adams established herself as an author exploring the inner lives of Black girls and women, discovering timeless theological themes from contemporary struggles.

Her many accomplishments will be recognized when she returns to Princeton Seminary to receive the Alumni Council Service Award at the 2024 Reunion on May 14. 

“I feel like my time at Princeton Seminary gave me permission to engage in ministry in these nontraditional and unconventional ways,” she said. “The Seminary was a launching pad and it launched me to where I am today.”

Growing up in New Jersey, Adams got her first glimpse of the broader possibilities of ministry through her pastor and mentor, the Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr. MDiv’89, a former longtime leader of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset.

A prominent and impactful public figure, Soaries served in government positions and founded faith-based community service organizations.

“I grew up seeing ministry as something that extended beyond the pulpit,” Adams said. “Watching Pastor Soaries create these organizations and serve as [New Jersey] secretary of state, I realized that contributing to the greater good of the community is something I can do, and that that is also ministry.”

But she entered Seminary uncertain of her direction and even skeptical of her preaching abilities. Encouragement from other students and faculty helped her press ahead. She recalls Professor Mark Taylor offering students reassurance about their future, saying: “It’s okay to not know.”

She gained confidence in her preaching abilities under Sally Brown, emerita professor of preaching and worship. And she found empathy in the precept groups, where she and fellow seminarians would engage in Bible study and reflection.

“I was around people who affirmed that what I had to contribute to this world was unique,” Adams said. “I may not be offering what the person next to me is offering, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to speak to somebody’s life.”

Seminary helped to nurture in Adams an ability to forge empathic connections, a signature strength that has marked her career and led to life-changing encounters.

In one early role at a Christian community center, she provided pastoral counseling to preteen and teen-age girls and found herself changed by the experience. As she listened to the girls’ stories, Adams felt astonished by their ability to navigate through difficulty and pain.

“They were being brought to me for my wisdom and my guidance,” she said. “But to watch them and the resilience and wisdom that came out of them, that for me was just life-changing.”

Out of that experience came Parable of the Brown Girl, which is subtitled “The Sacred Lives of Girls of Color.” Adams wrote it as a way to interpret the girls’ stories for adult audiences, with insights from theology, psychology, and cultural history.

In the book’s introduction, she notes how Jesus’s parables often reveal the wisdom and strength of people who are neglected and unnoticed.

“These girls, too, are neglected and unnoticed,” she wrote. “They are also wise and full of strength.”

She wrote a follow-up, Unbossed, and a third book, Womanish Theology, is due out in August.

While establishing herself as a writer, Adams also built a parallel career in a different arena. In 2018, she became a chaplain and later dean of spiritual life and equity at The Hill School, a venerable boarding school in Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley.

As a newcomer to the rarified environment of a private preparatory school, Adams drew from two formative influences —Pastor Soaries and Princeton Seminary.

She helped to open a gathering space for students from under-represented groups, the Warner Center for Spiritual Life and Equity. Adams said the idea came from a youth center that Soaries established at one of his community organizations

She also started a course, “Religion and Film in Contemporary Society,” influenced by a Seminary course, Faith and Film, taught by Kenda Creasy Dean.

“I brought Princeton here, I brought First Baptist here,” she said. “I brought all those major influences on my life.”

She also brought special care and concern for young Black women at the school, holding an annual Black Girls Gather event at her house.

This spring, Adams announced she would be leaving The Hill School for a new job as executive director of community and belonging at the St. Paul Schools in Maryland, a small family of private schools affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

When one student noted with sadness that this year’s Black Girls Gather at The Hill would be the last, Adams said that doesn’t have to be the case.

“I said, ‘This isn’t going to be the last one because you are going to do Black Girls Gather and keep it going,” Adams recalls. “And she was like, ‘Okay, we will!’’’