2024 Distinguished Alumnus Award Recipient: Craig Barnes - Princeton Theological Seminary
Craig Barnes

The very last thing young Craig Barnes wanted to be when he entered Princeton Theological Seminary was a pastor.

But like so many of the students he would one day lead as the Seminary’s president, his true call found him when he least expected it. Field education – which he signed up for his first year “to get it over with” – would change everything.

“I loved theology. When I was in college, all I wanted to do was study church history and the Bible,” he says. “In field education, I discovered I had these gifts for ministry that I didn’t want to have … but I did.”

As he completed his second year of field ed, “it became even more affirming. The congregation was saying things to me like, ‘We really think you’re called all to this. You’ll get good at it. You’re not good yet. But you will get good!’”

He got very good at it, indeed.

After earning his MDiv in 1981, he would go on to serve PC(USA) congregations in Colorado and Wisconsin and was senior pastor at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. He taught at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary while serving as pastor at Shadyside (PA) Presbyterian Church. In 2012, he would be called back to the school “I have always loved the best.”

Barnes, who retired in January 2023 as the Seminary’s seventh president, will receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award at the alumni awards luncheon during Reunion 2024.

The award is a recognition of the work he has done in the world and at Princeton Seminary in the 43 years since he graduated. For Barnes, it’s a personal celebration of the gifts Princeton Seminary gave him.

“When the call came to come to Princeton as president, it pulled together my two passions: theological studies at a high academic level, as well as pastoral love, pastoral care and to train to work on the community side of this excellent theological school,” he says.

He would go on to earn a PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School but carried with him the gifts Princeton Seminary bestowed.

“Princeton gave me the community that helped me understand that I had gifts and that I was I called to be a pastor. That was a wonderful way to spend my life. That’s what Princeton has always been about, to me. That’s what they taught me how to do. So, I tried to serve with that same vision I learned from it.”

He says he doesn’t miss the pressures of the job he left a year ago, but he and his wife, interior designer Dawne Hess Barnes, dearly miss the community.

He counts among his most memorable accomplishments at Princeton Seminary as efforts to increase diversity at the school and to audit the impact of the school’s historical failures in terms of slavery – and to commit to $27 million in funding for programs of repentance.

Princeton Seminary achieved a greater racial, gender, and theological diversity in the faculty and student body. Now, about 40 percent of students are people of color and more than 62 different denominations are represented. Nineteen of the 36 professors at Princeton Seminary were hired during Barnes’ tenure. Of those, 15 are people of color or women.

I’ve had several wonderful jobs over the last 43 years — congregational minister, professor, Seminary president — but they were all ways of fulfilling the one calling to be a pastor.

“The work was hard but we’re a community that’s held by a common center in Christ. We have the ability to tell the truth about how much we need the forgiving grace of God, which is why we could do the historical audit and tell the hard truth about our institutional complicity and the great sin of slavery and speak in terms of repentance rather than reparations.”

His work now is different, but exciting and challenging in new ways.

“It has taken a while to determine who I am in this new life,” he says. “I had been retired for about a month when it occurred to me that this was the first time since I graduated from college, that I didn’t have any kind of a job description or mission statement to follow. There was no strategic plan that created a matrix for measuring my success or failure.”

It didn’t take long to find new projects.

He and his wife, who live in nearby Pennington, NJ, dove into a seven-month renovation of their 100-year-old house. Barnes loved the work and grew to know and love the workers who devoted so much time and talent to the home.

He also kept his hand in at the pulpit. He has been serving as interim pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia.

When he departs there, he will take on a new challenge as director of a new project for the Association of Theological Schools. The project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, will produce 10 new theological books on practical pastoral ministry. Barnes will also act as the general editor of the series.

It’s a natural extension of his life’s work. And sharing that wisdom is a joy, he says.

“I’ve always been devoted to the ministry of the pastor who preaches, who offers pastoral care, who takes the Gospel to the pulpit — but also into a hospital room or to the home of the new widow or widower.

“I’ve had several wonderful jobs over the last 43 years – congregational minister, professor, Seminary president — but they were all ways of fulfilling the one calling to be a pastor.”