M. Craig Barnes Reflects on a Decade at PTS - Princeton Theological Seminary

What’s the secret to this place called Princeton Theological Seminary?

It’s all about love, according to M. Craig Barnes, whose last day as president of Princeton Seminary is just around the corner.

“The secret to this place’s flourishing — it was true before I got here and it’s still true — is love,” Barnes shares from behind his desk during one of the final days in his office. “People love the Seminary.”

Barnes will retire when Jonathan Lee Walton takes office as the eighth president of Princeton Seminary on January 1.

“The fuel that drives this place really is that people love it,” Barnes adds. “That’s also why we have conflicts. We wouldn’t have any conflicts if people didn’t care. People disagree because they care,” Barnes says. “That’s why they get disappointed, it’s why they have dreams, it’s why they work so hard, it’s why they care. They really love this place. But they aren’t sentimental about it. They’re committed to it.”

Barnes says he learned about that love early on in his first days on the job.

“When I came here 10 years ago, I did what my pastoral training taught me to do — I went on a listening tour,” Barnes says. “I sat in the office of every faculty member…I spent time with key administrators; I spent time informally talking to facilities personnel; and I spent time with students, just listening, asking them to tell me about the Seminary, about their dreams and about what’s getting in the way of those dreams.”

Through that listening, it became clear that the Seminary was deeply loved by all but also needed to work on what it meant to be a community — “a real community, not paradise” — Barnes says. “So, what I’ve spent these last 10 years working on more than anything else is developing what we began to call covenant community,” he adds.

“Community is hard. And doing it well means you have to deal with hard stuff. It isn’t easy, and sometimes we hurt each other along the way. But community is the only way to know Jesus,” Barnes says.

Under his leadership, the Seminary made great strides toward the aspirations of covenant community in both small and large ways, including:

  • The confession of the Seminary’s historical failures as a school through the slavery audit and the tangible commitments of repentance, including more than $27 million of the endowment dedicated to funding for programs that are well under way
  • A greater racial, gender, and theological diversity in the faculty and student body
    • Approximately 40 percent of the student body are people of color
    • More than half of the current 36 professors were hired in the past 10 years, with 15 of those 19 being either people of color or women
    • Among the approximately 350 students, there are more than 62 different denominations represented

At the same time, Barnes balanced many other challenges — committing to and making possible the Farminary, guiding the Seminary through the challenges of COVID, strengthening the PhD program, working collaboratively with faculty in creating a new curriculum for the 21st century — all while delivering powerful and grace-filled weekly preaching on and off campus throughout the nation and the world.

“The ten years of President Barnes’ tenure of leadership at PTS have been marked by careful listening to faculty, students, staff, trustees, and alumni and responding substantively and faithfully at every step,” says Dennis Olson, Charles Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology. “He has continually cultivated among us a deeper sense of a generous and hospitable covenant community that embraces diversity, expects disagreement, but remains centered in God’s grace in Christ for all people.”

Being centered in Christ has undeniably been Barnes’ stronghold.

“I just kept reaffirming that the center will hold,” Barnes says. “We don’t have to worry about boundaries, we’re defined by our center and our center is Christ — everybody here is confirmed in the Lordship of Christ — that’s all we need for the center to hold. That’s what I’ve been after.”

“This (covenant community) has always been aspirational language, vision language, and we’re always striving for it. It’s analogous to saying that we work for the reign of God, that’s the church’s mission. It hasn’t happened yet, but we still work toward it. And that’s the way we talk about community.”

The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark Clémot, MDiv’12 and senior pastor at Presbyterian Church of Chatham Township, New Jersey, was part of the search committee that selected Barnes to begin a new chapter of leadership for the Seminary community in 2013. She says it feels like yesterday that he arrived on campus.

“President Barnes always had the courage to stand up as a Christian witness to the wrongs of the world by maintaining a firm foundation in Christ,” she says.

“He once told me, ‘Always pray to God with your palms open. Don’t be holding on so tightly to whatever it is you’re clinging to that you won’t have a hand free to receive what God has to offer.’ I have always remembered his advice and found it to be true, whether discerning a call to church leadership, working through conflict, or running a stewardship campaign. Craig always reminds me that Christ is at our center, holding all things together from there.”

Executive Vice President Anne W. Stewart, who has worked alongside the president for the past seven years, also commented on Barnes’ contributions.

“President Barnes has led this school at a time in Princeton Seminary’s history when the landscape is changing rapidly around us. I have watched him navigate many challenges and uncertainties with a deep love for Princeton Seminary and a pastor’s heart.”

She adds, “I can tell you that it is not about preaching sermons, giving speeches, running meetings, or writing letters that begin, ‘Dear Seminary Community,’” she says. “For this president, those are simply a means to the end of attending to the sub-text, listening for the voice of God, and teaching people how to dream, with a persistent conviction that God is active in our midst and is leading us to a future filled with hope.”

PhD candidate Ruth Vida Amwe also lauds Barnes for his tireless work on behalf of the Princeton Seminary community.

“President Barnes is a genuinely compassionate leader who is always willing to roll up his sleeves and engage in righteous warfare, if need be, for the sake of the most vulnerable members of his community,” Amwe says, recalling his actions on behalf of herself and all international students. “(He) displayed his resolution that no one must be left behind in the quest for a covenant community,” she adds.

Craig and Dawn Barnes

The Princeton Seminary community is what Barnes — and his wife Dawne — will miss the most in the days to come as they transition to their next home in nearby Pennington.

“The idea of leaving the community is hard…it triggers the smallest things that we will miss — seeing a professor having coffee with a student at the Brick Café; going for a walk down Mercer Street on a Saturday morning and seeing the students playing Ultimate Frisbee on the field with Dennis Olson in there playing; faculty conversations; seeing students grasp their callings; coming into the kitchen at Springdale after a late meeting and seeing Dawne teaching students to bake pies. Those things are spectacular.”

On average, the Barnes’ opened the blue doors to their home for an event a week, regularly hosting students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni/ae, trustees, donors, and neighbors and friends of the Seminary.

“Anytime Dawne and I get weepy-eyed about my retirement, I keep reminding her this was our idea, that it was what we wanted,” he says.

He will also miss the more difficult times.

“Even some of the hard things, I’ve learned to cherish. Last January, ABS [the Association for Black Seminarians] had a demonstration on the steps of the Chapel petitioning the Board to remove Samuel Miller’s name from the chapel. Demonstrations weren’t pleasant things, but the thing that brought a smile to my face is that they were joined in the demonstration by other identity groups — the LGBTQ group, the Asian-American group, the Latinx group, the Lutheran group, the PC(USA) group, white students — many students participated in that alongside ABS. That wouldn’t have happened before,” he says.

Make no mistake, the Barnes’ will continue to be busy in their retirement. For now, they are focusing on completing renovations on their “grandparent” house.

“We needed a common project for just the two of us, so we’re looking forward to throwing ourselves into that,” Barnes says. “It’s almost a complete renovation — that’s what Dawne is good at. It’s stressful, but she loves it. And I have some writing projects that I will be able to really focus on, much to my editor’s delight,” he adds.

One is about a theology of pastoral ministry for the 21st century.

“I’ve had hard time finding textbooks for my courses that are relevant to the contemporary church,” he says. “Most of them are still written about the church of the 20th century. When I talk to pastors, they are very focused on post-Trump polarization, post-COVID, post-George Floyd, things which have had dramatic impact on pastoral ministry. So, I’m trying to dig into some of the best works of our own faculty — we have fabulous theologians here who are translating that into the realities for pastoral ministry.”

He also has some speaking engagements and will continue his mentoring program for pastors who are in the second stage of ministry. And, he adds, “I’ll be preaching here and there. Things that I love doing, I’ll be able to do a little more.”

In closing, Barnes offered just one piece of advice for his successor: “Never forget that the Seminary is more than the one constituency you are talking to. The unique thing about this position is that it’s about the only place where the various stakeholders of the Seminary intersect: trustees, administration, faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors. They each see the Seminary differently, but they all love our community deeply. The president has to spend a lot of time listening to all of them and then the challenge is to interpret one stakeholder to the others. Dr. Walton is a great listener, and he will do well at this. He’s going to be a fabulous president.”