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Connecting Theology with Lived Experience

Sarah Bixler explores big questions about faith formation and the future of church
Profile Sarah Bixler
Sarah Bixler (Eastern Mennonite University)

Sarah Bixler arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2013, feeling thrilled to begin graduate studies.

But her mother was a bit worried.

Bixler was raised in the Mennonite Anabaptist faith, a branch of Christianity that emerged during the Protestant Reformation but falls outside the Reformed tradition of the Seminary and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

“My mother was concerned I might lose my Mennonite identity and become a Presbyterian,” Bixler quips, smiling at the memory.

Her mother needn’t have worried.

From the onset, Bixler saw Princeton Seminary — which is both a Presbyterian school and a vibrant ecumenical community — as the ideal place to grow in her calling as a Mennonite teacher and leader.

Bixler earned both a Master of Divinity degree and a doctorate at Princeton Seminary, exploring big questions about faith formation and the future of church. She wanted to help her own tradition flourish in the 21st century. And after completing her PhD in the spring of 2021, she started a job that has her doing just that.

She is now associate dean of the seminary at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She also serves as an assistant professor on the seminary faculty.

“Coming to Princeton Seminary helped me reinforce what I value most about Anabaptism and particularly Mennonite USA, the denomination that I am part of,” Bixler says. “What I found at Princeton was a deep institutional commitment to the church — specifically to the Presbyterian Church (USA) — but broadly to the church at large.”

Bixler grew up near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a Mennonite pastor and a Mennonite school teacher. She attended church surrounded by family and friends, singing hymns in the distinctive four-part harmony that’s a staple in some Mennonite congregations.

Mennonites are known for their emphasis on peace, justice, simplicity, community, and service, the Mennonite Church USA website says.

For Bixler, a central concern of her faith is connecting theology with lived experience — which she likens to an introspective conversation that is continually refined, clarified, and questioned.

“There is a deep conviction that theology must be lived,” she says. “It is in practice that we discover what we believe most dearly.”

She was drawn to Princeton Seminary in part because of its excellence in the field of Christian education and formation, which became a key focus of her doctoral studies in practical theology. She studied under influential scholars like Kenda Creasy Dean, an expert on youth, church, and culture. Complementing her studies were experiences such as working to launch the Seminary’s Center for Church Planting and Revitalization*, led by renowned professors Darrell Guder, Richard Osmer, and Lisa Bowens.

“Many of the professors I studied with were conducting research on and were deeply connected to contemporary expressions of the church,” Bixler says. “They were concerned with questions like how congregations will stay viable to people who are facing real questions in their daily lives.”

At EMU, she is looking forward to working through such questions daily as she helps students and the seminary serve a complex, challenging world.

“I love this type of teaching and administration,” she says. “It deepens the ways that I am supporting the church and the world.”

Meanwhile, she leaves Princeton Seminary on a fitting grace note. She was the first PhD candidate at the Seminary whose dissertation, “Networks of Belonging: Envisioning Adolescent Attachment in Congregations,” was reviewed by an all-female committee.

“It just worked out that way because of everyone’s area of expertise,” she says. “It was a really uplifting moment when we found out.”

*The Center for Church Planting and Revitalization is no longer a center at the Seminary.

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Special Advisor & Founding Director, IJM Institute

Bethany Hoang, Class of 2004

“The rooting of justice in our spiritual formation in Christ requires careful thought and teaching. I was equipped to lead in this way through my time at PTS.”