Kimberly Wagner has seen firsthand how preaching can attend to the suffering of people who have experienced trauma.
Now as an assistant professor of preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she joined the faculty this fall, Wagner aims to help her students develop the empathy and eloquence needed to reach communities both inside and beyond church walls.
“I hope to cultivate preachers who are gifted and compelling in the pulpit,” she says. “But I tell my students that the skills they gain in a preaching class will help them in whatever ministry they go into because they’ll learn to articulate the gospel and think biblically and theologically about the world around us, and the anxiety, fear, and hunger in people’s lives.”
Wagner found her calling through work and life experiences, often in service to vulnerable communities. She taught science in a Cincinnati public school where many students were from financially struggling families. She also served as a volunteer chaplain at a women’s prison in Georgia. And she was an associate minister at a Virginia church where she helped members work through issues involving addiction, violence, and abuse.
“Those roles shaped me as a teacher and a pastor,” Wagner says. “Seeing how these different communities experienced trauma informed the work that I do.”
Those roles also inspired her to pursue doctoral studies in homiletics at Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion, where she deepened her focus on pastoral responses to trauma. She was particularly interested in learning about preaching responses to mass shootings and was surprised to see few available resources. Her advisor suggested she develop her own. That led to her dissertation, and a forthcoming book, Fractured Ground: Preaching in the Wake of Mass Trauma.
“What I discovered was that there is a lot of resources on pastoral care for trauma, but not preaching,” Wagner says. “The more I did the work, the more I saw it was needed, and the more I wanted to engage the question, ‘What is the preaching response when a community finds itself ripped apart by mass trauma?”’
She pointed to a possible answer to that question in a recent essay online, where she drew from biblical passages to discuss the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings. In times of deepest despair, she wrote, scripture points a way forward through feelings of grief and brokenness toward care and compassion for others and recovery for the community.
“These texts invite us to take seriously one another’s pain,” she concludes. “These texts remind us that while the consummation of creation is ultimately God’s, we can be agents of God’s work of peace and justice.”
A native of Annapolis, Maryland, Wagner grew up in in a religious family and in churches that welcomed deep questions about faith, doubt, and social issues. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Formerly a professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Wagner says she is thrilled to have the opportunity at Princeton Seminary to help prepare students to thrive in a changing world and a changing church.
“My goal is to fill their preaching toolbox as full as possible,” she says. “So, no matter where they are preaching, or what they are facing, they have the tools in place to respond to the situation and to preach the good news into that reality.”