Jack Haberer (JH): ’Tis a big change moving from preacher-pastor to administrator-scholar. How’s that working for you?
Craig Barnes (CB): I think it’s working well. That’s primarily because I’m using those categories as I think about it. And this was a big part of the discernment process for accepting the offer to come, and discussed a lot during the interview process as well. The way I see it, Jack, is I am a pastor. And I’ll always be a pastor. Thirty-two years ago that was what I was ordained and called to, and that always is going to be my primary calling. I’ve had a number of jobs as a pastor. I’ve worked in small churches. I was pastor of large churches. I’ve been a professor of a seminary, now a president of a seminary. But those are all different subsets of pastoral ministry. And that’s the way I’m approaching it.
JH: What thrills you most about taking on this challenge?
CB: This is a hard place to be a pastor. I think the reason that the board of trustees hired me was that they really felt that this was the right time in Princeton’s history to have a pastor as president. It’s been interesting; as I look back on Princeton’s history, there’s a bit of a pendulum swing in terms of the kind of president that they have hired. McKay was a missionary pastor, and he was followed by McCord, an academic dean. Then Gillespie, who was a pastor, and then Torrance an academic dean, and now they’ve hired a pastor again. I think that makes sense, given Princeton’s dual commitment to scholarship and pastoral formation. So it’s not surprising that you find that pendulum swinging back and forth between presidents that are primarily academic and presidents who are primarily pastors in their self-understanding. The seminary has always held these two commitments to scholarship and pastoral formation. And so even though I come closest to blending them, since my previous position for 10 years was a blending of professor and pastor, in my heart of hearts I am a pastor. And I’m trying to conduct my administration here by thinking about issues as pastors think about issues. One of the things that Princeton needs to work on – everybody would readily admit – is in cultivating spiritual community. We’ve got the diversity thing down. We have freedom for people going different ways, but what holds us together? What holds together scholarship and piety? How do we create community out of a diverse group of people? Those are the kinds of questions that pastors love to roll their lives into.
JH: For generations, Princeton has exercised a huge influence on Western Christianity in general, and on Presbyterianism in particular. But obviously, resting on its laurels is not an option. How do you hope the Barnes era will reinvigorate and expand its influence to the next generation of leaders?
CB: The board of trustees just completed a strategic plan last year. These plans can be either transforming or be exercises that just help make creditors feel better about you. This I think was well done, given that some of the preliminary work was pretty self-critical of the school. One of the statements made was that Princeton Seminary is perfectly organized for the church of the 1980s. I think that is a pretty good prophetic statement about the school. The problem is that it’s not the 1980s. We’re now in the 21st century. The church has changed. Society has changed. And so one of the hallmarks of my work for my entire presidency, I’m sure, will be to put the seminary in the service of the 21st century church. And educational institutions — particularly the northeast educational institutions that hang out in Ivy League circles, like Princeton — tend to not be paying attention as much as we need to to the changes in culture and church. And we do this to our peril. The trustees get it. I know the faculty get it. So now the challenge is to make the changes that have got to get made that will make it a service to the church. It’s not the same church that it was when all of the organizational structures and curricular decisions were put together. Changes have to be made. We can’t afford any longer to just think, “We’re Princeton,” and people will come here. That’s just not true.
And so, our admissions people are now on the road recruiting. In faculty meetings we’re having conversations about, “Is this the best way to be of service to the church, and what does the future look like for the church?” We’re having lots of conversations about dual degrees, because students know that there aren’t a whole lot of jobs out there for pastors. So they want to be bivocationally trained. We’re not the only seminary doing this. We’re just getting caught up. We have students who want to train in the M.Div. plus an M.A. in youth ministry, or an M.Div. plus an M.S.W., or an M.Div. plus a degree in public administration. There’s even talk right now with the university about launching an M.Div. with an M.B.A. for work in the nonprofit sector.
JH: How would you characterize the leadership style you are exercising there at Princeton?
CB: It gets back to what we were saying earlier. It’s about pastoral ministry. Pastors as leaders have a little different approach. Good pastoral ministry is not just baptizing the latest strategies of the Harvard Business School. We really present Gospel as a management strategy as well. I’m meeting with people all the time, whether it’s faculty or administrators or students or trustees, and most of the time I look around, and it’s clear I’m not the smartest guy in the room. I’m not leading through Craig’s amazing insightful wisdom. But pastors know how to get people together and to look for the leading of the Holy Spirit, and then you follow the Spirit, and that’s what we’re doing here. So my leadership style is to bring people together, even people who disagree with each other. Basically we get in the room, and I lock the door until we figure out what the Holy Spirit is trying to do.
JH: Closing thoughts?
CB: I really love this job. I’ve never been happier in my work and I’ve also never been more tired. It’s a challenging position, but all the issues I’ve been working on here are really, really important. And I really believe that this seminary has the gravitas and the deep roots that are needed to have something to say, but I also believe it also has the ability, as it has done in the past, to focus itself on a very different cultural context. I love getting to do this kind of work. I’m amazed at the wisdom of our faculty. It’s really a good faculty. And, like all pastors do, I started by visiting people. I’ve been in every faculty member’s office, doing pastoral calling, “tell me how you are doing, what’s on your heart, what are you thinking about, what do you need.” I’ve just been in awe of the dedication of the faculty not just to scholarship but to the M.Div. program. They really believe in training church leaders. That’s why they’re here. It doesn’t matter what their discipline is. They really get that they’re not here just for the guild but also to make church leaders. I’ve been in awe of their commitment to that.