Princeton Seminary Welcomes Alum Rev. Dr. Karen Rohrer as Associate Academic Dean - Princeton Theological Seminary
Karen Rohrer

Growing up in the Presbyterian church, Rev. Dr. Karen Rohrer, the new Associate Academic Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary, has always been drawn to life in community.

“The value of doing life together is a theme in much of what I do,” she says. “Raised by a village of lovely people, I didn’t have much of a picture at the time of what that meant theologically, but it felt like home.”

Rohrer studied World Religions and English, Linguistics, and Speech in college, where multiple professors and her local pastors recommended seminary. A mere six weeks after graduating, she entered Princeton Seminary where she would meet her husband and a community of lifelong friends.

“As I was figuring out seminary, I was so impressed with everything that I saw, and the communication from Princeton Seminary was so thoughtful and theologically grounded,” she says. “Princeton Seminary seemed like a place that thought carefully about what it means to be faithful through all of life.”

And now, returning as an administrator she has come full circle.

“Part of my career has been realizing, in each new setting, that the thriving of that setting is informed by a broader ecosystem, and so I become interested in how to impact that broader ecosystem. In my last vocational home, I became fascinated by how the ecosystem of administration informs the way students are formed for life within and alongside institutions,” Rohrer says. “I’ve found that a trustworthy culture — that is the people and systems with which we collaborate — is vital to enabling work that forms people well for ministry and faithful life in the world. I saw an opportunity to join such a culture here: to be a part of this team in a really compelling season at this Seminary.”

A key focus for Rohrer is empowering and supporting the Center for Barth Studies, the Center for Asian American Christianity, the Stockton Center for Black Church Studies, the Center for Women, Theology and Gender, and the Center for Contemplative Leadership.

“I care deeply about this kind of located work that brings a particular experience and expertise into conversation with the broader church,” she continues. “Innovation is happening in the centers as they bring theoretical and experiential frames to bear on the broader culture, which helps enrich theological education across the board. I want to support those voices from the inside, continuing to weave them into the broader work of Princeton Seminary.”

Her work will also center on degree programs and collaborating with Johnna Herrick-Phelps, PhD, the first-ever Associate Dean for Online and Digital Learning at Princeton Seminary, to expand online education offerings.

“Princeton Seminary was a formative place for me and created the theological structure on which to hang all the work I’ve done since I graduated,” Rohrer says. “The opportunity to embody what I learned here and help to convene and create generative structures in this system is really exciting.”

This is a beautiful and unique place that has incredible resources, and I’m excited to be a part of how we deploy those resources for the good of students, the church, and the world.

She previously served as an organizing co-pastor at Beacon, a new faith community in Philadelphia (her first job after graduating Princeton Seminary in 2011), and then as director of the Center for Adaptive and Innovative Ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Rohrer “accidentally” became a church planter at Beacon, having been invited to walk in the Kensington neighborhood where a Presbyterian church was in the process of closing. Her love of that community and excitement to share life there led to a position as co-founder (along with Rev. Rebecca Blake) of the new Presbyterian community called Beacon.

“I had not seen starting something new as a possibility before, but walking through the neighborhood, it felt possible to gather a community I could already see connecting and mirror back, in worship and life together, what God was already doing there. It felt like a place where the community I was called to was already unfolding. And this urban, historically Catholic community welcomed Rebecca and me as two young, earnest Protestant pastors — and maybe a little bit as curiosities, too. It was a delightful way to become a pastor.”

During her time at Pittsburgh Seminary, Rohrer also co-edited, along with Michael Gehrling and Scott J. Hagley,Sustaining Grace: Innovative Ecosystems for New Faith Communities (2020), which looks at the ways in which new and established faith communities support each other, under the broader theme of the ecosystem.

“Monoculture is bad for an ecosystem,” Rohrer explains. “We need others to be different than we are yet we’re constantly trying to push the world into the limitations of our own image. Our inspiration for the book was how to thrive better together and speak honestly about what we need – including what is and isn’t working and how to invite ourselves and others to address the pain points directly. This book was a chance to work together to chart a path forward.”

The book came together by way of 13 collaborators, convened around a table, sharing their essays and “fighting it out” in a loving way.

“The affection within the group allowed us to live out this idea of an ecosystem and see where it took us – and it took us to the book, but also to the conviction of the book—that we need each other to do this work well.”

This sort of collaborative process reflects Rohrer’s desire for collaboration not just as a workflow process, but as a formative practice that prepares us for working faithfully and living well.

“In an age of loneliness, I believe divestment from institutions ends with individualism,” she continues. “When there are so many untrustworthy institutions, people are more likely to go it alone. If my impact here at Princeton Seminary can help build a more connected, trustworthy, and mission-driven institution, that would be a great success.”

Having recently received a doctorate in Creative Writing and Public Theology from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, outside her work at the Seminary, Rohrer is looking forward to writing creatively about what it’s like to live life “Christianly and in community” in 2024 “from a particularly Millennial church-insider perspective, with all the complications, joys and absurdity therein.” 

Her soon to be colleagues express their excitement on Rohrer’s onboarding with Dean Bowlin adding “Those of us in Academic Affairs are delighted that Karen Rohrer has returned to Princeton Seminary and joined our team. The gifts she brings–theological wisdom, church experience, and administrative talents—will be a blessing to us all.”

You might see her around after hours, writing in the library and doing her best to bear witness to the holy and the silly as she has known them in her life in church and institutions.