Home2019-2020Issue 3Professor Profile: Karen Wood, spiritual role mode

Professor Profile: Karen Wood, spiritual role mode



If one were to search “Karen Wood” on Willamette’s website, the list of results would be too long. Karen Wood is Willamette’s Chaplain as well as an associate professor of religious studies, yet what catches the eye is her rich educational background and extensive experience in her field. 

Wood attended Brown University in the hopes of studying languages to become a simultaneous interpreter. 

“When I went to study in France my junior year, I took a couple of volumes of theology with me, Rosemary Ruether’s ‘Liberation Theology’ and José Miranda’s ‘Marx’ and the Bible, started reading them, and came back to the States with completely different plans. It didn’t hurt that I spent a week doing translation at a conference of Latin American Christian feminists my senior year and decided that interpretation was not for me,” she said.

Wood went on to receive both an M.Div. (Master of Divinity) and a Th.D. (Doctorate of Divinity) from Harvard University, where she explored the role of liberal Jewish voices in the construction of Christian theologies of Judaism through her doctoral thesis. 

“I think the expectation was that those of us who were in doctoral programs in religious studies or in religion were going to be professors and teachers, but I took quite a bit of a different route,” Wood said. 

She spent a number of years “working in national and international religious dialogue settings for seminaries and for rabbinical students to help them understand the inner workings of dialogue so that they were able to tell their truths in their communities.” 

Afterwards, she served as Dean of Students at Union Theological Seminary in New York City for six years before moving to the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland to take the same role. 

“[At the National College of Natural Medicine] students would come saying they were a wiccan looking for a coven or that they were wondering about the spiritual aspect of medicine, so the job itself wasn’t a seamless fit because I still wanted to talk about God for my living.”

In the early 2000s, “Willamette was one of 88 different colleges that received a $2 million grant from Lilly Endowment for programs that help students explore vocation, so they were looking for an associate chaplain. I applied and was hired in 2002, and I’m still here!” Wood said. 

She explained that her sole purpose is to guide students through questions like, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What is my purpose?’ regardless of if those profound questions have any religious backing. 

She was appointed as Willamette’s sole Chaplain, saying, “It’s funny because I went to graduate theology school planning to be a chaplain and it took me 25 years to actually do it.”

Recently, Wood has served on the First Year Experience task force and has been talking to students and staff on ways to improve and restructure the program. In addition, she has been working alongside other faculty to create a “series of courses that connects community, ritual and contemplative work. So far it has been a lot of fun,” she said. 

Aside from her professional work, Wood has many other passions. After living in Rhode Island, a small town in Ohio, Finland, New York and Oregon, she found passion and joy from being outside.

“When I was living in New York, I realized that I had to be closer to the wilderness, so moving to the Pacific Northwest was incredible.” 

She has become a frequent backpacker and skier, though there are still things she misses about bustling New York. “It was strange and quiet to move all the way here, but the wilderness makes it worth it.” 

In addition to being outdoors, Wood enjoys reading a mix of mystery, science fiction and fantasy. “To pay rent in New York, I was briefly a science fiction reviewer for Kirkus Book Reviews which paid $40 per review, so I’ve read a lot of bad science fiction and fantasy.” 

One piece of advice she has for Willamette students is to “be kind. There is no way to not sound insipid when saying this, but be kind. Especially to yourself.” 

She is a resource to all and can be found in her office on the second floor of the University Center in room 215 and can be contacted at kwood@willamette.edu or 503-370-6213.


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