Sister Sarah Kohles
As she leads the Briar Cliff University Department of Theology, Sister Sarah Kohles is ensuring that theological and faith issues get a wide airing, so that students taking the courses can delve deep into how they approach the key questions of life as part of the broad education they are getting as they move through an important stage of their lives.
“Theology is in the position of touching every student who passes through here,” she said, whether they are Catholic believers, members of other religious faiths or are not believers at all. College students may be mulling and evolving previously held beliefs about religion, so it is a key time to have wide discussions on what and how they came to what they think and believe. Sister Sarah added that theology has the power to deepen the understanding that students develop in their chosen fields of study as majors or minors.
“A theology class in general helps people with critical thinking and also addresses the important questions of life – Who are we? Why are we here?,” Sister Sarah said.
Sister Sarah is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis community that founded Briar Cliff in 1930. Her overarching goal with the theology department is to serve the needs of today’s students, who she notes are different than those who attended Briar Cliff many decades or even a few years ago. She wants the theology department to have robust course offerings, so that students can have a well-rounded educational experience, which for Sister Sarah came at the very college where she now has returned to teach.
Yes, Sister Sarah got her degree in theology from 1999 to 2003 at Briar Cliff, coming to Sioux City, Iowa, after growing up in Baytown, Texas. She said her BCU schooling as a theology major prepared her to immediately begin years of faith formation tasks as part of serving people in parishes. During her years at BCU, she was involved in Campus Ministry programming, liturgical ministry, and service learning.
“I participated in every manner of service learning. I had quite a range of experiences, an introduction to practical skills that prepared me very well to be a Director of Faith Formation right out of college,” she said.
Prior to coming to BCU, Sister Sarah had been an adjunct professor at four institutions, with two of those serving undergraduate students and the other two teaching graduate students.
Sister Sarah came to BCU as a professor for the 2022-23 year, and for the year ahead added Theology Department Chair duties, as she oversees the two professor department. Sister Sarah has expertise in the Bible and parish ministry, while first year professor Jacob Torbeck specializes in morality and ethics issues. Both of the professors have a focus on the college’s Franciscan core values, which include peacemaking, reverencing creation, connecting with joyful service, and building a caring community.
Students frequently pair the theology major with one other major, such as teaching or social work. Sister Sarah sees students majoring in theology numbers being indicative of growth for the department.
“We are ready to build now,” she said. “It is a creative and exciting time for theology. We are at a moment of building. We are responding to student needs as we think about restructuring the theology department and its offerings.”
This is part of a series of Faculty Stories profiling all the chairs of BCU academic departments in 2023.