Mission life: THE KUKMIN DAILY

“What the Church Has to Offer Is Love”

2013-11-21 13:07

Interview with Fuller Seminary’s New President Mark Labberton

Fuller Theological Seminary has named Rev. Dr. Mark Labberton as its fifth president. Shortly after his inauguration on November 6, Dr. Labberton shared his visions for theology and ministry in an email interview with Kukmin Daily.

Fuller Theological Seminary was founded in 1947 in Pasadena, California, USA. Approximately 4,200 students from 112 denominations and 75 countries currently are enrolled in various programs at Fuller. Following Dr. Richard Mouw’s retirement last June, the board of trustees reviewed 250 candidates and finally appointed New Testament scholar Labberton to be the seminary’s new president. Following is the full text of the email interview with Rev. Dr. Labberton.

1. First of all, thank you for accepting our request for this email interview. It will be an excellent opportunity for the readers of Kukmin Daily (Kukmin Ilbo) to get to know you and to learn more about Fuller Theological Seminary. The former president, Dr. Mouw, was rather well-known in South Korea. Through this interview, we hope the Korean people will become familiar with you as well. Please introduce us briefly to Fuller and also to yourself.

FTS was founded in 1947, by Charles E. Fuller, and a group of others, who determined the need for an evangelical seminary that would be committed to vigorous Christian orthodoxy combined with strong academic scholarship. They sought from the start to steer a theological course between fundamentalism and liberalism. This has been Fuller’s continued mission. Fuller encompasses three schools; the School of Theology, the School of Psychology, and the School of Intercultural Studies. It has a student body of approximately 4,200 students from 75 countries and 112 denominations, and has seven campuses.

On July 1, 2013, I began as the fifth President of Fuller Theological Seminary. The previous four years, I had been on the faculty as the Lloyd John Ogilvie Chair of Preaching and Director of the Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching. For 32 years, I have been an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and have served congregations in Seattle, WA; Carmel, CA; Wayne, PA. The majority of my ministry has been two periods in Berkeley, CA, the last for sixteen years as the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley. I am married to Janet Labberton, who has been a high school English teacher and we have two sons, Peter (25) and Sam (19). We live in Pasadena, CA.

2. Please explain the process of your appointment as the fifth president of Fuller. What kinds of procedures were involved? Why do you think you were selected for this mission?

I was elected the fifth President of Fuller on March 11, 2013, by the unanimous vote of the Fuller Board of Trustees. The process leading up to this began in May 2012 through the work of a Presidential Nominating Committee comprised of some Trustees, as well as three faculty and a few other representatives. After defining the job and the qualifications, the committee sought nominees from sources all around the United States and across the world. Two hundred and fifty people were nominated and from that list they began to decide whom they were going to contact. They told me I had been nominated and requested that I apply. After careful prayer and discussion with my wife and a few very close friends, I did send my application materials in December. Over the course of preparing those materials, I came to feel strongly that perhaps I was called to this position and, after a number of other steps and interviews, I became the committee’s nominee to the Board of Trustees who then acted in March.

I believe I was chosen because of the mutual discernment that this was God’s leading. The combination of gifts and experience, pastoral and academic background, continuity and vision for Fuller each played their part in this discernment process.

3. Under your new leadership, what do you hope and anticipate for Fuller Theological Seminary? What kinds of changes might we see in the future?

My hopes for Fuller are primarily that we will be a faithful, responsive agent of grace and truth for the glory of Jesus Christ. At the core of Fuller’s life is our concern for full, varied Christian vocation?God’s gift of our identity and calling to live as God’s people in the world. Fuller’s vocation is to help our students discern and grow into their vocations, so that in turn they lead and strengthen the people of God to live out their vocations in the world. This is our global task. We seek to educate Christ’s church for the world. That gives us a daunting and creative chance to help shape people personally, spiritually and academically for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

I hope as President to see all this grow and develop in light of the enormous changes in culture and church around the globe, with all the challenges of context and opportunity that accompany this. It would be my hope and prayer that we would look back on this season of Fuller and see it as a place that is ever more deeply expressive of the Christian gospel, ever more strengthening of the life of the church around the world, and ever more global in our mutual interaction and service with Christ’s global church.

4. Please explain how you see the state of the modern church, particularly the North American church. What do you think it will look like in the future? Today, more than ever, young people are leaving the church. Though seminaries do not directly influence this, why do you think it is happening? How can we make churches attractive to young people? How can our seminaries gather young Christians who are called to the ministry?

The American church is many things and generalizations are difficult to make because it depends what you are looking at. Is it the enormous growth of immigrant churches? Or the recent burst of energies devoted to new church plants? Or the Christian ministries reaching out in acts of justice and mercy? Or the controversies of declining mainline denominations? It all depends on where you look.

What I would say as a generalization is that all churches in the United States are set in a context that is increasingly secular and global. The assumptions of an American Christendom that in the 1950’s made Christian faith or Christian institutions seem healthy can no longer be held. The decline of church attendance by those who are teenagers through their 20s has been a widely observed phenomenon. The passing on of the faith has become more difficult and illusive.

What the church has to offer in the face of this is not just doctrine or liturgy but love. It faces a profound call to enact an authentic and unexpected love that mirrors to our world, including wayfaring young adults, that we know and follow a God of profound, authentic love, mercy and justice. That good news is always needed and always relevant but not always lived. I think that must be the front line of our response.

5. In a rapidly changing world like ours, how to proclaim the gospel faithfully is an important issue. What is your understanding of the gospel, and how should we proclaim it today? Similarly, what is your definition of ministry? How would you define a successful ministry?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the gift of God’s unexpected and extravagant love towards a world lost in its own small, self-interested ways. Into a world of suffering, pain, and injustice, God gives us his incarnate life in Jesus to teach us what it means to be fully human and to redeem us from the hopelessness of our own self-will and selfishness. In a world of broken relationships, Jesus Christ lives, loves, suffers, dies and rises to give us new life by the resurrection power of God made known through the Holy Spirit. This good news is for people of every age and context and draws us into a new communion with others and into a mission that is God’s reign of love and justice in our heart and in the world.

This Good News is to be known in word and deed, through what we proclaim with our words and our actions. When we fail to proclaim the Gospel in both dimensions, we undermine the scope and integrity of God’s character and purposes.

Ministry involves all the ways this dual proclamation happens inside and beyond the formal life of the church. It involves pastoral ministry and preaching, as well as the lives people live at home and in the marketplace, in schools and neighborhoods, in prisons and food pantries, in art galleries and slums. To be successful is to mirror the unexpected love, mercy and justice of Jesus Christ that others may hear, trust, follow and serve our glorious Lord.

6. Recently, South Korean religious circles were the recipients of inaccurate reporting on “One Table” and the issue of homosexuality, which became the talk of the town. Please clarify Fuller’s stance once more.

Fuller has always been engaged in current cultural debates and one of those at the moment is same-sex relationships. Two school years ago, a student group was formed at Fuller called One Table. As its name suggests, it exists to create a context for people to gather around “one table” for conversation and reflection, and its focus has been on the array of issues and concerns associated with sexuality that occupy many inside and outside the church, including same-sex issues.

One Table was established out of a desire of some students to have a setting in which both the personal and cultural debates around these issues could be honestly discussed. The Seminary made it clear that One Table was not to be an advocacy group. It needed to honor Fuller’s stance regarding same-sex relationships, which continues to strongly affirm a traditional theological and pastoral understanding of God’s intent and affirmation of sexual expression belonging exclusively in the context of marriage between a man and a woman.

The group has had small and larger events. It has sought to encourage discussion and exchange related to people’s own experiences, questions and convictions. This past Spring, leaders of One Table were interviewed by an Associated Press intern whose title and article about One Table misled many in their understanding of what was and was not being affirmed at Fuller. Like all student groups, we are concerned for the welfare and integrity of all our students and we seek to provide both guidance and freedom in their discussions.

Fuller holds to the biblical understanding of marriage and sexual relationships. We are also committed to what we believe is the important and faithful risk of honest conversation, undergirded and guided by the Bible’s teaching, and carried out in the midst of one of the greatest sociological changes of our day, especially but not exclusively in the global North. It is imperative on a personal and professional level that discussion of such issues be allowed to have its place since many, if not all of our graduates, will be serving in a world shaped by these debates and shifts. Some of Fuller’s critics believe that we should not allow such conversations to occur because it indicates unfaithfulness to Scripture. We believe that we must engage such issues in order to be faithful to Scripture, and we are seeking through One Table and through all the activities of the Seminary to do that.

7. Today the South Korean churches are experiencing stagnant church growth, scandals related to church leaders, secularization, etc. We recognize these as problems already experienced by the American churches. At this time, how can churches restore their identity and calling? Can you share your hopes and wisdom with the South Korean churches?

I greatly respect the church in South Korea. The North American church and I myself have a great to learn from the faithfulness, dedication, and zeal of the church in South Korea and its expressions in mission all over the world. I also realize that some of the challenges facing the church in the United States are similar to those in South Korea.

My encouragement to the church in South Korea, as in my own country, is: a) to be sure our trust is first and foremost in the Lord of the church and not in its leaders or institutions. These things can easily and understandably be conflated but we must do our best not to do so; b) to be sure we are seeking to have “the same mind among us that was in Christ Jesus,” which alone leads us to self-offering love, to mutual humility, to deep unity; and c) to be sure we are not “letting the world squeeze [you] into its own mold,” but that we are seeking “to be transformed by the renewing of our minds” after the likeness of Jesus Christ. If these things are really happening for pastors and church leaders, we approach all the implications of how we do ministry in demanding and changing contexts with the most essential resources and the right combination of freedom and faithfulness.

8. Fuller Seminary has a large number of Korean students. Please explain why you think Fuller is so popular among Korean students, and how Fuller plans to equip them for ministry in today’s world.

Fuller considers its opportunity to serve and learn from our Korean brothers and sisters as one of its greatest privileges. Korean students seem to be drawn to Fuller because it is both orthodox and evangelical in its theology and because it is courageous and humbly confident in the on-going relevance and urgency of the Gospel. That combination, we believe, is faithful and winsome.

We hope to continue to train and form future South Korean church leaders who will be mightily used by God and who will be both committed to Christ and his purposes, and humbly offering their gifts for the service of a church in Korea that faces many opportunities and challenges. This will be demanding, so we think this is about providing strong academic, intellectual preparation, but also strong spiritual and character formation too. The temptations to rely on human power, the wrong measures of success, and the temptations of leadership require this double combination and we hope that is at the core of what Fuller will offer all our students, including those from South Korea.

9. Do you have any plans to visit South Korea in the near future? There are many Fuller alumni in our country. Going forward, what kind of relationship do you plan to have with South Korea?

My wife and I will be visiting South Korea for the first time next September (2014) and we are very excited to be doing so. We hope to have a long and thriving relationship with the church in South Korea, and are eager to understand how Fuller might better serve our graduates there, as well as our current and future students.

10. What is the most precious or important thing in your life these days? And what is your favorite Bible passage?

The most precious text to me these days is the book of Philippians that I have the privilege of preaching through in the course of this school year at our All Seminary chapel. I preach the first Wednesday of each month and am deeply moved by its importance to me and to our future at Fuller. This epistle is a call to follow Jesus Christ and to let self-giving love be the sign and means of our unity with one another in the Body of Christ. My prayer is that that would be ever more true of Christ’s family all around the world.

About President Mark Labberton

Mark Labberton was named president of Fuller Theological Seminary as of July 1, 2013, after serving as Lloyd John Ogilvie Associate Professor of Preaching and director of Fuller’s Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching since 2009. He came to Fuller after 16 years as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California.

Dr. Labberton has been involved in ministry for over 30 years and has spoken before a broad range of audiences, including numerous conferences and events for the Presbyterian Church (USA), InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the National Pastors Convention, and the International Justice Mission. He has also taught courses at New College Berkeley for Advanced Christian Studies. He has published articles in periodicals such as Christianity Today and Radix, as well as Leadership Journal, for which he also serves as contributing editor.

Labberton brings a contagious passion to the leadership role he assumed July 1, 2013: passion for the urgency of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and passion for the vital role Fuller Seminary plays in the enactment of that gospel. Labberton was raised in a home that stressed a rationalist worldview, one in which religion was seen as small-minded and a danger to be avoided. Those notions were shattered for Labberton during a deeply introspective summer between high school and college, as he wrestled with questions about justice and purpose and was encouraged by a teacher to read the Gospels.

There he came face to face with the person of Jesus Christ, discovering the one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God as "the antidote to human smallness: a call to live in light of the expansiveness of the heart and mind of the reign of God." This was no small-minded gospel, but it was indeed dangerous, an idea that Labberton would eventually explore in his books The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God's Call to Justice and The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor: Seeing Others through the Eyes of Jesus.

Beginning with that conversion experience, Labberton's journey unfolded through what was, to him, a series of surprises. Initially imagining a future in international relations and politics, he could not ignore God's clear call to pastoral ministry, "to preach and teach for the sake of what God wanted to do through his people in a spiritually hungry and unjust world." Being a pastor was, he confesses, the last thing he would have envisioned for himself as a youth.

After earning a bachelor's degree at Whitman College in his native state of Washington, Labberton went on to complete his MDiv at Fuller Seminary, a time he considers "a tremendously influential season" in his life. He was ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and later went on to earn a PhD in theology from the University of Cambridge in England. Along the way, Labberton met his partner in life and ministry: Janet Morrison Labberton, with whom he recently celebrated 30 years of marriage.

From early on, issues of justice, both global and local, have been intimately intertwined with faith for Labberton. "My interest in ministry has always been defined by the needs and realities of the world," he says. It is this conviction that led him to a number of ministry opportunities, including cofounding the Christian International Scholarship Foundation (now ScholarLeaders International), which funds theological education for leaders from the Majority World; serving with John Stott Ministries (now Langham Partnership), which provides books, scholarships, and seminars for Majority World pastors; and partnering with International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that rescues victims of violence, sexual exploitation, slavery, and oppression.

In early 2013 Labberton received the most stunning surprise of all: the call to serve as Fuller Seminary's fifth president after the retirement of Richard J. Mouw. A position he never in his wildest dreams would have anticipated, Labberton says, and yet clearly an ordained convergence of a lifetime of experiences, giftings, and passions.

"I feel daunted, and humbled, and silenced," said Labberton on his appointment. Nevertheless, "it is a source of tremendous joy to me and to my wife and to our family that this would unfold. I believe deeply in the urgency of God's love and justice, and I think Fuller is uniquely positioned to influence the way in which that gospel is embodied in the world. That is the major story here-the urgent need of the world to receive the gospel and the power of God to achieve that abundantly, lovingly, and truly beyond imagination."

Mark and Janet Labberton relocated this summer to a home in Pasadena, California, just blocks from the Fuller campus. Previously Janet taught American literature and public speaking and served as chair of the English Department at Piedmont High School in Northern California. She also serves on the board of directors of Oasis, an organization that fights human trafficking around the world. The Labbertons have two adult sons: Peter, a musician and sound engineer, and Sam, currently studying construction management at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

Lee Tae Hyung (Director, Kukmin Christianity Institute) thlee@kmib.co.kr

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