Alumna and Trustee Meritt Sawyer on Fuller’s New President

Meritt Sawyer, trustee, alumna (MAT '12), and longtime friend of Mark Labberton, spoke with AlumNews about Fuller's new president, her prayers for the seminary, and her new role as executive director of a nonprofit working in the poorest areas of Central Africa.

Meritt Sawyer

How long have you known Mark Labberton?

I've known Mark for about 30 years. His in-laws were sitting next to my husband and me at church the Sunday after we were married. Janet's parents had a great ministry of hospitality. They invited us to lunch that day which quickly evolved and deepened into a close friendship over the years.

A year later Mark and Janet were married, so Janet's parents introduced us to their daughter and new son-in-law. The irony was that through another mutual friendship, I served as the first executive director of Scholar Leaders, which Mark had cofounded.

You were on the presidential search committee. What were your feelings as you saw Mark going through the selection process?

Every person on the selection committee deeply desired and sought God's person for the position. I've always had a high regard for Mark, and I've had the privilege to witness and work with him in a variety of capacities, both professionally and as a friend. That said, I offered only one perspective. Each member of the selection committee brought a unique experience and perspective-that's the beauty of a multifaceted selection committee.

What was exciting for me, as the selection process progressed, was how it became more and more evident to me that Mark was the person-and to see that conviction form in the other members of the committee as well, ultimately to complete unanimity.

What can you tell us about the selection process?

We first developed an opportunity profile outlining the kind of presidential qualities and capabilities we felt were needed for Fuller in the complex modern-day reality of seminary education. In addition, we wanted to make sure we were not overlooking possible qualified candidates. The committee was prayerful and intentional in reaching out to local, national, and global communities, to see who God would bring to the process.

Serving on the presidential search committee was an unprecedented life-giving process for me. I believe each of us sensed we were part of something bigger than any of us individually or collectively. It was a process of deep respect and unity. We are all kind of grieving now that we're not meeting anymore. To see how God was working through this process and bringing each member to the same decision, to choose Mark as our next president, was nothing less than ordained and Spirit-filled.

As an alum of Fuller, what insight were you able to bring to the selection process?

Pursuing a Fuller education over the last six years has exposed me to aspects of Fuller that have been critical to my understanding, especially around educational relevance and delivery systems. Online and hybrid education was evolving rapidly even over the six-year span of my degree, and many of my fellow students were actively pursuing their degrees while holding full-time jobs and starting families. It was a privilege, and downright fun, to get to know these student friends in the classroom. I felt the new president would need to be one who could recognize the need for changing technological and financial realities impacting today's students while honoring the legacy of Fuller.

I felt we needed someone who would be an architect and a visionary of the seminary of the future. We're in a post-denominational era yet our history has been built by strong relationships with mainline denominational churches. We also needed someone who would recognize the realities of being relevant to the current expressions of the church in all its glorious Technicolor. Since my own heart and calling for the past 30 years has been in international ministry, I desired someone who would consider Fuller's role globally. Today, almost 80 percent of the church is in the non-Western world, so Fuller must consider its place with the global church.

What can you tell us about Mark's leadership style?

Something that continues to amaze me about Mark is his omni-competence that enables a multitude of leadership gifts. He is a strategic visionary and brilliant academician yet he is also warm and personal. I think he's a pastor first and foremost. He would walk into my home and would notice things about my kids or a new piece of art. He is highly observant, attentive to detail, and possesses a boundless level of creativity and entrepreneurship. He is interested in the person not just the colleague.

How do you think Janet Labberton will contribute to Fuller?

She is going to be so awesome! Janet is a gifted, brilliant individual with her own sense of self and visionary spirit. I fully anticipate that she will be an advocate for Fuller in her own right, and will probably find particular areas of ministry unique to her.

As you may know, Janet is retiring as a teacher. We're all kind of sad about that because she has been a gifted teacher and an advocate for public schools. I would love to see her continued involvement in some way, but that's just my own personal bias. It'll be interesting to see how her passions align with the fact that she has also felt called to Fuller. It's not just that she is the wife of Mark Labberton. She's a strong person in her own right.

What prayers do you have for the Labbertons as they start this new chapter?

That they will continue to honor uniquely who they are and who they have been prior to this position. They both have a great capacity for relationship and joy. I pray that they will continue to be authentically who they are.

Because Mark is such a warm, caring person who follows up with text messages and phone calls, my hope and prayer is that this multidimensional person will be able to flourish. He must serve as the visionary and architect of the future Fuller. I pray that that personal side of him will not be squeezed out.

Now tell us about yourself. How has your personal ministry changed since working with Scholar Leaders and John Stott Ministries/Langham Partnership?

My passion has been primarily in the area of global theological education and pastor training. Over the years, I have been mentored and befriended by great global leaders around the world. These leaders do not have the luxury to wear only one ministry hat. They are academicians, pastors, church planters, and social justice advocates. These great people of God have contributed to my interest in community development

You are now the executive director and president of Paul Carlson Partnership. Can you tell us more about that organization?

Paul Carlson Partnership has been an answer to prayer for me-to be able to invest deeply in one country and focus holistically. Paul Carlson was a Covenant medical missionary, who was called to the Congo as a medical missionary. He was caught in a revolution at the time-just a few years after independence-and was kidnapped, tortured and martyred. This ministry was founded in his honor, and is owned and managed by the local leadership in the Congo. The ministry focuses primarily on medical and economic development.

Congo is the poorest country in the world and we're working in the poorest areas in the Congo. I count it a great privilege to come alongside the local leaders there.

How has your Fuller education helped you in your ministry?

Fuller is so in my DNA. I'm not sure I can even separate it anymore! I have been blessed by relationships with many of the faculty at Fuller over the years so my whole missional outlook and perspective is formed and refined by Fuller Seminary professors.

When I was working with FACT/John Stott/Langham we supported numerous scholarships for PhD students at Fuller. So not only did I work with international leaders, I also worked with the faculty member supervising their doctoral work. I met with them regularly and got to know Fuller fairly well at different stages.

What made you want to pursue a theological degree?

It's impossible to work with John Stott and not want to pursue academia-full stop! I must confess that I miss it horribly. I wish in many ways that I could continue to study. I hope I'll be able to continue as a lifelong learner and return to a few Fuller classes.

What is a key takeaway from your time as a student at Fuller?

As a woman who has been called to lead, working through a theology of women in leadership was critical. Fuller not only embraces women in ministry, but also encourages them. There are women at Fuller who have encouraged me and been a role model such as Grace Dyrness, Jude Tiersma-Watson and Marianne Meye Thompson. My experiences are now grounded in sound doctrine and inspire me to mentor other women in ministry.