By Lauralee Farrer, Lead Storyteller
Mark Labberton says that this year’s campus theme taken from Ephesians 3:20 serves as a reminder to him of God’s intimacy. For years, that scripture was the blessing he spoke as senior pastor over Sunday congregants at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California. Now the Lloyd John Ogilvie Associate Professor of Preaching, Labberton was pleased to hear that his favorite scripture was chosen as Fuller’s theme for this academic year. He thought, “what a lovely coincidence.” He had no idea how pertinent it would become.
The surprise he felt at being named the next president of Fuller has its core in Labberton’s childhood. His loving and gentle father, he says, “saved certain neck veins for the discussion of religion,” seeing it as weak-minded and a danger to be avoided. His rationalist apprehension of religion was that religion took great things and made them small, so his father greeted Labberton’s conversion to Christianity with the hope and assumption that it would be a passing phase. What led Labberton to follow Jesus Christ was the discovery that Jesus shared his father's apprehension toward some religious teaching and teachers, but that Jesus also 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.”
As Labberton went on to pursue rigorous studies at Fuller (MDiv) and at the University of Cambridge, England (PhD), as well as ordination in the PC (USA), it was clear this was no mere phase. Along the way, Labberton uncovered more of Jesus’ counterpoint to his father’s objections: that reluctance to embrace the grand mystery of God actually made the world smaller, and that “being fully human is the true vocation of the Christian.”
Walking up to the mic decades later as soon-to-be leader of the largest multidenominational graduate seminary in the world, Labberton thought nothing so much as how unpredictable the ways of God can be. “More than I could ask or imagine, indeed,” he says, laughing. Perhaps most telling in his remarks in that moment was a slip that many pointed out to him after the fact: he confided his disbelief at being named the new pastor of Fuller Seminary, when he meant to say “president.” The unwitting mistake partly defines the dual intention of this new president, and surprisingly struck a chord in the community. “It is very moving to me how many have mentioned it since then, to say they were so happy when I made that mistake. It was probably a mistake of the lips, but not of the heart.” Among those who commented was a revered theology faculty member who thanked Labberton for the unintended connection. “It’s what we need now. It’s exactly what we need,” Labberton remembers him saying. That sentiment was repeated to him so many times over the next few days that it became a topic of conversation around what Professor of Psychology Alexis Abernethy calls the possibility of “a pastoral presidency.”
This new calling is, according to Labberton, a convergence of many things that have been a part of his background, and yet “it would never have occurred to me that this would be the role that I would occupy. I feel daunted, and humbled, and silenced,” he insists. Nevertheless, he adds, “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 urgency of the world to receive the gospel and the power of God to achieve that abundantly, lovingly, and truly beyond imagination.”