Proclaiming an Urgent Gospel
Mark Labberton, fifth president of Fuller Seminary, 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.
Labberton’s engagement with the needs and realities of the world is also reflected through his commitment to pastoral ministry. He served in pastoral roles for three decades, 16 years of them as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California—a richly diverse university community where “the canvas for life and for the gospel was big and wide,” he recounts.
Moving from Berkeley to Fuller Seminary in 2009, to serve on the faculty and direct the new Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching, came as another surprising turn in the road for Labberton. He embraced the opportunity to help cultivate “empowered, wise preachers who will enable empowered, wise congregations to live out empowered, wise lives in the world.”
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. (Pictured, the two hug as the succession announcement is made.) 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 summer 2013 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.