LOS ANGELES (RNS) — In Fuller Theological Seminary’s 70-year history, neither a woman nor a person of color has ever led the Southern California institution that equips students to serve as ministers, counselors and nonprofit leaders.
Now, as the seminary is in the process of searching for its new leader, some, including current President Mark Labberton, are hoping that will change.
“I think in this next chapter the president should certainly be, I hope, at least a full generation younger and different from me than we’ve had in the past — in either race or gender,” Labberton, 68, told Religion News Service.
To Labberton, who previously served for 16 years as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, Fuller’s future is one that serves the “multiracial church that is in the world globally and also in the United States.”
Labberton on Oct. 22 announced he would end his time as president in 2023, launching the seminary’s search for a new leader. Labberton, who was named president in March 2013, said it was always his plan to hold the presidential position for 10 years.
Fuller’s board of trustees has created a “transition discernment team” that will oversee the hiring of the next president. The committee is chaired by Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, chief executive officer of the Christian humanitarian aid organization Compassion International, and will consist of representatives of Fuller’s board and faculty that will work in partnership with a search consultant.
“We believe God has already prepared an amazing leader to lead Fuller into its next season of vitality and influence. Our privilege will be to find and advance this special person,” Mellado said in a statement.
Based in Pasadena, Fuller’s more than 3,500 students come from 90 countries and 110 denominations, according to the seminary’s website. The school offers master’s and doctoral programs with Spanish, Korean and online options.
Citing its online expansion, Fuller in 2019 closed campuses in Orange County, Northern California and the state of Washington.
Fuller is seen by many as a more progressive institution among its generally conservative counterparts, with its emphasis on immigrant rights, social justice and diversity. The school also allowed an LGBTQ student group on campus.
But in early 2020, the evangelical seminary was at the center of a lawsuit that involved two former students alleging the seminary violated anti-discrimination laws when it expelled them after learning they were married to people of the same sex. A U.S. District Court dismissed the suit later that year.
To Todd Johnson, who served as theological director of Fuller’s Brehm Center, “there’s a lot of women and a lot of people of color who might be considered for the presidency of Fuller.”
“I hope they would consider it as well,” he said.
Johnson, who now pastors a church in downtown Seattle, said the new leader will have to balance being “academically excellent, at the same time pastorally relevant.” He was at Fuller for 16 years.
He lauded the seminary’s online programs for adapting to a changing demographic of students who sought the convenience of virtual learning. Once COVID-19 struck, Johnson said, “it wasn’t new for us.”
Johnson said seminaries in general have been under siege in recent years for a number of reasons, including a decline in church attendance and polarization across the country, including in “our churches over race, gender.”
“We realize that right now the church is in need of really well-trained pastors and pastors that can be innovative and nimble,” Johnson said. “Under Mark’s presidency, that’s one of the things we really focused on, is maintaining our academic integrity, at the same time realizing that life on the ground for those in ministry is a lot different.”
Johnson said Fuller has added courses in spiritual formation to help sustain people in ministry and has focused on presenting the gospel “in a way that can be heard by a variety of voices.”
“Urban churches are increasingly becoming multicultural as well as multigenerational, and being sensitive to that in terms of how you don’t privilege one group over another … those are issues that are addressed really head-on in all of Fuller’s classes,” Johnson said.
“I think now is the opportunity for us to consider things that may not have been considered in the past,” he added.
But for former student Trista Eazell, it’s been hard to effect real change at Fuller. Eazell petitioned to end discrimination toward LGBTQ students at Fuller and sought to raise awareness of the lawsuit filed by the students who were expelled.
About a year ago, Eazell decided to transfer from Fuller to United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Once COVID-19 struck, and without people on campus, Eazell said she felt “stuck with what we could do” in advocating for LGBTQ students.
Plus, she felt that online learning during the pandemic was “disorganized.” Eazell was unaware if the quality of online learning improved as the pandemic went on, but said she felt it wasn’t interactive enough while she was still at Fuller.
Eazell, who is working toward her master’s of divinity at her new school, said she’d hope to see a woman of color, who is a part of the LGBTQ movement, as the next president of the seminary. Eazell said she’s not sure that will happen, though.
To Eazell, the climate at Fuller has seemed to be: “If we can be racially progressive, or seem to be, and progressive for women, then that’s enough.
“I knew a lot of LGBTQ students who went to Fuller because they thought it would be a safer place and finding out that it’s not,” Eazell said.
Labberton said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit or the overall LGBTQ climate at Fuller.
But he said he envisions his successor as someone who is “courageous and wise in trying to lean into what I would see as the urgency of what we’re calling ‘rethinking church’ in the 21st century.”
“It’s that effort to rethink church that seems to me to be best led by a person who actually looks like that future church,” Labberton said. “That motivates me very much to want to encourage that younger leadership, to create a way for that younger leadership to actually manifest itself at Fuller.”
To Labberton, rethinking church includes rethinking what it means for “Christian people to truly belong to one another” and “what Christian identity actually is.”
“We have to decide what is really Christian identity, which I would argue is centered in the evangel of God’s redeeming love, justice and mercy in Jesus Christ,” he said. “But, we have to really reclaim that because that seems to be murky and lost in the tide of a lot of other speech and action that’s confusing.”
Labberton said Fuller hopes to achieve this effort through its commitment to have the right racial and gender diversity across the institution, as well as through launching new degrees “to do a better job providing that kind of indispensable leader servant that we think the church is going to need.”
“I feel excited about that transition and believe that the person is coming into Fuller at a very positive and hopeful moment in our life,” he said.