Fuller Plans Move: A Letter to Mark Labberton

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Dear Mark,

Thanks for the announcement of the plan to move Fuller to Pomona. I am grateful for your leadership. In what follows, I hope to summon some of your memory here, and to make a couple of requests of you and the Board regarding the move to Pomona. I realize that many hallmarks of the proposed move may seem very large, and thus unavailable for editing or revision, or lack plasticity. Nevertheless, I put these two requests forward as brief ideas and proposals that attempt to summarize conversations I have been part of with other students and alumni.

First, our memory. Many years ago (!), when we were both in Berkeley, I asked you about learning and life at Fuller. It was clear to me now and in retrospect, that Jesus would lead, inform, and empower my theological education. More than that, life and learning at Fuller would also set me on a path of personal formation and Christian transformation.

I mentioned the latter path, as the conversation we shared occurred shortly before Annette, John, and I would travel to Hong Kong. You suggested to me that I meet and listen to Fuller alumni during our sojourn in East Asia. I met alumni from all three schools during that summer. This was before 1997, and the level of discourse reminds me of what we routinely observe now in North America, viz., how do we follow Jesus in this political setting? Besides this, I sensed that all of the alumni were on a path of suffering with Jesus and while they did not perceive this as desirable, they welcomed it as an authentic participation with Christ. In short, your conversation with me was already becoming evident: If you come to Fuller, you follow Jesus in ways unanticipated but that will prepare you for mission later as well. But, I’ve become aware of an omission on my part.

I have attempted to make this memory about Fuller: and not about Pasadena. True: the joyful and painful memories of an MDiv education have a geography. But, what was clear then is now: The people sent into the institution contributed to generating those memories. To my disappointing recall, I can’t think of a time in which my life as an MDiv student contributed to the well-being, the shalom, of Pasadena. How I missed this crucial element bothers me. I’m sure the opportunities were there through Fuller, but I won’t make excuses for how I missed those occasions for service. So, yes to personal formation and Christian transformation. But, I can’t help but perceive that I missed a great setting to follow Jesus, and that miss may have been assisted by how Fuller was then structured for the MDiv. In the end, though, that absence falls on my shoulders.

Next, as I read your letter (and the FAQ’s), I noticed the implicit declaration: “We will be debt-free.” Here, I begin on the above-mentioned couple of thoughts/requests with regard to solvency and an improved endowment.

For one, I was reminded of statements you made early as President that evangelicals have “aspirational culture.” The context, of course, regarded the indebtedness of the seminary. My memory is hazy here: but, your statement observed how evangelicals become animated or excited about a particular context or crisis or historical moment, generate a lot of activity—prayer, funding, human resources—and get to work, without much consideration of sustainability. And—I compress here—this often leads to many undesirable outcomes, including indebtedness. Forgive me: I know I haven’t done justice to your thought here. But, many at the seminary all looked at each other and knew what you labeled as “aspirational culture” to be all-too-true. We’d seen it and heard it, initiated it, and received it.

My initial sense, then, upon reading the intent of the letter from yesterday, “We will be debt-free,” was to wonder how that statement will resist the power of aspirational culture. Naming it helped; we all benefited from you making that identification. Having said this, I will be plausibly understood as impertinent in the request that follows:

Can the liquidation of the debt become completely transparent? All aspects, including when and how and why debt becomes re-negotiated, all payments, and any unexpected liabilities that become generated through all processes of becoming debt-free: deserve open and clear communication. Why?

Part of this answer involves personal formation and Christian transformation. Part of this answer involves demonstrating that the people who constitute the institution trust in Jesus. Part of this involves admitting that you and the Board will faithfully attempt to resist the powers of the aspirational culture that are endemic to evangelicalism. Part of this answer includes the profound trust that God intends for the seminary to conduct its ministry in a sustainable fashion. This last element leads to my second thought: Pomona.

It wasn’t until a couple of colleagues confronted me that I realized that I had merely “passed through Pasadena.” I had not considered the people, nor the land, nor its politics and history, as a site for mission. Apart from feeding those who walked through the campus, I don’t think of myself—to my shame—as one who loved the City of Pasadena. It wasn’t until my colleagues addressed me that something like scales fell from my eyes. And, now, Fuller intends to move to Pomona.

I will make my second request, and here I write again with some awareness that I may be perceived as rude and untoward: Can Fuller (yet again) revise the curriculum to integrate life in Pomona for all three schools?  What was missing in Pasadena should not become imported, and, thus, imposed upon Pomona: the tacit consent of the seminary (i.e., permission for the people who constitute the institution) to absent service, witness, and care for the people, the history, and the politics of Pomona.

Of course, in contrast to my absence in Pasadena, there are women and men who have long-suffered as part of Fuller in their care for Pasadena: we would do well to honor them and learn their stories, and give thanks to God for their lives. I fear too much of their faithful witness flies under the radar. The recall of their narratives—from faculty, staff, students, and alumni—impress me as crucial to how we depart from Pasadena. The fruitful stories of service and witness in Pasadena would do us all well to catalyze imagination for loving our neighbors in Pomona. In more ways than one, these women and men present to us an embodied theology of the land.

Thus, all energies from you and the Board that point toward a future east of the 57 should take up the central question: How do we follow Jesus in the City of Pomona as we: prepare ministers, therapists, and missionaries, and develop scholarship in intercultural studies, psychology, and theology, and routinely do this following of Jesus in sustainable ways that both keep the seminary solvent and benefit those residing in Pomona? A curriculum revision could plausibly contribute to answering that question, a reappraisal that specifically accounts for engaging with the Gospel in Pomona.

A new, embodied theology of the land for Fuller is irrevocably on the horizon, even if we do not explicitly take up that task by reaching down with our hands to place them into the soil. Better that we make this construction in theology clear: that we partially understand how we have and have not served Pasadena, and that, so encouraged and chastened by our past, we aim to serve and announce the crucified and risen Jesus among those living in Pomona in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, some version of the theology of the land will be imposed upon Fuller, although we may not become aware of it until so confronted. Surely, this matter deserves urgent, parallel consideration with all the vision and planning for solvency, endowment depth, and material construction of the new campus.

Having reviewed the above, it occurred to me that some reading this letter to you might surmise I believe that any lack of service and love toward Pasadena caused the indebtedness of the seminary. No: that speculative conclusion is not mine. I believe it to be wrong; to make that judgment is a bridge too far.

In many ways, Mark, you’ve already framed and filled my version of the central question in your many announcements. I won’t presume upon you, but nevertheless trust that I’ve represented you and others well, and I would welcome your feedback. To be sure, I’ve omitted elements that you and the Board no doubt observe and would correct me on. Feel free to do that. I’m hardly free of fallibility or invulnerable to criticism. I know we keep talking about coffee together, and I’ve got that “little writing project” I’m working on: I won’t make that excuse anymore. I’ll be in touch.

Mike

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