Understandably enough, the world’s attention last week centered on Rome and the elevation of a new pope. Shoot, I’m not even Catholic and I had CNN’s “Vatican Chimney Cam” on my computer last week Wednesday afternoon and then, sure enough, out came the white smoke.
It was intriguing stuff and so perhaps we can all be forgiven for not spending as much time last week on another elevation of sorts when Fuller Theological Seminary announced its new president, Mark Labberton. I suppose Mark can henceforth refer to his presidential announcement as having come in a highly historic week! I’ve had the chance and privilege to know Mark a bit these past few years and congratulate him on his new post and the honor that rightly accrues to him by achieving this.
But I note Mark’s appointment on this blog because I see this as a curious trend of the last few years. It began when Western Theological Seminary named Tim Brown as its president some years back and this was followed in 2010 by my own Calvin Theological Seminary naming Jul Medenblik as its next president. Since that time Princeton Theological Seminary hired Craig Barnes after Iain Torrance retired and now Fuller has named Mark Labberton to succeed Rich Mouw.
The trend of which I take curious note here is that each of these four would likely self-identify as much as anything as a preacher, a pastor. True, Brown, Barnes, and Labberton have all taught at the seminary level and Medenblik was an active member of, and then president of, the Calvin Seminary Board of Trustees for many years. But if you look at the careers of all four, they made their biggest marks not in academia per se but in the church where the four have collectively many decades’ worth of preaching experience. Medenblik came to his presidential post directly from 16 years of being a church planting pastor of what is now a large congregation in Illinois. Brown initially went to Western to teach preaching following also his long tenure as preacher at a very large Michigan congregation. Barnes pastored several congregations over the years and was still serving as preaching pastor at a congregation in Pennsylvania when Princeton hired him. And Labberton–although he has been teaching preaching the last nearly four years–spent the sixteen years prior to that as the preacher/pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in Berkley, California.
Four such appointments may not constitute a statistically significant trend, and both Western and Calvin are modest-sized seminaries in the grander scheme of schools in North America. Still, might the appointment of longtime and highly experienced pastors/preachers signal an overt desire to convey to students a desire to focus on the practicalities of ministry? Again, each of the four men I have highlighted here have academic credentials beyond an M.Div.: Brown has a D.Min., Medenblik a J.D., Barnes and Labberton both have Ph.D. degrees. But they are people of the pulpit more than of the classroom, pastors who walked with people through life’s varied valleys more than scholars who have devoted themselves to colloquies and meetings of this or that academic guild. (But please note: I have nothing against career classroom teachers or academic guilds of various stripes–we need those people and those entities too. Nor in noting this trend do I in any way wish to convey the idea that past presidents who were not longtime pastors did not also have a concern for ministry preparation for their students. I am casting no stones here, just pondering these developments!)
As my own seminary has been going through a re-branding process, it is clear that seminary students today really do still want a top-flight theological education, and a student would indeed receive such formal training very well at all of the schools I’ve mentioned. But when talking to students and prospective students, it becomes clear almost immediately that they hope to meet up with teachers of many different backgrounds but including those who have walked the talk by having been pastors themselves and who know what it takes beyond the formation of the mind to form the heart for active ministry in this hurting, broken world. Especially in Homiletics, students gravitate toward those who understand from the inside the grinding hard work involved in making new sermons every single week, including in the same congregation over a long haul of ministry in which most preachers eventually worry “I think they’ve heard everything I have to say by now!”
Time will tell whether this trend continues as well as, I suppose, how the appointments of pastors/preachers as presidents shape these various institutions. As someone who cares deeply and passionately about the preaching that takes place in the church today–and as one of great throngs of people who know keenly how much this world needs sensitive pastors to minister to people’s hurting hearts these days–I am hopeful and optimistic about this “trend” such as it is. And I hope the Lord will richly bless and keep blessing the presidential ministries of Tim, Jul, Craig, and Mark and many others beside as we and they all together keep on letting the Spirit use us to equip women and men for ministry in Christ’s Church.