In June, Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, spoke with In Trust's editor, Jay Blossom, about why a seminary committed to serving the whole world is staying in downtown Pasadena, California. With 4,000 students, the nondenominational, evangelical seminary is among the largest in North America.

You have students from 80 countries and 120 denominations. You have several extension campuses. Why stay on your landlocked campus in Pasadena?

Richard J. Mouw, president, Fuller Theological Seminary: When we started serious strategic planning about ten years ago, there were a couple of trustees who raised the question.

We had a discussion, and then said, "I'm going to go to the wall on this one. We stay in Pasadena. This is essential to my vision for this place."

There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • Most importantly, we're a Pacific Rim seminary and we want to stay that way. 
  • We're a couple of blocks from city hall, and I think that a seminary like this needs to be constantly aware of being at the center of a multicultural city. 
  • We're within a half-hour drive of the entertainment capital of the world. Hollywood is exporting a message to the corners of the earth, and we're trying to do the same. It's not so much to compete with Hollywood but to be interacting creatively with that global network. 
  • Of course, you can't be global and not be near an international airport.

But it hasn't been without its challenges, because we're in an increasingly gentrifying area and it's hard to get a decent apartment for less than $2,000 a month. It's hard to buy up land right now where we need to expand. It's hard to get the building permits.

Another problem for us is the tension between preserving traditional buildings and environmental sensitivity. We've got a lot of bungalow-type buildings that we have inherited, and we're not allowed to destroy them. They're old buildings, they're hard to maintain, and they're not very environmentally efficient buildings. But we're really committed to preserving the architectural heritage of the area.

"If there are going to be homeless, then it's very important to see them -- and to be forced to think about the connection between reading Karl Barth and that homeless woman with her little sign saying 'will work for food.'"-- Richard J. Mouw

I'm constantly quoting Jeremiah 29:7 -- "But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." If we ignore the beauty, and the codified memories of beauty in cities and our neighborhoods, we're not really seeking the welfare of our cities. So I think architectural preservation is one of the things we need to work at as a seminary community.

Is there another theological or ethical component to your commitment to staying in the city?

In no way do I want to put down suburban or rural life, but I do think the city is part of God's own redemptive plan. It is, after all, a new Jerusalem, a holy city, that we're moving toward. A city is a very complex thing and it's an arena where stewardship and neighborliness and justice and exploring connectedness and diversities come together. There's something about being in a city that pushes issues at us in unavoidable ways. You see the homeless while walking from your apartment to the library. If there are going to be homeless, then it's very important to see them -- and to be forced to think about the connection between reading Karl Barth and that homeless woman with her little sign saying "will work for food."

Also, we're educating people who are going to be ministering in very difficult places -- in China, in the rural Philippines, addressing the AIDS crisis in Africa. We feel it's important to be in a setting where the issues that are faced by the global church are visible to us. Here they're local issues as well.

I don't want to say that's the only way. I have a lot of respect, for example, for monasteries. I've experienced my own spiritual renewal at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. So I don't want to say that urban life is the only way, but I want to say that Fuller has a calling. I think each institution has to examine its calling in the light of its mission. Our understanding of our calling and our mission is that we cannot be anyplace else than where we are.

Have you been thinking about "sustainability" at Fuller?

Caring for the environment is good theological pedagogy. We're in the business of equipping the church to align itself with God's purposes in the world, and God cares deeply about his creation. Sensitizing the people of God to the need to maintain a flourishing creation, because God loves the creation, is a central part of our task.

Much sustainability talk focuses on cost-saving measures. But the details of money-saving measures are really an administrative responsibility, not a board responsibility. On the other hand, planning for the future really is the board's task. It's not putting in the fluorescent light bulbs. It's asking, "Where are we going?"

We've moved into a culture of strategic planning. Having goals isn't just asking what we need to do today to cut down on the electricity bill, but it's asking what kind of campus we want to be. And what kind of community do we want to be part of? And for what end?

What kind of seminary do we want to be 20 years from now? As a board, we're asking that in very specific ways: What kind of students do we want to have? What kind of products do we want to be presenting to the world? What kind of faculty do we need in order to do that? What kind of trustees do we need? So we're talking about students of the future, faculty of the future, trustees of the future, and library of the future.

From a biblical perspective, it's not enough just to read Good to Great or similar books, even though they've been very helpful. Ultimately we're looking forward to a new creation in which tribes and tongues and nations will sing praises to the Lamb, but so will all creatures great and small.

Since we're headed to that great day when all things will be made new, we need to be on the side of renewal and of transformation. Those big questions always have to be a part of the planning. So that's why we constantly we go back to the very basic questions that Craig Dykstra of the Lilly Endowment always asks:

  • What is God doing in the world? 
  • What does the church need to be like in order to align itself with what God is doing in the world? 
  • What does our seminary need to be like if we're going to equip the church to align itself with what God is doing in the world?

You can't think of sustainability apart from those questions.

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