By Becky Still
The Southern California noonday sun beats down on the Pasadena City Hall courtyard, making the fountain waters shimmer, the foliage gleam, and the videographers from Fuller sweat. They’ve gathered to shoot an interview of Janet Labberton, wife of new president Mark Labberton—and the heat doesn’t diminish her exuberance in the least.
“I brought visual aids!” she says, pulling an assortment of treasures from a large tote bag. Janet is a lifelong teacher, after all, and knows the value of a visual—which in this case includes a flag from her Northern California hometown (Piedmont), a banner for the baseball team she zealously supports (San Francisco Giants), a master’s hood (“Mark’s not the only one with an advanced degree”), publicity for a modern-day slavery awareness event (she’s on the board for the anti-trafficking nonprofit Oasis), and a few other items that help us begin to picture just who Janet Labberton is.
A SEASON OF RICHNESS: FAMILY, CHURCH, AND PIEDMONT HIGH
Janet Morrison, a fourth-generation Californian who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, always loved the outdoors. As a U.C. Davis college student, she jumped at the chance to work for several summers as a mountaineer guide with a Young Life outreach in British Columbia and, she says, “fell in love with the Northwest.” Her transfer to the University of Washington in Seattle introduced her to the University Presbyterian Church—and a passing acquaintance with the church’s college pastor, a young Mark Labberton.
It wasn’t until several years later, returning to the Bay Area for a new job and canvassing for a church home, that Janet visited First Presbyterian Berkeley—and there, again, was Mark. “It was Mark’s first Sunday there as college pastor,” she remembers. “He said, ‘Janet Morrison! What are you doing here?’ Then without skipping a beat, ‘Would you help me lead an Agnostics Anonymous group starting this week?’ I said, ‘Absolutely!’ And 18 months later, we were married.”
The years to follow for the Labbertons included a stint in Cambridge, England, for Mark’s PhD study; some short-term pastoral assignments in Carmel, California, and Wayne, Pennsylvania; the expansion of their family to include sons Peter and Sam; and a return to First Presbyterian Berkeley where Mark was called, this time, as senior pastor. The family settled in nearby Piedmont, where they ended up living for 20 years—and where “we experienced the fullness of our family life,” Janet remembers fondly: “Soccer, sleepovers, cub scouts, rowing, a garage band in the basement, all of us very involved in the church community … and I had the great privilege of teaching teenagers there.”
Teaching, it’s soon evident, is Janet’s passion. A high school English and public speaking teacher for 20 years, she shares why she loves it so much: “A whole group of kids come into your classroom with a variety of stresses in their lives—and I can use literature to open their imaginations and begin discussion of some of the huge issues that they are facing. I’ve always brought current events and different types of media into the classroom too, to make it a rich time of discussion. Being with teenagers, and being open to their honest questions, has always been very enriching to me.”
She cultivated those open relationships outside the classroom too, as an advisor to Bible study clubs and other groups. “I hosted a diversity of clubs and really tried to include kids who didn’t feel included in the school. I’ve always had a passion for the ones who feel they are on the sidelines.”
No wonder, then, as the Labbertons began to discuss the possibility of Mark’s candidacy for the presidency of Fuller Seminary, that the prospect of a move to Pasadena was gut-wrenching for Janet. “I really had to pray about it and ask, ‘God, how would this go?’” she confides. “I’d be leaving a very rich time of neighbors, church family, my job, my friends, and all the teenagers I’ve loved teaching for all these years.”
AN ABSOLUTE PEACE: THIS IS THE WAY FORWARD
It was a day in February when Janet took her seat on the plane in Honduras, where she’d been on a mission trip, and was on the verge of switching off her phone when a call popped up on the screen. It was Mark, and she answered. He had just that moment, he told her, received the call to the presidency of Fuller.
“It was amazing,” Janet recalls. “I was flooded with an absolute peace that this was the next step for our life. Where I had had concerns before, I didn’t anymore. I just knew that this was the thing that God was doing in our life. I knew this was the way forward.”
Now, as the video cameras roll, Janet enthusiastically tells us how she’s bringing all her loves and experiences to this new season of her life in Pasadena.
She’s brought her love for the outdoors, for one thing—one of the reasons our video shoot is taking place in this courtyard, with its burbling fountain as backdrop. “I’ve always been drawn to water,” she explains. “I explored all kinds of beaches in Northern California, and now I’m exploring them here. In August, right after we moved down, I was swimming in every Southern California beach I could find!”
But more important, her passion for students has now expanded to include graduate students, at Fuller. “During Welcome Week I was really excited to meet so many students coming from all over the world,” she enthuses. Thinking back to her time at Cambridge with Mark, “I can relate to their experience—and the experience of their spouses—and what it means to feel dislocated and new.”
As she takes a sabbatical from teaching to consider the role she will play at Fuller and in the community, Janet has already identified some possibilities. “I’ve had the Pasadena Unified School District on my heart—I’d really like to be involved there,” she says. “And I really love the idea of Fuller becoming even more involved with the city of Pasadena. I think God has planted us here—at the main campus—for a reason. It’s those Fuller-community partnerships that I’m really looking forward to nurturing, specifically focused on local schools.”
And there, Janet tells us, lies an even more important reason why she chose the City Hall courtyard as the spot for her interview. “Every day,” she relates, “I walk through Pasadena City Hall with our dog, and I pray for the city, for all the kids who are in school here in Pasadena, and especially the ones who are struggling. It’s just part of my heart to care about kids.”
The video cameras stop rolling, and it’s time for a few photos. With Janet’s love for water, it’s only natural that several are snapped in front of that courtyard fountain. And then, it’s not a surprise to anyone when Janet insists on taking the camera and shooting a few photos herself—of Mike and Nate, the videographers. “The camera has been on me long enough,” she says, shooing the guys onto the bench for a pose. “Your turn!”