Paula Fuller has led a diverse career in business, leadership, non-profit and vocational ministry. Since 2005, she has served as vice president of InterVarsity/USA and director of Multiethnic Ministries. Marcia Bosscher of The Well recently caught up with Paula to hear more about her leadership, her story and her vision for multiethnicity and reconciliation.
*This interview was originally featured on The Well, a wonderful website that supports women in the academy and professional schools as they seek to follow Christ.
Paula, as Vice President and Director of Multiethnic Ministries at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, can you describe for our readers your position and responsibilities?
As a Vice President, I am responsible, with the other Cabinet members, for providing vision, strategic leadership, planning, and decision-making for InterVarsity. As Multiethnic Ministries Director, I oversee InterVarsity’s development and expression of biblical multiethnicity and racial reconciliation at every level of the organization. I appoint, supervise, and lead the work of the Multiethnic Ministries team responsible for broadly articulating InterVarsity’s vision for multiethnic ministry — integrating multiethnicity into our national programs and strategies for campus growth, evangelism, and discipleship; developing and implementing strategies to recruit, develop, and fund ethnic minority staff; and developing training resources on ethnic and multiethnic concerns.
Spiritually Formed in Leadership
I know you have had a strong interest in spiritual formation. Can you share with us a lesson of your own spiritual formation through leadership?
One of the most encouraging things that I’ve experienced as a leader is the reality that God spiritually forms us through our leadership experiences. Often when we think of leaders, the traditional or hierarchical model says that if you’re the leader, there’s a hierarchy with you at the top. You’re expected to know everything, to make perfect decisions, and at any moment to be able to direct people in terms of what to do.
While I agree with Max Dupree’s statement in Leadership is an Art that one of the roles of a leader is to define reality, after years of leading and being a part of different multiethnic communities, I don’t see myself as an “expert” or one who has everything figured out. There is an inherent complexity in bringing together people from different ethnic communities with different values and different ways of worshiping God.
One gift that the Lord gave me when I began this job almost ten years ago was the ability to enter this role as a learner and to recognize that one of the most important aspects of my job was creating opportunities for people to experience God’s presence. No matter how great our programs are, if people don’t experience God’s presence, I have not given them everything God wants them to have. So, as a leader I want to set the stage for people to do that — and also create contexts where people can grow, engage each other well, and learn how to value and engage people from different cultures.
This perspective on leadership has kept me at the table when there were times that things felt more complex or difficult than I could possibly figure out. And I know that my success isn’t based on my intellect or because of my strong capability as much as it is on my availability and my willingness to use whatever gifts I have to advance the direction that I thought God is calling us to.
Investing a Stanford MBA in the Kingdom of God
You were trained in a more traditional leadership style. Was it a revelation to you, to come to this pattern, this way of leadership? Is it quite different?
I have an undergraduate degree in finance from Berkeley and an MBA from Stanford. So the first season of my life was spent working as a manager in corporate America. And then in the midst of getting my MBA, I sensed a call to ministry.
I had met some Christians in my Stanford MBA program. They were tremendously experienced and gifted as business leaders, but they also had a real heart and passion for the Kingdom of God. And they were asking, "What did it mean to bring the fullness of your Christian experience and passion for God into the midst of what you are doing as a businessperson?" I had really never experienced that before.
And I was also at a very small church at the time that had tremendous vision, and I was very inspired, and I found myself asking the question, “What does it look like if you invest a Stanford MBA in the Kingdom of God?” — as opposed to making traditional decisions based on maximizing your salary or climbing the corporate ladder.
So I think it put me in a very different space in terms of thinking about my gifts and how to use them. And then, after working several years in corporate America, I transitioned to work full time at this very small church.
I met John Perkins and learned about the Christian Community Development Association, and the three R’s (Reconciliation, Relocation, and Redistribution), and discerned that God was calling me to relocate. So, I quit my corporate job and my parents thought I had lost my mind. Most of the people I knew thought, “What are you doing? How could you throw away this perfectly good career? This is not God.”
Well, I knew that God had called me.
My parents were from a different generation, and neither of them had been to college. In the 1960’s my paternal grandfather, great-uncle, my father, and others from our small community in West Monroe, Louisiana, traveled out to California, the land of opportunity. A year later, my dad sent for my mom and my siblings. I am the youngest of seven, and the only one of my family born in California. They sacrificed everything so we could have a better life. Last summer, I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns that chronicles the Great Migration of Blacks from the South, so I had a greater understanding of the courage, vision, and audacity it took for them to pursue their dreams.
So, they couldn’t understand why I wasn’t taking advantage of my opportunities. When I told them of my plans to leave the corporate world, they said, “This can’t be God. He wouldn’t . . . ” They were very proud of my accomplishments and my career in corporate America, and so to them, they couldn’t understand. “This is something you worked for. This is something we prayed for. How could you throw all this away?”
My father said, “I spent my whole life getting you out of the ghetto, and this is how you repay me. You quit your job and you move back into the ghetto.” In his mind, I was not appreciating all of the sacrifices that he had made to position me for a better life. And it would take five years or so for him to be able to agree, “Yeah, I can see that that was the right thing for you to do.” Unfortunately, he passed away before I accepted my current job at InterVarsity, because I think he would have seen that this role combines the ministry passion and the level of business acumen and competence needed to work in such a large, complex organization.
My mother is eighty-five and it has been very hard to explain to my mother what I do. She just knows that I get on the plane, and I travel a lot. So several years ago, I decided to take her to one of the events I was participating in. My mother’s very short. She’s like 5’3” and she’s in a room full of all these PhD students.
My mother has never been in a room with people like this. So the whole time, she’s standing literally right behind me. I’d try to introduce her and she’d kind of just stick her hand out and say, “God bless you,” you know, “very nice to meet you!” Pete Sommer, who was the head of the fellowship at the time, introduced my mom to the group and they treated her like the Queen of England. My mother had the best time.
At the end she said, “Okay, now I know what you do.”
That was one of my most rewarding moments, just being able to introduce my mom to InterVarsity and to allow her to see the students and the faculty and what we do on campus.
“But God, this job is not marriage friendly!”
You knew you were being called out of the corporate world, but you wondered if you were truly called to your present position, is that right?
I felt called to accept this job as a one-year interim assignment with InterVarsity. At the six-month mark, [President Alec Hill] invited me to consider taking the job on a permanent basis. One of my great reservations about saying yes to this job was that I was at an age and stage where the thing I wanted most in life was to get married and have a baby. Although I had a strong desire to be married for a number of years, I had never had a sense of my biological clock ticking. But right at the time when I sensed God inviting me to say yes to this role, or challenging me to say yes to the role, that’s when it struck me. And at the time I was in a relationship with someone who was in California. I was hoping that was the person I was going to marry.
Whatever God does, even if it's beautiful, it might mean giving up what you really want in exchange for God knowing best, saying, 'Not my will but yours be done.'
A very real concern was that in the first hundred and eighty days I served in the interim role, I was on the road for one hundred and one days. So at the end of that six months, literally there had been only a few weeks that I had been at home. And so when the invitation came, “We’d love to have you take this job full-time,” I thought, God, this job is not marriage-friendly. This job is not child-friendly. If I say yes to this, Lord, how am I going to get this deep-seated prayer answered that I want to be married and I want to have kids?
I was wrestling with the costliness of the call, and the realization that in saying yes to God, it might mean not getting these things that I have always really, really wanted. And so when God said, “You’re not married and you’re not pregnant, so what’s the problem? I want you to take that desire and put it on the altar and let it burn up.”
That was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had with God. But what came out of that was the verse in Isaiah 61.3 where God says I will give you beauty for ashes. Before you get to the beauty, there really has to be ashes. Give him some ashes, and he will give you the beauty. But there’s the sense that whatever he does, even if it’s beautiful, it might mean giving up what you really, really want in exchange for God knowing best, saying, “Not my will but your will be done.” It really felt like one of those moments, like Abraham on Mount Moriah sacrificing Isaac, and you say, “Okay, I will trust you for this.” And you don’t have the assurance that you’ll get the happy ending, right?
You don’t. You don’t, no.
So it’s a bit funny to me that saying yes to this job is actually how I met my husband. If I had not said yes to InterVarsity, I would’ve never been at the 2007 World Assembly IFES conference in Toronto, Canada, I wouldn’t have met his mom and his sister who live in another country. There’s literally no way our paths would have crossed. And so I had to look back now and think, God, you are so amazing. I am so glad I obeyed you. I wanted to get married, but certainly the husband you provided for me was more than I could have ever asked for — more than what I even knew to ask for.
A meet-up, a hold-up (with a gun), and a ring
So, tell us the story!
Well, I met his mom and his sister Denise, from Trinidad, at an IFES conference in 2007. By the summer of 2008, I had broken up with the person that I was sure I was going to marry. So I’m heartbroken, I’m exhausted, and I’m thinking, I need to get away. Where can I go where I can just journal and hang out with the Lord and my phone won’t ring? And his sister’s face came to mind.
So I emailed her, “I hope you remember me. We met last summer at IFES. I’m really wanting to get away and when I prayed about it, your face came to mind. Could I come and stay with you a couple of weeks? You don’t even have to call me a guest. I’ll wash my own dishes. I’m not coming to be a tourist, I just need a little corner where I can spend some time before the Lord.”
And she just said, “The Spirit says come.”
I was there for three weeks, and I met Philip toward the end of the trip — we barely talked beyond the greeting and introduction as Denise’s friend from the US. At the time, he was married. But his wife got sick that fall and in January was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. She died on January 31. It was devastating for him and the family.
In the spring, their family decided to go on a family reunion cruise in the summer. Denise calls. Would I like to go and be a roommate with one of her friends from college? Well, sure I would! That’d be fun! I’d always wanted to go to Alaska. And so, I go on the cruise. There are twenty-six of us — their whole family and me and a couple of other family friends.
Philip was very sad of course as his wife had died just earlier that year. And I’m not looking for a relationship. But we ended up spending a couple days toward the end of the cruise together. One day we were shopping and I asked him to walk me to a store that was past the ship. And he was really good company, and I laughed and talked, and then another day, it rained.
And out of the blue he just came walking up to me and said, “I know black women hate to get their hair wet. Here, wear my hat.” So he put his hat on my head, and then he turned and walked away. I’m like, that was so nice of him!
At the end of the cruise, I hug all the family goodbye, and I think, "When he gets over his grief, he’s going to make some woman in Trinidad a great husband."
A view of San Fernando in Trinidad.
And then he started emailing me a few weeks later. I learned later that God had given him two names — both mine — and said that was the person he was to do ministry with. So we emailed for a few months, but I don’t believe in long distance relationships. He’s a nice guy, but how do you get to know somebody who lives in another country?
So, for about eight or nine months, we just emailed. Then I thought, you know, we need to go on a date. I need to see if he’s just a nice guy, or if there’s some chemistry.
But Philip wanted his in-laws to play a role in deciding when he would get remarried. After his wife died, he became one of his mother-in-law’s primary caretakers. He’d go to see her practically every day, buy her fish at the fish market. She had six other kids, but Philip had become like a son rather than a son-in-law.
So right when I decided we need to get together, she told Philip, “I’ve been praying for the Lord to send you a wife, but not yet.” But not yet. When she said those three words, it meant he could not come visit me. So I decide, oh, no problem, I’ll come visit you. I’ll just tell Denise I’m coming, and we can get together while I’m in Trinidad.
So I go back to visit. We decide to get together for a date, and we have a wonderful lunch. After that, we end up going to a national park where you could look out and see Venezuela.
We’re up there, laughing and talking and taking pictures. I’m not paying attention when two men come up and they’re armed robbers. One guy has a gun in the waistband of his pants. The other man pulls out this long machete knife and puts it around Philip’s arm. I’m in shock.
My bag is on the table in front of us. So I grab my bag, and the guy with the gun says, “That’s right, honey. Give me your bag.” So I get ready to hand him my bag, and Philip says, “No!” And me and the two robbers look at him, like, What are you talking about?
The guy who’s holding him with the knife grabs him and jams the flat edge of the knife against his arm. And the guy with the gun says again, “I told you. Give me your bag.”
And this look comes over Philip’s face. I’ve never seen a look like that. He said, “I said, no,” and jumps up, throws off the guy with the knife, and starts chasing these two armed robbers down the hill. I’m clutching my bag.
One has a gun?
Yes! They’re armed! He’s chasing them, and then he suddenly stops and comes back, and I say, “What were you thinking? They could’ve killed you! They could’ve killed us both! I don’t know where you live! If you were unconscious, I would not be able to tell people where to take us, because I don’t know where I am!”
So he says, “All I could think was that I invited you here and I had to take care of you. And then I hear in my mind the verse, ‘Touch not my anointed, and do my prophet no harm,’ and I knew I could not let them take your bag. Are you okay?” I just burst into tears and said, “Take me home!”
He starts smiling and I’m like, “Why are you smiling?” And then he said, “Because when you said ‘Take me home,’ you didn’t mean Fremont, California.”
That was our first date.
So later, I am praying and I get an email from a friend who’s interceding for me every day for my work with InterVarsity. She sends me an email saying, “I was praying for you this morning. I had this sense of urgency that your life was in danger. Are you okay?” And I said, “While you were praying, we were being accosted by armed robbers. I think your prayer saved our lives.”
Later I’m praying to the Lord, “Lord, I can’t believe we got robbed.” And then God said, “You didn’t get robbed. He didn’t even let them take your purse.” “Okay, that’s true, but it was so traumatic!” And the Holy Spirit says, “Well, didn’t you want to know if there was chemistry?” And I was like, “Well, that is true. I do not know anybody else who would risk their life for me.” Most people would just say, “Honey, give them the bag,” which is what you’re supposed to do when you’re faced with armed robbers. So, that kind of sealed it for me. Four years later, we got married.
He sounds like an amazing man.
He is a phenomenal person, rightly suited for me. And it’s a wonderful family. I work for InterVarsity USA but he really is a part of the first family of InterVarsity Trinidad. His mother met C. Stacey Woods in 1956, and she founded IFES Trinidad that year. She’s still very active in ministry. She has been one of the major leaders for student ministry work in the country for over 50 years. Philip’s sister is on the board and he was on staff for InterVarsity Trinidad and then served on the Board. So it’s like marrying into an InterVarsity family.
Isn’t that amazing? And you did not come through an InterVarsity family at all.
I was not even involved in InterVarsity in college. When I was first asked to be on the national board, I remember asking, “I’m not rich, I’m not old, and I’m not white, so why do you want me on your board?” You know, like, “What is it that you think I could bring?” And I just remember Steve Hayner and this extended moment of stunned silence, and then he said, “We think you have something to offer.” So I said, “Well, I’ll pray about it and get back to you.” To me, it didn’t make any sense, you know.
But I think that was the beginning of God moving in powerful ways. InterVarsity has been such a significant blessing in my life. For all that I have contributed as a leader, I’ve gotten so much more in terms of what God has invited me in to. I wish I had been involved as a student. I think my life would have been so much stronger at that age of life. So many of the things I wrestled with or insecurities or just fears would have been greatly alleviated had I been involved in InterVarsity in college.
But his timing is pretty good.
You have to think, “Yes, Lord, you know best and your timing is perfect.”
Dreams for the future
And looking to the future, do you see directions you’d like InterVarsity to go in terms of multiethnicity? What dreams do you have?
Certainly I have been amazed at the faithfulness of God just in terms of the growth, in the diversity of InterVarsity, both in the students we serve and the staff. I think in this season, one of the things I have felt we need to explore is reclaiming the gift of reconciliation. Not just having the diversity, both the numerical or the ethnic diversity, but exploring what does it mean to experience the gift of reconciliation within our fellowships, within our ministry. How do we embody or offer that gift of reconciliation in the environments that we serve in, in the churches that we attend.
There is a real gap between diversity and reconciliation.
There is so much polarization and so much division in our society and I think there is talk of the significance of diversity, but there is a real gap between diversity and reconciliation, isn’t there? How do we enter into those spaces as those people who are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation?
And I think for me the other dream comes back to a call to write, particularly about spiritual formation practices and the experiences of different ethnicities. I think there are some things that God has challenged me to do. One of them seems to be about creating space to write. There are times when you have vision and dreams, or even a sense of calling to do something, and you struggle with figuring out, how do I work this out in practical ways, or what does it look like, or I have this ongoing tug inside that says, “This is important.”
And much of this year for me has been about transitions, adjusting to married life, adjusting to living in Trinidad, adjusting to traveling for work internationally. And it was funny because God reminded me, “Didn’t you say you wanted to be in international ministry?” And it’s like, “I did, but this was not what I was thinking at the time.”
So, I think you have these visions and dreams and then when you’re actually living in them, God has to remind you that this is something he promised you or something you asked for but it just looks a little differently than you expected.