“This is a fulfillment of my call.”
The words belong to Luis Antonio (Tony) De La Rosa, an ordained elder and the current interim executive presbyter for the Presbytery of New York City (PNYC).
The vote on June 30, 2010, was hardly a squeaker: by a roughly 3-to-1 margin, he became the first openly gay candidate elected to this position in New York and, perhaps, the entire Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Then, at the same meeting, the presbytery instituted historic belt-tightening measures, reducing the full-time staff by 80 percent.
When De La Rosa reported for his first day of work on a Monday that August, the staff was drastically smaller than it had been the previous Friday.
Where others might have viewed the timing of these situations as obstacles, De La Rosa saw them as a unique growth opportunity for the PNYC.
“I had seen the deliberations. I knew what was in store, so my role initially was to assist the rest of the staff into transitioning into the new reality the presbytery had laid out for itself,” he said.
PNS first checked in with De La Rosa three months into his tenure, just before the start of Thanksgiving weekend. Despite his need to handle some last-minute errands ahead of company coming in the next day he welcomed the chance to extol the virtues of the frequently cantankerous body he now heads. His answers came tumbling out with unbridled exuberance.
“The Presbytery of New York City is a wonderful place to be, and I say that without any irony. I see the upside,” De La Rosa said. “The Presbytery of New York City is very good at citing problems. They tend to overlook ― or fail to celebrate ― the amazing things that they have going on here: the quality of worship, the outstanding mission that’s going on here … it makes anything else we may struggle with pale in comparison.”
Discussing the PNYC’s somewhat legendary stated Presbytery meetings ― which have occasionally run on for extended hours, riding the emotional see-saw between being the most prayerful of places to being so boisterous it would make the English Parliament blush ― the 50-year old transplanted Los Angelino leaned forward in his chair. Not being from New York provides him with an outsider’s perspective.
“People make the mistake of determining the health of this presbytery based on the quality of its meetings, De La Rosa said. “That’s a mistake because if that’s all you see ― if that’s your only lens within which you look over the larger presbytery ― then you’re missing 90 percent of what the presbytery’s about.”
The positives come to De La Rosa instantly.
“The PNYC is extraordinarily diverse,” he said. “As a governing body within the Presbyterian Church it is probably, if not the most diverse, it is certainly among the most diverse governing bodies in the life of the church today.”
The eldest of three sons of a Mexican-immigrant father and a Puerto Rican mother, De La Rosa earned his B.A., M.Div. and J.D. from Yale University.
De La Rosa has always felt called to serve the church, particularly in middle-governing body leadership, a career move he confirmed for himself while working as an intern at the San Gabriel Presbytery office one summer. Much of his duties revolved around trailing the executive presbyter, and De La Rosa grew to love the interesting layers of an EP’s duties revealed by this up-close-and-personal view.
De La Rosa’s call to serve eventually led him to the PC(USA)’s national level, where he first came to prominence actively promoting more open ordination standards. Most recently, he served on the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage, which reported to the 219th General Assembly.
But it is to intentional interim ministry that he is most drawn. So for the next three years, or until a permanent executive presbyter is elected, it is New York City upon which De La Rosa is intently focused.
“I want to provide the presbytery with the fullest possible range of envisioning its future and the structure of its executive staff,” he said.
De La Rosa is paying particular attention to the dynamic mix of peoples and cultures and ideas, hoping to avoid ― or at least limit ― those moments when the PNYC’s multi-layered fabric ignites, sending a presbytery discussion shooting off into multiple directions simultaneously. Herein lies the challenge for the PNYC, because, De La Rosa said, “the tendency towards chaos is that much greater.
“There is a need for folks to A) harbor the skills necessary to be able to help maintain that ‘order’ and also B) to be able to pace themselves better ― to understand that it is going to take much more of your energy, much more of your care, much more of your management, much more of your nurture in order to maintain that ‘system’ and to be able to identify within that ‘system’ the resources that can contribute the energy to keep it together.”
One major benefit of this learning curve is the broadening of leadership. Instead of leadership being ceded to staff or a handful of the same old faces, it can now be more comfortably spread among the broader body, helping to mute feelings of marginalization.
“One important corrective that I had coming in was people stating that as interim executive presbyter, I was here to bring about healing in the presbytery,” De La Rosa said. “That is one statement that I have distanced myself from because, as I’ve told people, the Holy Spirit is the one who brings healing.
“My job is to limit the number of administrative distractions that keep people from focusing and accessing the healing power of the Spirit.”
Can this be accomplished within the inherent limitations of reduced staffing?
But De La Rosa doesn’t see the reduced staff as a limitation: “It hits me as a ‘what I have,” he said.
Operationally, he prefers building an effective staff structure sufficient enough to enable him to do what he has been hired to do ― in this case, guide the presbytery into a better understanding and shaping of its expectations of what it can count on staff to do.
Rolling up his sleeves and digging in
Turning his attention to the larger “healing” issues at hand, De La Rosa said that his training and experience have helped him tune in to a key goal: to never lose sight of an individual’s pain. He is quick to “not quantify people’s pain and alienation” but recognize that someone’s pain is real and that feelings of alienation can’t be dismissed.
Some of this pain relates directly to those who’ve preceded him as the PNYC’s executive presbyter.
Of the five full-time EPs who have served since 1967, two became seriously ill and died during ― or soon after leaving ― office while a third developed serious heart disease and had to step down.
For most of the past 30 years, there have been an almost equal number of interim EPs as full-time EPs. No occupant has served longer than six years.
“The loss of leadership in untimely ways has impacted this presbytery and wounded it very deeply,” De La Rosa said.
To many long-serving commissioners, this seeming instability in leadership has engendered much pain and grief, some stemming from the unfulfilled promise of these “short-term” EPs.
Another portion of the grief stems from the fatigue of a seemingly never-ending search process, while another portion concerns the wounds from disputes prompted by philosophical differences. These intramural squabbles occasionally bubble over and manifest themselves on the presbytery floor, frequently turning personal and always causing hurt feelings and bruised egos.
With a significant part of his job involved in the enabling of healing, De La Rosa believes that coming from LA gives him a slight edge on the healing process. Having that distance helps him to see the shared bond among commissioners ― their belief in and love of the Triune God.
This common love of God opens the door for a general discussion about what defines a presbytery.
Within the PNYC, there is a group of well-intentioned individuals who believe one particular set of markers defines their organization. Alongside them is another group of equally well-intentioned individuals whose definition is informed by a different set of markers. There is a third group who wants the other two sides to stop bickering so some business can actually be conducted.
This situation is not unique to the PNYC, De La Rosa said. Many presbyteries are in transition, looking at themselves in the context of the new Form of Government up for vote in the presbyteries and the Middle Governing Body Commission (appointed by the 2010 Assembly).
“Whether that will mean that they have a traditional head of staff/presbytery executive or they’ll have something else in that position, I think the (New York City) Presbytery deserves to have the fullest possible flexibility to determine for itself,” De La Rosa said.
The blood, sweat and tears of bricks and mortar
“What I’ve noticed about some congregations here in New York is that they are very hard to find,” De La Rosa said. Yet, a fair number of congregations stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.
The reason: decades of deferred building maintenance.
The PNYC is blessed with a rich history and tradition manifested in its church buildings, many dating back to the late 19th century.
On the other hand, a series of economic downturns have impacted congregations in different ways. Some churches are still recovering from New York City’s mid-1970’s economic woes. Others’ financial problems reach back to the Great Depression.
While deferred maintenance can leave its scar on a church’s exterior ― in some cases, sidewalk scaffolding has been erected not only to protect the community from pieces of falling facade but to help protect congregations from resultant lawsuits ― perhaps its deepest scar is scratched into the psyche of the congregation inside, the run-down condition acting as a silent “do not enter” sign.
“When I see the magnificent windows, (when) I see the magnificent architecture, it’s clear why people have the connection to what they have,” De La Rosa said. “It’s because they have experienced the Divine presence in a space that was created by magnificent artisans as a real glory to God. I get that. I affirm that. I understand that.”
But what happens when a building’s condition deteriorates so much that a congregation must leave it? This grief comes not from the congregation’s loss of its property but from the loss of its “home” for so many memories.
“The question is, does God ultimately call us to property management?” De La Rosa said.
Another possibility is sharing space.
“Many of our churches are already doing [shared space] and I’ve seen both good and really horrifically bad examples of this,” De La Rosa said.
In the PNYC, De La Rosa has high praise for a pair of congregations in the Bronx.
“Tremont and El Buen Pastor have this wonderful symbiotic relationship: Tremont has the property, El Buen Pastor the people and the energy,” he said. “They’re working together so there are prospects of shared space.”
In Queens, De La Rosa lifts up First Presbyterian Church in Flushing, “home to three PNYC congregations and a fourth congregation that’s not PC(USA).”
Another building issue nagging several neighborhoods in the PNYC is overcrowding ― fall-out from the era when New York City was more Protestant than it is today. In Manhattan, it was not uncommon for congregations to be born in the confines of narrowly drawn neighborhoods. De La Rosa points to the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, with “four congregations within spitting distance of each other.”
The mid-section of Manhattan is in the same quandary. Through a series of events in the 19th century ― new church development, “mission” congregations becoming “independent” congregations, migrations, mergers ― by the beginning of the 21st century, the four square miles surrounding Central Park was home to 14 Presbyterian churches, each on average a mere seven blocks away from the next.
With many congregations’ lives encountering movement and transition, De La Rosa said, “For me as a leader, one of the fundamental tasks of transitional ministry is to come to terms with history. Part of that involves servicing that history and saying ‘Folks, your predecessors did this already, with a vision towards a future. What makes you think now that future has stopped with you?”
One way PNYC is addressing this dilemma is to create new “niches” for existing congregations.
“This is the beauty of multiple congregations: we can offer a menu,” De La Rosa said. “I look at what’s happened at Central (on Park Avenue). We have determined that there is a need to fill a niche of conservative evangelical presence and provide it with a PC(USA) brand that will be affirming of women and will be in a place that is at least accessible and can serve as an important potential source of growth there, and it’s working, and they’re growing.”
At the other end of the spectrum, “Broadway (West 114th Street) which, ironically, for eons was ‘the conservative evangelical church of New York City Presbytery’ has gone in the other direction and has determined that it’s going to be a different kind of church with Columbia (University) across the way,” De La Rosa said.
“This is the beauty of creating these groups where, while we can be connectional, we still maintain an identity for ourselves,” he said, noting that he sees the PNYC as an extended family.
“So when we get together for our bi-monthly ‘family reunions’ (a.k.a. presbytery meetings), we can continue to live and affirm our common identity while maintaining our own individuality and our own authentic identity,” De La Rosa said.
He sees one quality of the presbytery that is “shockingly overlooked: the degree of commitment there is to the institution of the church within PNYC,” which he describes as very counter-cultural.
“Part of the struggle that manifests itself during our meetings is peoples’ passionate commitment to the institution of the church and those passions sometimes rubbing up against each other. A lot of people ― many people ― don’t have that degree of passionate commitment to the institution.”
De La Rosa sees this commitment as an extraordinarily powerful resource that can lead the presbytery back to wholeness. He would love to hold this up as a metaphorical mirror to the presbytery and ask “‘what does this tell you? This tells you something about your commitment to Christ and you share that! You may not all agree on what the features of the commitment call you to do and to be ― and that’s OK! But, you nevertheless have it and you’re prepared to continue on and, if that’s the case ― if you’re prepared to walk a little bit in the desert together ― there is a Promised Land. God has told us that!’”
De La Rosa characterizes conflict in the PYNC as “two hand grenades that I find people fling at each other with distressing frequency around here. One of them is the term ‘viability’ … the other one is ‘racism and racist.’ Neither of them has gone to any effort to explain what they mean when they fling that hand grenade.”
For those on the receiving end of the ‘viability’ charge, “that is questioning their entitlement to exist,” he said. “Conversely, when the term ‘racist’ is used, I think people have in mind some sort of racially motivated animus akin to overt bigotry.”
De La Rosa sees an opportunity to bring to bear his training as a teaching elder, “to provide people with some communicational tools to talk about what they’re really talking about instead of using these code words that are like little hand grenades that blow up because they tend to shut down conversation: questioning a congregation’s viability or questioning your membership in a non-viable congregation ― Boom! You’re saying that I or my group that I’m affiliated with does not merit existence ― Boom! Calling someone a racist and therefore ‘you’re akin to the Ku Klux Klan’ ― Boom!”
De La Rosa prefers to step back from labels and ask people how they see the bigger picture. Pulling the pin and running away have been easy-outs for too many conflicts, De La Rosa said. He sees the PNYC as lacking “the benefit of enough personal interaction in order to establish what a lot of other presbyteries have established: a certain cultural ‘norm’ for the presbytery that everybody buys into.”
De La Rosa’s interim appeal is simple: “Guys, let’s drop with the rule-making and the power to say ‘no.’ Let’s provide the grace for us to be the Church that God wants us to be.”
Jim Nedelka is a radio news reporter in New York and an elder at West-Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.