Q&A with Tony De La Rosa

Presbyterian Mission Agency interim executive director ‘humbled beyond measure’ at appointment

September 23, 2015

LOUISVILLE

The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board today announced the appointment of Luis Antonio (Tony) De La Rosa as the interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, one of six independent agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

De La Rosa is expected to begin his role Dec. 1, 2015. The term of his tenure has not been announced, although Marilyn Gamm, chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, has indicated the interim may serve up to three years. The permanent executive director of the Mission Agency must be confirmed by the General Assembly, which meets every two years.

Presbyterian News Service conducted an email interview with De La Rosa prior to the announcement of his appointment. The questions and his unedited responses are contained below.

1. What is it that attracted you to this interim executive director position at the Presbyterian Mission Agency? Why did you want to take it?

Tackling these questions in reverse order, I did not seek out this position; it sought me! Denominational colleagues reached out to me and asked that I allow my name to be considered. After consultation with friends and a great deal of prayer, I agreed to initiate discussions with PMA Board Chair Marilyn Gamm and members of the PMA Board’s executive committee about the possibility of serving as interim executive director.

My sense of call leads me toward opportunities within the church that make use of my training in both law and theology. I believe that the opportunity to serve the PMA as interim executive director at this pivotal time in its history permits me to exercise my training and my gifts. I am humbled beyond measure to be asked to lead the PMA into the next phase of its history as the coordinated mission expression of the PC(USA).

2. You have a history of being an interim. Why do you choose to serve the church in this way? What's the appeal?

Throughout my professional career—both as an attorney and as a church executive—I have been called to serve and to lead organizations facing the need to make deep change in their structure or mission. These are all places where I believe God has led me, and I have responded by honing my skills to address anxiety and fear of the future by to promoting creative, hope-filled thinking and institutional visioning. Few things bring me greater joy than seeing organizations that I have led continue to grow and thrive following my departure.

3. What's your management style and approach to coming into a position like this?

I believe the standard response to this question is “collegial and approachable,” and I would seek to uphold that description. In my case, however, I have had the benefit of getting to know a considerable number of PMA Board and staff members as part of my participation in the life, ministry and witness of the PC(USA). My pre-existing relationships with these longstanding church colleagues allow me the chance to affirm my intention to lead the whole of the PMA a high level of respect, openness and honesty that already marks the interactions I enjoy with these sisters and brothers in Christ.

4. What are your priorities for your first 90 days?

I expect that some matters will require my immediate attention as directed by the PMA Board and/or operational needs. Aside from these pressing concerns, however, I plan to be:

  • Listening carefully to the voices of those who have served the church within PMA to hear their fears and concerns and immediately address any misinformation.
  • Educating myself on the operations of the PMA and do a “deep dive” into the agency’s financial statements to ascertain hidden threats and potential resources.
  • Engaging colleagues in the other PC(USA)-related corporate entities to ascertain best practices and possible areas of administrative resource sharing.
  • In conjunction with the PMA Board, begin developing a set of organizational priorities that will shape operational directions for reporting to the 2016 General Assembly.
  • Carving out space for my own personal spiritual practice and holy discernment—seeking out some intentional, peace-filled, quiet time to hear God speaking to me and to the church.

5. You have an interesting and diverse background - what makes you uniquely qualified for this job?

I have been graced with both life experiences and skills that I hope to use to the greater glory of God. My Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage links me to the fastest growing demographic group in the USA: Latin Americans, who remain painfully under-represented within mainline Protestant witness, including Presbyterianism. My academic training in both theology and law enables me to lead organizations in discerning their core spiritual values while also being able to address the implementation of those values. My experience as an openly gay Christian has afforded me a view of both the worst and very best elements of church life, and the overarching, ever-present love of God in my life.

6. What do you see as your main challenges in this interim period?

As with any interim engagement, addressing anxiety over impending changes is a core task for leadership. I sense that the PMA is rife with institutional anxiety, in part connected to its precarious financial condition and in part connected to perceived denominational lack of support for “those folks in Louisville.” In order to hear what God wants of us, we need to reduce some of the emotional background noise that undermines our ability to listen for guidance, so one of my challenges will be to diminish the sense of dread and restore some semblance of hope in what God has in store for us in the years ahead.

7. Will you be tasked with making tough staffing decisions or will you be making recommendations to the board?

Yes, and yes. All positions of senior management usually require some responsibility for making tough staffing decisions, and I am no stranger to making those difficult determinations in my career. In the case of the PMA, those decisions will be made in alignment with the mission focus and policy directives set by the Board. I will almost certainly play a role in providing important data and research to the Board to enable them to make strong foundational determinations that will guide most staffing decisions thereafter.

8. Even though it is anticipated you’ll have to make difficult decisions, what can the PC(USA) and those who work with you most look forward to during your interim period?

My fervent prayer is that this interim time will be seen as one that open and accessible, willing to be held accountable, free from any destructive bias, and above all, attuned to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in addressing the remarkable changes that are re-shaping our denomination and the Church as a whole.

9. What are you most hopeful about in the PC(USA) and specifically the Presbyterian Mission Agency?

The narrative arc of scripture describes the journey of the people of Israel through multiple instances of challenge and catastrophe. Yet, despite all odds, God prevails! My sincere hope is that the saints of Christ’s church will come to an understanding that transitions can be a time of planting new seeds on fallow ground. We might not be able to experience all the fruit those seeds will bear, but they will be no less a part of a God’s sacred story and divine plan for the church.

Without any doubt in my mind, the PC(USA) will continue be a presence seeking to exhibit the kingdom of heaven to world, and they will do so with their broad-based, overarching sense of mission front and center in response Christ’s call. That mission will necessitate organization, coordination and accountability, and no entity is better equipped to pursue those objectives on a denomination-wide level than the PMA.

10. How long do you expect to fill the position of interim executive director?

My expectation is that the discernment work of this interim period will require approximately one to three years of focused activity on transitional tasks. Precisely how long an interim executive director is needed to enable that work is within the purview of the PMA Board to determine.

11. I read that you are a lifelong Presbyterian, please tell me about the faith formation you received and how it led to your call and service in the church?

The church was a very central of my part of my life growing up. As a young boy, my mother taught me to read using the Psalms as my primer. By the time I went to kindergarten, I was able to read selections back to her. By the age of five, I wanted to be a minister. By the age of twelve, I wanted to be a lawyer. By the age of nineteen, I felt called to do both.

The church of my childhood in northeast Los Angeles eventually closed, and I became a member of Calvary Presbyterian Church in South Pasadena, California in 1980. The Calvary congregation nurtured my sense of call to ministry and supported my pursuit of both a M.Div. and J.D. degree from Yale University.

I was also under care of the Presbytery of San Gabriel for ordination to the ministry. I served on several presbytery committees and briefly was a pulpit supply [pastor] for a small Hispanic congregation. In 1994, the San Gabriel CPM unilaterally removed me as a candidate, claiming I was “not serious about pursuing a call.” The following year, San Gabriel Presbytery proposed the overture to the General Assembly in Albuquerque that eventually became G-6.0106b [removal of “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” from ordination standards] in the old Form of Government.

In 1996, Calvary ordained me as an elder, an office I am honored to hold to this day. Shortly thereafter, I was elected to serve as a charter member of the Advisory Committee on Litigation for the Office of the General Assembly, and have since served on a number of denominational committees.

In 2001, I transferred to Immanuel Presbyterian Church, a multi-cultural, Spanish-English bilingual congregation in the heart of Los Angeles. I was an elder in active service for six years, and served as Clerk of Session at Immanuel for eight. In 2010, I was called as the Interim Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of New York, and completed my service in 2013. In 2014, I began my service as Interim at Newport Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Washington, and was formally commissioned to service as an Interim Lay Pastor by the Presbytery of Seattle in May of this year.

12. What are some important benchmarks on your faith journey? In life?

Apart from the church service history I have recited above, two major benchmarks have shaped my life in ways that will always give thanks to God for allowing me to experience. The first was the opportunity to receive an education at one of the nation’s top college preparatory schools, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. The education I received at Andover shaped everything I have done thereafter, and I am grateful to the generosity of that institution for having had a measure of faith in a gawky, Latino kid from northeast L.A.

The second—in chronology, but not priority—was my meeting Michael Bendgen in the summer of 2007. He has shown me abundant love, support, and patience as I have pursued my sense of call in the PC(USA) throughout the United States, and he still liked me enough to want to marry me last June. He is a gift of God to me, and I am blessed by his wonderful presence in my life.

13. How do you understand the function and goals of the PMA and the national denominational structure? Does it need to change and, if so, how should it be configured to meet those goals?

The PMA exists as the fundamental mission expression of the PC(USA) in our nation and in the world. It does so by coordinating and resourcing the ministries of the congregations and mid councils of the Church. As a Reformed body of faith, “change” is our middle name, and no church structure or agency should see itself as immune to change, including the PMA.

Changes within our society, I believe, are leading Christian witness into a time akin to that described in the Book of Acts: a polyglot collection of faith options in urban settings existing in a time of worldwide instability and anxiety. The Book of Acts describes how the young church navigated the challenging social settings of its day. Today’s church needs to meet similar challenges with creativity and grace. Our 1001 New Worshipping Communities initiative is one example of an effective program designed to meet the shifting needs of a new generation of seekers. PMA needs more such effective programming to respond to the changing needs of today’s people of faith.

14. You were one of the early advocates for the PC(USA)’s acceptance of LGBT clergy. How does the new language in the Book of Order and the decision of the Supreme Court affect the church’s mission and voice on the issue of marriage?

Thank you for the exceedingly kind compliment regarding my advocacy, but I stand on the shoulders of giants of the faith who labored prophetically and ceaselessly for decades to declare Christ’s love for all and bring us to where we are as today as a denomination. All LGBT church officers in the PC(USA), and not just clergy, are forever in their debt.

With respect to the Book of Order and Supreme Court’s descriptions of the solemnization of marriage, I note that both go out of their way to protect the religious scruples of those who may disagree on extending the rite to same-sex couples. Both our denomination and our country can embrace a marked diversity of opinions on this issue. We can be gracious in the face of such diversity, honor different perspectives, and support one another in the face of either attack or misapplication of principles that we all hold dear.

15. There is still disagreement over new language in the Book of Order and the laws recognizing same-gender marriage. As an openly gay man, do anticipate any resistance to your appointment and how would you answer critics?

In professional work within the Church—both in New York and in Seattle—I have been blessed with nothing but respect and courtesy from those who might be otherwise discomfited by my service. The exceptions have been exceedingly few. Based on my experience, the PCUSA today can serve as a demonstration to the country and to the world how people of faith can disagree and remain sisters and brothers in Christ, an exemplar sorely needed in the face of extremism and tumult over issues of public policy and social witness.

In my work within the Church, I have attempted to support and honor the views of others who may disagree with me with the same degree of respect and courtesy I have been shown. I would advise those anxious of what my appointment might entail to contact like-minded colleagues in New York or Seattle and hear from them directly whether my work has ever served to undermine their theological perspectives or ministries.

16. You’re the first openly gay person, and just the second Latino, to take the helm of the mission agency or its predecessor bodies. Do you see your appointment as historic for the PC(USA)? What does it mean for others who have historically not held the highest positions in the church?

The first Latino mission agency leader was the Rev. Frank Diaz, who served as interim executive director of the then General Assembly Council [a PMA predecessor body] in the mid-1990s between the directorships of the Rev. James D. Brown and John Detterick.

Every appointment of this nature represents a further shattering of the glass ceiling that continues to limit access to leadership for so many. I pray that my appointment signals to traditionally disenfranchised persons that the church of Reformed faith can indeed be reformed, that it can embrace change, welcome the outcast, and honor the face of Christ in all God’s people.

 17. Anything else you would like to add?

I am a strong believer in the power of prayer. I earnestly covet the prayers of all my sisters and brothers in the PC(USA), not just for me, but also for the Board and staff of the PMA during this interim time. They are all remarkable saints who labor daily to fulfill God’s will for the church of Jesus Christ.