Tony De La Rosa started work as the interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency in December 2015. Outlook reporter Leslie Scanlon sat down with him recently for a conversation about priorities and initial impressions. This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Q: Since you got here, what’s been the hardest thing you’ve done and the most fun thing you’ve done?
A: “The most fun thing I have done is become a season subscriber to Actors Theatre (of Louisville). I love theatre, and it’s wonderful to get a chance to be a part of that again.”
The most difficult thing was structuring a voluntary separation package being offered to eligible staff members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. De La Rosa described that package as complex to construct, involving a series of interlocking decisions. “That was a bigger project than I think most people recognize. Let me say that I sure as heck did not make those decisions in a vacuum. I was extraordinarily well served by the folks in both legal and human resources.”
Q: Why did you want to take what some people might consider sort of an impossible job?
A: “There are a number of reasons that are drivers for me. One of them has been a lifelong passion for service to the church. For the entirety of my adult life I have been in service in some way to the church. So this is entirely consistent with a personally held value of commitment and dedication” to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “I also felt that I brought to the table a number of skills I had developed in having been a corporate litigator; having been the executive director of another nonprofit, a legal services nonprofit that required a major turnaround; being in-house (counsel) in a public entity that provided health care to low-income individuals. Having been a mid council executive, a presbytery executive. And having served a parish in an interim setting as well. All of those experiences without a doubt I have had to call upon during my time here. I suspected that would be the case. I didn’t realize it would be quite that quick.”
Q: Have there been any really big surprises since you got here, things you didn’t really anticipate?
A: “The surprising thing for me since the moment of my arrival has been the joy that I’ve seen expressed by people in the building.” Both the mission agency and the larger church are experiencing “institutional anxieties about change – (being) not sure where the change is leading, or the role in this new church that God is calling us to live into. But despite all those anxieties, there are just some incredible expressions of sheer joy throughout this building. And it’s not presented for my benefit. I see it in some of the Facebook postings of folks who are here who lift up their work sometimes, sometimes their families. There is a hopefulness and a joy that I don’t think people credit us with. There’s this sense that somehow it’s so difficult and so burdensome (to work for the Presbyterian Mission Agency) – they liken this, I think sometimes, to a salt mine. That’s far from the case. There is some real joy.”
Q: What were your takeaways from the Presbyterian Mission Agency review committee report, which talked about the atmosphere at the national offices being tense and anxious?
A: “The (Presbyterian Mission Agency) board is going to be undertaking the formal response to the specific recommendations. So I don’t want to step into their purview. I think the folks on the review committee, who include a lot of friends of mine by the way, did a very thorough job of lifting up issues that the agency needs to focus on going forward. And I think … we’ve been undertaking some initiatives that actually address some of those issues going forward.
“An example has to do with the spiritual life. I have observed since my being here that chapel has been meaningful and well attended. We’ve had extraordinarily meaningful Advent, Epiphany and, just this past week, Martin Luther King observances in our chapel that have been really powerful and significant. … The good work of the committee needs to be honored and respected because they were quite thorough. The board will make specific comment.”
Q: As the PC(USA) discusses restructuring, why do you think this matters to people? Why talk about restructuring?
A: “You learn in interim ministry that during times of adaptive changes in the life of institutions, people keep wanting to restructure their way around the adaptive changes that are coming. And I think that’s what we’re experiencing. The key is using some of that energy for restructuring to creating new institutions that respond to the adaptive changes. That’s where we live into hope.”
Q: So whatever the structure ends up being, you still have to have adaptive change?
A: “The church that is undergoing a change right now, that is being transformed in new ways right now, the structure that is in place will need to respond appropriately to that evolved church. And I think I’m guided in that perception by my reading of the book of Acts. Because the social environment of the Book of Acts is one pretty much akin to what we’re facing. A polyglot society that is multiethnic and people who are hungry for meaning and relevance in life and searching out community as a way of capturing meaning for their life. How can Christendom fill that role? And how can Presbyterian expressions of Christendom fill that role?
“1001 New Worshipping Communities are taking that issue head on and are doing so in some incredibly creative, insightful ways. One of my personal hopes going forward with the adoption of the Mission Work Plan is that instead of looking at the church resourcing the growth and development of new worshipping communities, that we look to new worshipping communities to resource existing congregations that are struggling, trying to figure out how the church is changing. … They have lessons, I think, to teach the rest of us.”
Q: What role do you see Presbyterians playing in addressing institutional racism and white privilege, both inside the church and outside of it? What would you call the church to in addressing racism?
A: “It wouldn’t be me calling the church, it would be the church calling itself. And in some ways it already has done that by the humongous response (the Confession of ) Belhar has received in the vote from the presbyteries. And the language of Belhar is very clear in terms of calling the church to embrace a different reality for itself. If and when the General Assembly votes to include Belhar in the Book of Confessions, I think it will be important for us an agency to respond to that initiative and to hold up what the church has declared it truly believes and to help it to live into that.”
The Mission Work Plan for 2017-2018, which the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board approved on Feb. 4, includes language in its directional goals which De La Rosa thinks will be helpful, such as this: “Galvanize the church to act on issues of racism, violence and poverty as a prophetic witness to Christ’s transforming justice.”
De La Rosa said he hopes that all levels of the church can “begin to capture for themselves a vision that is far more inclusive than what our demographics indicate. I have to remind people every now and then that for the entirety of millennial existence, the Mickey Mouse Club has been diverse. And I say that because for another generation of another time, which largely populates our church, that wasn’t true. So if Disney corporation, just to take an example, is recognizing the direction of society and a targeted constituency that we want to reach, then we should take some cues about what is the face we present, and present that in some very intentional ways.”
Q: In addition to presenting a diverse face, what is the importance of naming the areas in which Presbyterians may be complicit in institutional racism individually or as a denomination?
A: “That’s also said in our directional goals, that we “witness to Christ’s transforming justice by speaking and living out God’s truth and compassion as we call ourselves and the world to account for injustice and oppression.”
Q: We’re entering a presidential season that’s divisive on every level. What role do you see congregations and Presbyterians playing at a time like that? On controversial issues, what role do you see the denomination playing?
A: “In a secular society that labels issues as political and controversial, the scriptural witness is unwavering on those topics. Hunger is an issue in Scripture to which we’re called to respond. Homelessness is an issue in Scripture to which we are called to respond. The oppression of the widow and the orphan is an issue in Scripture to which we are called to respond. There may be political ramifications to those responses, but that doesn’t mean Scripture doesn’t call us to respond on those things. And I think an initiative that the Office of the General Assembly has taken, with strong General Assembly mandate as well as our history, has been on the issue of welcoming the refugees. In certain quarters, no doubt that is controversial. Even in some self-identified Presbyterian corners. That doesn’t mean we don’t speak when we have the clear call of Scripture that undergirds that witness.”
Q: Is there any word you want to offer as the PC(USA) moves in the process of budget cutting and potentially downsizing the national staff? It’s a time of stress and tension, when the message is that the national church can’t be all things to all people, and probably can’t keep doing all the things it has been doing. What guiding voice do you offer to people in that?
A: “I do not dispute that God has gifted human kind with immense creativity. That because we may not be able to undertake certain ministries in the way that we have done them before, using the resources we have had before, does not mean that we cannot utilize the resources we’ve been given in other contexts to accomplish those ends. So it may be that a full-time, funded, benefits-eligible individual accomplishing mission on mission objective X can no longer be funded. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have networks that take up the mantle because they feel the passion behind that. One of the benefits of Presbyterian polity is the fact that any new burden we experience as a church gets shared in leadership, can be shared in leadership because we have that collective polity, that collective witness. That I think is a strength we bring. That’s our strength as a denomination, that we don’t just have lay volunteers, we ordain them to ministry and esteem and honor that ministry no less than anyone who has been to a seminary. And so encouraging the church as a whole and particularly its lay officers to come and step on up … is one message I think I’d want to send to the church.”
Q: Is there anything about Tony De La Rosa that people don’t know that you’d like them to?
A: I was a Jeopardy champion. No, you cannot find that tape anywhere. I’m sure it got burned up in a fire. November 1985.”