Leadership, by its most basic definition, includes the ability to see beyond what those following cannot yet see. Vision, foresight, planning and protecting your organization from avoidable pitfalls are part of being a leader. Good leaders generally want to make decisions that result in organizational health and growth — and avoid catastrophe. All of which makes the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s appointment of Tony de la Rosa so curious, especially in light of the moderator’s “call to the church” for immediate action.
It all happened in a matter of 30 minutes on Wednesday.
To understand what transpired requires a brief survey of the players. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a body with many parts and several heads. The three heads in this narrative are:
- the Stated Clerk, who is the head of the Office of the General Assembly,
- the Moderator, who is the head of the General Assembly, and
- the Executive Director, who is the head of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
These are the three people who “speak” for the denomination. It is over their signatures that letters are sent to the President of the United States, Congress, the media and other denominations. One of those heads, Linda Valentine, resigned from the position of Executive Director in June. The Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, is now a lame duck following his announcement that he will not seek another term. Which leaves the Moderator, Heath Rada, who is mid-way through his two year term and still confident that the bridges he promised to build in a divided denomination are possible.
Rada ran for moderator on a platform of bridge-building. I believe he sincerely desires for the denomination to find peace and move beyond its current intractable problem: divergent understandings of the Gospel, divergent understandings of Biblical authority, divergent understandings of moral and ethical behavior, divergent understandings of the relative freedom of conscience, and divergent understandings of the right role of the church in politically partisan advocacy. Bridging those chasms takes more than the will of one man, even when that man is the Moderator.
Which is why Rada’s heartfelt “Call to the Church” is so important. He is right in his observations that this is a critical time in the life of the PCUSA. The decisions and actions made in the coming months will either turn the proverbial tide or accelerate the current slide into irrelevance.
Rada’s message was received with a standing ovation from all who heard it at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s meeting. But what happened next? Did the chair suspend the agenda and create space for the consideration of the moderator’s proposal? No. Did someone rise to make a motion that would actually produce some action? No. What happened instead was more like a gut punch for those who might have been hoping for the PMAB to “get it.”
Couched in the language of hope, the Chair of the PMAB, Marilyn Gamm, announced the appointment of Interim Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency: Tony de la Rosa.
Toward the end of four hours of Cultural Humility Training on the day following the announcement, PMAB member Marcella (Marci) Auld Glass of Boise, Idaho said “When Tony was being introduced it never crossed my mind that he was gay … in the materials that have been released announcing his appointment that has been lifted up.” She continued that it is “still important to claim things that are good and important, even in churches that will not be happy about it. There’s no need to keep that news quiet.”
From what I’m already hearing, she’s right: churches are not happy. It is one thing for individual clergy to have the right to perform or not perform same-sex marriages and for local church sessions to retain the right to authorize the use of specific church property. But when the Presbyterian Mission Agency allows the denomination’s Chapel to be used for a gay wedding and then turns right around and appoints a married gay man to the highest corporate post in the church, little room remains for those who want to argue that the PCUSA has not demonstrably taken a pro-LGBTQ position.
Ears to hear for those who follow this cadre of leaders
How does the appointment of de la Rosa line up with the Moderator’s call to the church for radical reformation? Which depends on how you choose to hear what the what he said.
What did you hear when the Moderator said, “Not having a permanent current CEO in our Presbyterian Mission Agency, and having a Stated Clerk who is not going to seek reelection, has offered us a Kairos moment which is unique”?
The appointment of de la Rosa indicates that the PMAB intends to fill the vacuum of leadership with strong advocacy in one direction.
And what did you hear when he said, “We are indeed facing a crisis where there is lack of trust across the church. This is manifested in many ways but includes – departing congregations, confused members concerning who we are as the PCUSA…”?
The PMAB’s action in appointing de la Rosa gave those confused members great clarity about who the PCUSA is at the national corporate level.
Rada rightly observed that “there is a disconnect between what members feel is happening at the national and even the Middle Judicatory levels.” He astutely observed that “many people across the Church … believe that ‘Louisville’ is out of touch with them and that there is not an effective system in place for us to ‘be the church.'” That disconnect and that sense of Louisville being out of touch just widened significantly on Wednesday.
Bridging chasms that grew wider Wednesday
The challenge of bridge-building was hard when Rada took the job of moderator in 2014. It has gotten more difficult since. And now, well, without God it would be impossible. But that’s where God does His best His work.
So, Mr. Moderator, we’re “in” with you on this one. If there’s a hope-filled future for the PCUSA that’s faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and glorifies God, I for one will fan the flame of that reformation.