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De La Rosa pens open letter of concern to Way Forward Commission

Urges group to engage in ‘deeper, intentional conversation’ with PMA

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Tony De La Rosa.

LOUISVILLE – Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), issued an open letter outlining concerns regarding the thematic emphases and continued work of the Way Forward Commission, especially as it relates to the PMA. De La Rosa said in a statement to press the letter “does not represent the official position of the Mission Agency or its Board of Directors,” and that he wrote the letter in his “individual capacity” as interim head of the PMA.

The letter addresses the PMA’s charter as the mission arm of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the role and definition of “shared services,” the possible dismantling of the PMA and De La Rosa’s request for further engagement between the PMA and the Way Forward Commission.

Claiming no “personal vested interest in the outcome” of the Way Forward Commission’s conclusions due to his contracted departure as interim executive director by the end of November 2017, De La Rosa challenged reports from the Commission that PC(USA) national entities have not been adaptive to the needs of the 21st century. Saying the General Assembly “determines precisely for the PMA what the Church needs today,” he noted the 222nd General Assembly’s (2016) adoption of the PMA mission work plan and the addition of other mission tasks, specifically those related to the adoption of the Confession of Belhar.

De La Rosa continued by calling attention to the Way Forward Commission’s focus on “shared services” as a “perceived structural defect in the PMA operations.” De La Rosa asserted there is confusion within the Commission about the specific ministry area known as Shared Services and the “broader category of ‘common services,’ the more traditionally administrative functions that secular nonprofit corporations report as overhead expense on IRS Form 990s.”

Asking, “What is the problem you hope to solve?” De La Rosa cautioned the Commission “against the age-old practice of seeking to address present day conflicts that may be personality-driven through imposition of structural ‘solutions’ that endure for years on end.”

Saying he has been made aware that an “informal conversation is taking place about the possibility of breaking up the programmatic arms of the PMA into smaller, stand-alone units connected to congregational and mid-council networks of support,” De La Rosa urged the Commission to see the functions of the PMA working as “many parts, but one interdependent body,” especially in regards to the roles advocacy, formation and theological efforts play in the larger church.

De La Rosa’s final request is for “deeper, intentional conversation” with leaders and staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Saying the Commission’s internet surveys and social media forums are “not intentional conversations with the subjects of your work,” he urged the Commission to meet with staff and leadership of the PMA during their planned September 18-19 meeting at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

“I observe that the Commission in its desire to reach out to the larger Church has assiduously avoided meeting near the Presbyterian Center,” he said. “While I understand the positive intent behind this move, it has unintentionally conveyed a willingness to ‘talk about’ but not ‘talk with’ the PMA leadership and staff, whose years of experience and expertise could inform your work.”

De La Rosa’s letter was delivered as the Way Forward Commission continues work on its mid-term report, expected some time between its June 27 conference call and another conference call scheduled for August.

UPDATE 4:10 PM EDT: The Rev. Mark Hostetter, moderator of the Way Forward Commission, sent an email to PNS this afternoon, saying, “The commission has received [De La Rosa’s] letter today, is grateful for Tony’s perspective, and will take his comments into consideration.”

The full text of De La Rosa’s letter is contained below.

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Dear Friends:

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

I write to you to offer my thoughts and concerns about your Commission’s process and potential proposals under your consideration. I do this in my individual capacity as the Interim Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), drawing on my observations of the work performed here since my arrival in December 2015. None of my comments should be read as official statements of the PMA or its Board of Directors.

The focus of this communication lies in four areas:

  • The PMA as the General Assembly’s mission arm
  • The role of “shared services”
  • The possible dismantling of Presbyterian Mission
  • Request for deeper, intentional conversation

As the interim leader of the PMA whose term of service will conclude on or before the end of November of this year, I note that I do not have a personal vested interest in the outcome of your Commission’s determinations and actions regarding the future structure of our national offices other than as a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) committed to seeing its mission of service to Jesus Christ continue with faithfulness and integrity. In this spirit, I offer my comments below.

 Foundational Matters: Meeting the Needs of the Church Today

A persistent mantra governing much of the Commission’s deliberations to date has been that national church structures are somehow failing to meet the needs of the whole denomination. For example, news reports of the Commission’s March 2017 meeting discussions included the statement “We’re working with a mid-20th century model that’s not meeting the needs for the church we’ve become. There have not been enough adaptive changes in our church to meet the needs of the church we’ve become.”

I do not question that the Church of the 21st century has been and is still undergoing considerable change. Christian congregations of all stripes throughout the United States are confronting major demographic shifts, including changes in ethnic, social and religious identification. These challenges are real. As a denomination that seeks to respond to the needs of all of God’s people, we need to bring our creativity and our energy in addressing these changing needs.

Obviously, the national agencies of the Presbyterian Church are not the cause of these larger societal changes, but likewise the national agencies are not solely responsible for addressing them. As congregations experience declines in active members and financial revenues, every person professing faithfulness both to Christ and the larger Christian community must commit to facing the seemingly adverse impacts of larger socio-demographic changes with which we are confronted. The responsibility for this effort is incumbent on all faithful Christians, not just church agencies.

As the mission arm of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, the PMA is afforded both the responsibility and privilege of responding to the church’s needs as expressed through the voice of our denomination’s chief legislative body. We do not and will not turn aside General Assembly directives out of deference to other presumed stakeholders. The 222nd General Assembly (2016) adopted our current Mission Work Plan and expressly recognized our role “to be faithful stewards of God’s blessings by focusing only on what the Church needs from the national church today, using the unique resources of the Presbyterian Mission Agency” (emphasis added). The Assembly then directed us to pursue a broad array of mission efforts, with most of their actions directing us to pursue racial justice initiatives that called us into living out the vision of the denomination’s newest creedal statement, the Confession of Belhar. It is the Assembly that determines precisely for the PMA what the Church needs today, and every two years, we as an agency are instructed on those needs and are directed to respond accordingly.

The chief arbiter of what the Church needs today therefore is the General Assembly, as the denomination’s highest legislative and representational body. If the Commission feels the PMA needs to take direction from some other body, then that is a broader constitutional discussion that would necessitate a great deal of church-wide engagement and discussion. I would welcome the Commission leading these efforts. (See, e.g., BOO G-3.0501.)

Way Forward’s Focus on “Shared Services”

Another persistent element of the Commission’s deliberations to date has been an extraordinary degree of focus on the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s “shared services.” Although Commission members profess confusion about precisely what is meant by the term “shared services,” they nevertheless appear committed to addressing some perceived structural defect in the PMA operations by either transferring, abandoning or substantively reconfiguring PMA’s “shared services,” whatever they may be. The term Shared Services refers to a specific ministry area within the Presbyterian Center. The Commission’s general use of this term has only served to further confuse and stress an already anxious organization.

Some of the confusion arises from the Commission’s odd degree of non-engagement of Presbyterian Center staff in general — and PMA senior leadership in particular — that might have provided helpful background on PMA’s internal structure and operation in relation to other church bodies early in the Commission’s process. PMA’s Shared Services consists of administrative functions under the aegis of the Office of the Deputy Executive Director/Chief Financial Officer, namely:

  • Finance & Accounting Services
  • Information Technology
  • Presbyterian Center Building Services
  • Print/Mail Center
  • Presbyterian Distribution Services/Hubbard Press

Judging from the reports on the Commission’s deliberations to date, I do not believe these five sets of administrative services are the sole focus of the voiced concerns.

Perhaps what is intended is the PMA’s broader category of “common services,” the more traditionally administrative functions that secular nonprofit corporations report as overhead expense on IRS Form 990s. Applying this standard would cover additional areas of administration, most reporting ultimately to the Office of the Executive Director:

  • Policy Administration and Board Support
  • Human Resources
  • Internal Audit
  • Legal Services
  • Research Services
  • Risk Management

Taken collectively, these “common services” are routinely accessed by Presbyterian constituents, both within the Presbyterian Center and throughout the denomination.

Increasingly, two other broad areas of corporate functions are being accessed for services by Presbyterian constituents. The PMA’s Communications Department oversees the production and publication of promotional material on all aspects of Presbyterian missional witness, including those done in partnership with mid councils and congregations. In addition, PMA’s Mission Engagement and Support ministry is expressly charged to work with mid councils and congregations, providing both access to resources and opportunities to engage in mission service and support.

Apparently, some Commission members (and perhaps some Presbyterian stakeholders who bend their ears) feel that maintaining the current configuration of both administrative and program services with the PMA somehow privileges the former or necessarily undermines the latter. The Apostle Paul cautioned against this very type of divide in addressing the organizational strains within the Corinthian church. In I Corinthians 12:14-18, Paul noted,

14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose.

For the PMA, the failure to embrace the necessary tensions between the administrative and program functions disadvantages both areas of ministry. Note that I intentionally apply the term “ministry” to both areas because of our Reformed understanding of church authority and leadership. As noted in the Confession of 1967 (¶9.40):

The church thus orders its life as an institution with a constitution, government, officers, finances, and administrative rules. These are instruments of mission, not ends in themselves. Different orders have served the gospel, and none can claim exclusive validity. A Presbyterian polity recognizes the responsibility of all members for ministry and maintains the organic relation of all congregations in the church. It seeks to protect the church from exploitation by ecclesiastical or secular power and ambition. Every church order must be open to such reformation as may be required to make it a more effective instrument of the mission of reconciliation.

As Presbyterians, we also readily acknowledge that “councils may err” and that no specific form of corporate organization serves God and the Church perfectly. We embrace changes that would truly serve the larger Church, especially during a time of great societal changes I described earlier. I would caution the Commission, however, against the age-old practice of seeking to address present-day conflicts that may be personality-driven through imposition of structural “solutions” that endure for years on end, engendering a greater degree of adverse collateral impact than a direct engagement of individuals would have more readily resolved. It would be beneficial for us all if the Commission would clearly identify and articulate the specific problem that it seeks to address. In a word: What is the problem you hope to solve, and how will the 21st century church be better served by the ostensible solution?

Nevertheless, if the Commission determines that reconfiguring some of the listed administrative services would somehow benefit the Church in the future, it would be helpful to identify exactly which services are to be subject to such reconfiguration or disengagement from Presbyterian mission. The Commission should consider that all of the listed administrative services would require financial resources to continue, and any entity charged to undertake these functions should be made aware of the precise amount of the financial commitment the transferred responsibilities may entail.

The Dismantling of Presbyterian Mission

Although Commission members have been quite circumspect in their public pronouncements about what steps would take place following a shift of administrative responsibilities, I have been made aware that informal conversation is taking place about the possibility of breaking up the programmatic arms of the PMA into smaller, stand-alone units connected to congregational and mid-council networks of support. The apparent rationale of this breakup is to foster greater “efficiencies” within Church mission programming, connecting constituencies of support more closely with individual areas of ministry that interest them. Several current PMA programs are likely to survive such a breakup, given their access to such dedicated financial sources of support. Among these are, at present:

  • Congregational Ministries Publishing
  • Presbyterian Disaster Assistance
  • World Mission
  • 1001 New Worshiping Communities

Because such a breakup would entail the abandonment of Shared Mission giving, those programs relying solely or primarily on the unrestricted funding provided through Shared Mission support would cease to exist, including:

  • Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries
  • Much of Theology, Formation and Evangelism Ministries
  • Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations

Other advocacy and service programs might also be placed at risk, depending on whether or not Special Offerings would continue to be received and managed under this deconstructed mode of engaging in national mission.

Again, none of these ministries-at-risk were developed in a vacuum. Here again, we are many parts, but one interdependent body. World Mission relies on advocacy efforts at the United Nations. 1001 New Worshiping Communities’ greatest constituency is among racial/ethnic communities. These are programs created by General Assembly mandates past and directives present to the PMA as its mission arm. The Commission would need to advise both the Assembly and the larger Church how future mission directives would be implemented in such a deconstructed environment if the Commission contemplates fully dismantling national Presbyterian Mission as we know it today.

A Request for Deeper, Intentional Conversation

Many of the points raised in this letter should neither be new nor come as a surprise to members of the Commission. I have shared them informally in the past, both with members of the Commission and with PMA senior leadership. I memorialize them now in this letter in a desire to see that my perspectives are both communicated formally and considered seriously as the Commission proceeds in its work in the coming months preceding the submission of its report to the 223rd General Assembly. If I have misstated anything under consideration by the Commission, I welcome the opportunity to be corrected in the intentional conversations with the Commission.

As I noted above, I believe one major area lacking in the Commission’s desire for broad-based input on its work has been from the very subjects of their examination, namely, the leaders and staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency itself. I observe that the Commission in its desire to reach out to the larger Church has assiduously avoided meeting near the Presbyterian Center. While I understand the positive intent behind this move, it has unintentionally conveyed a willingness to “talk about” but not “talk with” the PMA leadership and staff, whose years of experience and expertise could inform your work.

I therefore invite your Commission to remedy this perceived slight by utilizing one day – just one – of your planned meeting at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in September to meet at the Presbyterian Center so that the affected staff may observe and communicate their perspectives and concerns to you directly.

Previous calls for dialogue have been made exclusively in the context of broad public forums, such as social media platforms and denominational surveys. While these may be insightful for external input, these are not intentional conversations with the subjects of your work. A visit to consult with the exceedingly hard-working saints who labor day and night to serve Christ at the Presbyterian Center would both honor them and lend greater credibility to your difficult work ahead. I am happy to assist you in setting up any such visit. I look forward to the fulfillment of the long-promised pledge to engage the PMA in direct, intentional conversation.

In conclusion, I request the Commission:

  • Engage in a deeper intentional conversation with PMA leadership and staff in Louisville to address each of the substantive points raised in this letter, namely:
  • Where is the PMA failing to meet the needs of the Church as expressed by the General Assembly?
  • Clarify the definition and proposed disposition of “shared services.”
  • Either affirm or disavow any plans to effectuate the ultimate dismantling of Presbyterian Mission.

In the sincere and earnest hope that I have generated more light than heat in this extensive letter, I remain,

Your brother in Christ,
Tony De La Rosa, Interim Executive Director

 

Korean Translation

Spanish Translation

 


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