Dr. Rafael Malpica Padilla’s Journey in Leadership and Latin Ministry

Malpica Padilla speaking in a meeting

Dr. Rafael Malpica Padilla joined LSTC last fall as the newly appointed DAMM Chair in Leadership and Director of the Latine Ministry and Theology Program. This post follows a brief retirement from the ELCA, where he previously served as the Executive Director of Service and Justice Home Area.

In his previous role, Dr. Malpica Padilla led a wide range of programming, including Global Mission, advocacy initiatives, the Washington office, 18 state public offices, the Office of the United Nations, ethnic-specific programs and relief and development work.

His responsibilities have spanned the spectrum of programmatic areas within the church, overseeing both international and domestic efforts. This includes Lutheran Disaster Response and world hunger initiatives. In his position, Dr. Malpica Padilla was able to demonstrate administrative prowess and resource management, while emphasizing the importance of establishing, developing and sustaining vast networks and relationships.

His visionary work at the ELCA focused on preparing leaders for the evolving nature of the church and aligns seamlessly with LSTC’s commitment to understanding and adapting to the emerging church of the future.

The challenge, as Dr. Malpica Padilla sees it, involves journeying through the unknown towards the kind of church that is evolving and the leaders it will require. As he frequently says, “We need to prepare leaders for the church we are becoming, not the church we used to be.”

In a recent conversation with Dr. Malpica Padilla, he reflects on his new roles at LSTC, offers a visionary perspective and shares his fervent dedication to cultivating a more inclusive, diverse and adaptive church.

Q: What attracted you to LSTC?

A. I have always viewed LSTC as a theological space important for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one that we need to safeguard and expand. This conviction stems from the unique history of LSTC and the valuable contributions it makes to the broader church. The location of LSTC, situated in close collaboration with other theological schools on the South Side of Chicago, particularly in Hyde Park, distinguishes it as a singular space for theological reflection.

The decision to join LSTC was driven by my belief in preserving and building upon this unique identity. The ongoing transition LSTC is undergoing provides an interesting opportunity to rethink our approach and potentially make significant changes. The physical move to a new location is a notable example of this shift.

Beyond just relocating, the prospect of three theological schools coexisting and wisely sharing resources holds the potential for something transformative. It prompts us to consider how we can innovatively shape the formation of leaders for the Church of Jesus Christ within the challenging and divisive context of the United States. This isn’t about returning to past practices; rather, it’s an opportunity for us to collaboratively envision a new way forward.

I don’t anticipate a return to the way things were for any of our theological schools, including LSTC. Instead, I see this as an occasion for us to come together, reflect, and collectively explore what new possibilities lie ahead. This overarching motivation led me to join LSTC, even after enjoying two and a half months of retirement following 30 years at the churchwide level. The prospect of engaging in meaningful conversations with the faculty, staff and student body about the future direction of LSTC was a compelling incentive for me.

Q: What are your responsibilities as the inaugural DAMM Chair in Leadership?

A. Regarding the DAMM chair, a group worked on developing a framework for the role, specifically focusing on working with students in the area of leadership. The position was initially offered to someone unable to relocate to Chicago, leading to a vacancy. Subsequently, discussions with LSTC revolved around what I could bring to the role.

In my perspective, teaching leadership shouldn’t be confined to one individual. My vision is to actively involve the faculty and administration in contemplating how leadership is embedded in the formation of individuals at LSTC. . That starts with three main pillars for understanding leadership here at LSTC.

The first pillar includes exploring how leadership intersects with other subject matters taught at the school.

The second step involves understanding leadership within LSTC’s emphasis on public church across all its programs. Leadership, being a multifaceted concept, prompts us to consider how it fits within the context of being a public church.

The third aspect revolves around our Lutheran identity. How do we comprehend leadership within the framework of the ministry of all the baptized?

I am conducting an assessment of LSTC’s existing leadership offerings, including courses and centers. The goal is to evaluate what has been accomplished, identify areas for improvement, and deepen our understanding of leadership within the framework of the public church and the ministry of all those baptized.

Q: Describe your responsibilities as the director of Latine Ministry and Theology.

A: Historically, LSTC has placed a significant emphasis on Latine ministry, boasting a faculty proficient in teaching in Spanish and engaging in the formation of members from the Latine community. However, transitions, such as the retirement of Dr. Jose Rodriguez and the untimely death of Dr. Vitor Westhelle, have left us with a faculty deficit in teaching Spanish or bilingual courses.

In my current assessment of LSTC, I am exploring collaborative opportunities. By moving into a shared space with Catholic Theological Union and McCormick Seminary, we aim to collectively consider and create a program for the formation of leaders—both ordained and lay—for the Latine community.

LSTC has also strategically aligned with institutions like the Seminario Evangelico de Puerto Rico. We need to evaluate and strengthen these partnerships to enhance offerings and facilitate cross-registration for our students. However, a notable challenge lies in increasing the number of students from the Latine community, both those enrolling in degree programs and leaders in congregations participating in other leadership opportunities, such as Learning Communities.

Q: From your perspective, what is the value of LSTC, CTU, and MTS co-locating in the same space?

A: I am continuing contemplate the possibilities, wondering if there’s a greater purpose beyond merely sharing space. Take the Latine program, for instance. It’s no secret that the Lutherans’ track record with Latinos is not so favorable, as most Latino populations are predominantly affiliated with Pentecostal or Roman Catholic Churches.  These two denominations have deep historical connections and had been involved in the historical struggles within the Latino community, experiences Lutherans have not actively participated in.

As we find ourselves together in this shared space, I consider whether the Holy Spirit is urging us to bring these three schools together for a more expansive purpose. It goes beyond the narrow focus of training leaders for specific denominations like the Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church, or Roman Catholic Church; instead, the fundamental question is how we prepare leaders for the Church of Jesus Christ today.

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