When Carlos Peña arrived in Milwaukee for the 2003 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, his name was one of 152 on the ballot for vice president. Peña said he didn’t have much thought of winning the election to the position—the highest a layperson can hold in the ELCA. But when he moved to third place after the second ballot, he realized there was someone else at work.
After winning the election on the fifth ballot, Peña was convinced something else was happening. “It’s more like a calling. I’ve felt that way since day one,” said Peña, a member of First Lutheran Church, Galveston, Texas.
Having served two six-year terms as vice president, Peña has decided not to seek re-election. A new vice president will be elected at the 2016 Churchwide Assembly, Aug. 8-13, in New Orleans.
Reflecting on his 13 years of service, Peña soon discovered that his responsibilities as vice president required quite a bit of time away from his home and family in Galveston. At the time, he and his wife, Diane, a schoolteacher, had a son in college and a daughter in high school.
Traveling extensively to attend meetings and consultations around the country, Peña also had less time to focus on the daily tasks as owner of a business founded by his father. Early in his tenure, returning after almost a month away from the office, Peña discovered something unexpected.
“I came back in November and looked at our October sales and it was our best month ever,” he said. “This was the sign I needed because I could forget about that. My employees … stepped up and took the business and just ran with it. The business grew in ways I would have never known. There were so many signs when I look back now … when God calls.”
Feeling confident he could take a step back from running his business, Peña stepped up to the call, focusing on the responsibilities of vice president as chair of the ELCA Church Council and its executive committee.
Chris Boerger, ELCA secretary, said, “Carlos Peña has faithfully served beyond the expectations of the office of vice president. He serves this church ecumenically on the World Council of Churches Central Committee. He has been the churchwide representative at numerous synod assemblies and he has traveled around the world representing this church. We have been richly blessed by his service as a dedicated volunteer.”
Peña’s service to the ELCA is far-reaching. During his term he has spent almost 1,000 days away from home and has logged 500,000 airline miles.
Describing a recent trip to Cambodia with ELCA Global Church Sponsorship, he said, “It’s devastating, the history that they have. People are barely able to survive on a dollar a day. I learned by seeing that and thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that. I wish we didn’t have all this other commercialism and this other stuff, materialism that ruins our way of life.’ It has deepened my faith.”
Peña said he’s often asked where he witnesses “God at work” during his travels. “I [say] I see it in the people, I see Jesus when I see them dancing with joy, jumping up and down,” he said. “I hear Jesus when they’re singing and I feel Jesus in my heart because of the way they embrace us. Jesus is alive and well there. It’s been great to visit other countries where Lutherans are at work, how we share our love of God.”
Throughout the years Peña has maintained a trust in God’s plan. In 2008 when Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast of Texas, he suffered a devastating loss. “We had 7 feet of water in the business and lost everything,” he said. “Trucks, personal stuff, my dad’s stuff. You question that—why me?”
Peña found a new location to rebuild and said the business is even stronger than it was before the storm.
Reflecting on a favorite Bible verse from Ecclesiastes 3 (“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”), Peña said he’s learned “we’re not in control of life as much as we think we are. God has a plan for us and how he chooses to use me is how I’m going to live out my life.”
Peña said he feels good about stepping down as vice president and giving someone else the chance to serve. “I’ve been blessed,” he said. “This call came at a good time in my life where I was able to do it.
“Every day has been a blessing. I thank God for the opportunity to serve. It’s been a truly uplifting experience for my family.”
Still, Peña admits he isn’t finished serving his church and knows there will most likely be another call one day. But for the next several months he and Diane, who is retired, plan to travel—mostly by car.
“I don’t want to get on a plane for a while. Not right away. I’ve asked God to at least give me the rest of the year off. I put it in a memo, but I don’t know if it’ll happen,” said Peña laughing.