This leadership expert is guiding faithful Catholics from the pew to the boardroom

Leadership Cristofer Pereyra is the CEO of Tepeyac Leadership, Inc. in Phoenix, Arizona. | Courtesy of TLI

Many people assume “Catholic leadership” stops at the pulpit, the principal’s office, or the doors to the parish center. Cristofer Pereyra wants to broaden that mindset.

A former television reporter with Univision, Pereyra led the Hispanic Mission Office for the Diocese of Phoenix under Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. But an experience in a civic leadership training program opened his eyes to another mission: Teaching faithful lay Catholics how to be effective leaders in society.

Pereyra discovered that these types of programs are shaping leaders in small towns and large cities across the U.S. While they provide practical guidance and excellent networking opportunities, they also tend to advance a secular agenda that’s at odds with the Catholic faith, he found.

That revelation motivated him to launch the Tepeyac Leadership Initiative, which offers a five-month-long training program designed specifically for lay Catholics. As the initiative explains on its website, the goal is to educate participants “in the core teachings of the Church and their concrete application to the career world.” 

Now Pereyra has a book out that distills the program’s key principles: Catholic Leadership for Civil Society: A Practical Guide on Authentic Lay Leadership,” co-written with Erin Monnin. Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles wrote the introduction.

CNA spoke with Pereyra recently about the book and his belief that all Catholics are called to be leaders. Here are some highlights of the discussion:

Why did you start the Tepeyac Leadership program and write the book?

What we're trying to do, what we've been trying to do for the past six years, is to show lay Catholics what it means to be a leader out in civil society. Moreover, we have been extending them an invitation to realize that this is just no longer an option. Our true vocation is to seek to become influential leaders in society so that we can influence others for Christ to bring us closer to Christ. This is particularly for professionals, people who have been blessed by God with a college education and a professional career. The leadership initiative is the flagship program for my organization, Tepeyac Leadership. In our five-month, 18-week program we are trying to change the minds of lay Catholics, and we're forming them. Then, we're sending them out with a very concrete mindset and a very concrete mission, and that is to insert themselves into the secular institutions of society.

What led you to want to make a difference in Catholic leadership?

I was working for Bishop Olmsted as the director of the Hispanic Mission Office. A representative of the diocese sent me to a local secular civic leadership development program in Phoenix, Arizona. Going through that experience opened my eyes to the world and the reality of civic leadership development in the United States. It is in every major city in the United States, as I discovered. They have been placing and catapulting people into local leadership positions in their community. So their aims and goals are for service, philanthropy, even politics. Most of our public elected officials in the United States get their feet wet through this program. I had mixed feelings going through the program because in most of the sessions and discussions, I tended to be the lone conservative or religious voice in the room. Most of these programs around the United States form leaders with values that directly counter Catholic teaching.  

I spoke to the bishop, and said, “I think this is not a bad idea. It's a noble concept. Who could be against forming leaders? It is just not being oriented right, the way they're doing it. I think we can do it better.” We borrowed a template from the secular world, and that's how Tepeyac Leadership got started. We named this project simply because we were inspired by the story of St. Juan Diego (who had an encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary on a hill by that name.) We wanted to ask Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Juan Diego to intercede for the future of the program, which they've done, tremendously. 

What is the objective, specifically?

For us, the preeminent field for leadership, for Catholic leaders and civil society, is board service (on the board of a business or other organization.) Our question is, “Where are the Catholics when big decisions are being made?” If there were any Catholics at all, they either lack the information or the courage to speak up for truth. So our objective as an organization is ultimately to form and prepare to send out and encourage committed Catholics to seek out seats at those tables where decisions are being made. Those are decisions that impact the culture. We simply want to help bring about the decisions, the right decisions, that will bring about the common good, guided by our Catholic faith. To do that, we need to be well-formed and have a seat at the table. 

Is the program restricted to top-level executives?

We have broadened the definition of “board service.” We definitely are referring to actual boards — governance boards, advisory boards, fundraising boards, nonprofits, for-profits, pay-based, non-pay based, all of it. We definitely want more Catholics on those boards. But we're expanding the definition. We are also talking about your local homeowner's association, your teacher association, boards for your local public school district, local municipality. Ultimately, we just need more people, well-formed and committed Catholics, in all those areas where decisions are being made. 

What does Jesus say about leadership?

I don't know that the word “leadership” itself is in the (Gospels). Jesus points us toward the type of leadership that we must become in many instances, like when he asks us to be perfect, like his Father is perfect. What is Jesus truly saying? We are human beings; we're not going to be perfect. What he's inviting us to do is to try to become the best versions of ourselves every single day. Strive to grow in virtue, all of the virtues that he modeled for us. If every day we enter into a lifelong commitment to shape and grow and build our character by growing in virtue, then we are striving to be perfect, like God the Father is perfect.

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The Tepeyac Leadership Initiative (TLI) program, which costs $2,000 per person, consists of weekly, virtual, online sessions from February through June. Participants also attend an all-day retreat, either virtually or in person. The program has three tracks, grouped by time zone. For more information, visit TLI’s Frequently Asked Questions page.

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