LOUISVILLE — J. Herbert Nelson, currently director of the Office of Public Witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is the nominee to be the PC(USA)’s next stated clerk.
On April 19, the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee named Nelson as its choice, chosen from a group of six who had made it to the final level of consideration. The committee will ask the General Assembly, meeting in Portland June 18-25, to elect the 56-year-old Nelson to a four-year term as stated clerk, succeeding Gradye Parsons.
Nelson, a teaching elder and member of National Capital Presbytery, has led the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington D.C. since 2010. Previously, he served as a pastor – from 1986 to 1997, at St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, and for a dozen years before that as organizing pastor of Liberation Community Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He also has served as associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
If elected, Nelson would become the first African American to serve as the PC(USA)’s stated clerk.
The stated clerk is the PC(USA)’s top ecclesiastical officer, responsible for serving as the ecumenical leader of the denomination, with 1.66 million members; organizing meetings of the General Assembly; and interpreting the Book of Order, the church’s constitution.
Parsons, 63, announced last fall that he did not intend to seek a third term, intending to move to Tennessee to spend more time with his extended family.
Still to be determined: whether anyone else will emerge to challenge Nelson as the nominee, something that’s allowed under General Assembly procedures. May 4 is the deadline for any challengers to present themselves – and they can include others whose applications the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee considered, but did not select as its final choice.
When Parsons was nominated for a second term in 2012, he was the first uncontested candidate for stated clerk since the northern and southern branches of the Presbyterian church reunited in 1983.
Originally, 13 candidates submitted applications by the Nomination Committee’s Dec. 21 deadline. In February, the committee cut the field to six.
The new stated clerk will face significant challenges – including continuing membership declines; challenging finances; and the possibility, which the General Assembly will discuss in June, of at some point merging the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
Nelson earned a doctor of ministry degree from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; a master of divinity degree from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Johnson C. Smith University. His and his wife — Gail Porter Nelson, pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. – have one adult daughter.
Of the 13 candidates who submitted complete applications, only one was a ruling elder (12 were teaching elders); three were candidates of color (one black, one Hispanic, one Asian, plus 10 whites); and five of the 13 were women
The three finalists were all teaching elders: a white female, a white male and a black male (Nelson).
Only two of the candidates who applied were under age 50.
Candidates were asked (among other things) about:
- Their sense of call to serve as stated clerk;
- What they see the PC(USA) being called to do and be in a time of transition;
- What they would do to improve the denomination’s ecumenical and interreligious work;
- Their style of managing conflict;
- How their life and ministry has been informed by the Reformed tradition;
- What they would say to the church about presbyteries that don’t transmit their full per capita payment;
- What role the stated clerk should play in exploring the idea of merging the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency;
- The challenges facing mid councils;
- How the Office of the General Assembly can assist presbyteries dealing with congregations that want to leave the PC(USA) for other denominations and take their property with them; and
- Cultural proficiency in a church that’s 91 percent white in a country that’s much more diverse.
Download a PDF of the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee nomination process report
Below is the official announcement from the Office of the General Assembly of Nelson’s nomination.
LOUISVILLE – The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson is the nominee to become the next Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the committee charged with bringing a candidate to the 222nd General Assembly (2016) announced today.
“We, the committee, believe J. Herbert Nelson will be both priest and prophet to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and to our ecumenical and interreligious sisters and brothers,” said the Reverend Carol McDonald, moderator of the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee (SCNC).
“He has the heart and soul of a pastor; when he asks, ‘how are you doing?’ he really wants to know. His prophetic voice will call us as a denomination to do ‘kingdom work’—to reclaim the biblical and theological foundations of who we are, to forge again community that unites rather than divides, and to step boldly into the world to speak the message of Jesus,” she said.
Nelson is a teaching elder and member of National Capital Presbytery who has served since 2010 as director of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. From 1986 to 1997 he served as pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, and from 1998 to 2010 he was the organizing pastor for Liberation Community Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He also has served as associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
“I feel both heartened and humbled to be selected as the nominee for the office of Stated Clerk by the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee,” Nelson said. “It is my belief that our future opportunities as a denomination outweigh our challenges. We must collectively commit to serving the Kingdom of God and not simply the Church.”
Nelson’s name will be placed in nomination on Sunday, June 19, during a plenary session of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland, Oregon. If elected, he will be the first African American Stated Clerk of the PC(USA). The General Assembly runs June 18–25.
“I think the committee has made a wise and exciting choice,” said the Reverend Gradye Parsons, current PC(USA) Stated Clerk. “I look forward to working with the Reverend J. Herbert Nelson in the transition and supporting his ministry as Stated Clerk.”
McDonald said the committee’s decision on the nominee was “very clear.”
“Our process involved a substantial written application, a video presentation, a phone conversation, and two face-to-face interviews,” McDonald said. “In addition, we spoke with a significant number of primary and secondary references about Nelson’s gifts for this office, all of whom said they believed he is the right person for this time in the life of our church.”
Nelson, 56, holds a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Johnson C. Smith University, a master of divinity degree from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and a doctor of ministry degree from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is married to the Reverend Gail Porter Nelson, pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. They have one adult daughter.