PORTLAND, Ore. – On the morning of June 24, the 2016 General Assembly will elect a new stated clerk for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – the denomination’s top ecclesiastical and constitutional officer.
Now, two names have officially been placed into nomination: that of J. Herbert Nelson, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness and the official choice of the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee, and that of a challenger, David M. Baker, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay and its director of communications.
On June 19, Carol McDonald, moderator of the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee, introduced to the assembly the members of the committee and explained the process by which they had interviewed applicants; considered their qualifications, skills and references; and finally made the choice to nominate Nelson in April.
Among the issues the committee discussed with candidates: how the PC(USA) is disproportionately white compared to the rest of the nation and the implications of that; how to make space for theological diversity in the denomination; how to deal with congregations leaving the PC(USA); and how to create opportunities in the church for people of color and younger leaders.
McDonald praised Nelson for his history of speaking out against injustice; his commitment to ecumenical and interfaith partnerships; his deep understanding of the PC(USA). “He will speak to the church with clarity and boldness,” McDonald said.
If elected, Nelson would become the first African-American to serve as the PC(USA)’s stated clerk.
Initially, 13 candidates applied to be clerk (including Baker – according to the rules a challenger can only come from the applicants the committee has considered). After an initial round of interviews, the committee cut the group to six and then to three finalists in March.
Gradye Parsons, who has served eight years as stated clerk and was uncontested in his last election, announced last fall that he was retiring and would not seek a third four-year term.
In the world of PC(USA) stated clerk elections, having a challenger is nothing new. 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.
Dan Johnson, a ruling elder from Tampa Bay presbytery, placed Baker’s name into nomination, describing him as “uniquely qualified” with both theological and entrepreneurial experience. “When I think of Dave, three words come to mind: expertise, energy and communication,” Johnson said.
Both Nelson and Baker are teaching elders.
Nelson 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.
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.
He has led the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., since 2010.
Baker earned a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and an undergraduate degree in psychology from the College of William and Mary. He founded a firm called Internet Outreach Experts, which helps churches create websites and an online presence.
From 2013 to 2015, Baker served as stated supply pastor for Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, and from 2008 to 2013 as associate pastor of Hyde Park Presbyterian Church in Tampa, Florida. From 2005 to 2007, he was the organizing pastor of Living Peace Church, a new church development in Ladysmith, Virginia.
Parsons also explained the process the assembly will use for the election June 24. Both Nelson and Baker will have an opportunity to make remarks, then there will be a time for commissioners and advisory delegates to ask questions of the candidates – similar to the process used for the co-moderator election June 18.