Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson begins to share his vision at the Fall Polity conference

LOUISVILLE – A few months into his term, J. Herbert Nelson – the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s new stated clerk, elected last summer by the 2016 General Assembly – is beginning to offer glimpses into his expanding vision for the denomination.

Nelson will preach at a Reformation worship service Nov. 2 at the PC(USA)’s national offices in Louisville – in an address that will be live-streamed and is being given the title “Write the Vision – Reclaim the Call.”

Scripture tells us that “the people who have no vision – they perish. They perish,” Nelson said Oct. 31.

J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), spoke to the Fall Polity conference on Oct. 31.
J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), spoke at the Fall Polity conference on Oct. 31.

In remarks that day at the Fall Polity conference, during both a workshop and a question-and-answer plenary session, Nelson gave some sense of his thinking – about his desire for the PC(USA) to make an impact in St. Louis, Baltimore and Columbus, Ohio, cities where the next three General Assemblies will be held, and “to begin looking outward rather than inward” at the denomination’s national offices in downtown Louisville.

Reaching out. Nelson said national church leaders plan to be in conversation with Presbyterians and local community leaders in St. Louis (where Big Tent will be held in 2017 and the General Assembly in 2018) and Baltimore (the host city for the 2020 General Assembly) and Columbus (where the 2022 assembly will convene). The idea: a program Nelson called Hands and Feet.

When the 2016 assembly met in Portland in June, Nelson said many attendees noticed that Portland has a pervasive problem with homelessness – “it was pervasive, it was really frightening” to see the deep need. Presbyterians came, spent money in hotels and restaurants, then went home, Nelson said – but did not work “for the transformation of the city.”

He wants things to be different in St. Louis, Baltimore and Columbus.

There’s clearly need, Nelson said. There have been “police shootings in all of those communities. Poverty versus wealth. A whole underclass that can’t make it up and never will be able to make it up without help.”

He wants Presbyterians to get involved in meeting community needs in those cities, with the possibilities including building Habitat for Humanity houses, starting community gardens in areas with food deficits, resilience training  through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, efforts through the Peacemaking Program to end gun violence, and providing support for congregations looking to retool.

He also spoke of the support the national church can give to grassroots movements for social justice – such as when he went to Baton Rouge last summer following the shooting there of Alton Sterling, and met with Patti Snyder of University Presbyterian Church, who is involved with a grassroots community organizing effort called Together Baton Rouge. Nelson also met in September with Presbyterian church leaders in Colombia, who thanked the PC(USA) for its support and asked for the work of accompaniment to continue.

“I have a great sense of hope,” Nelson said during the workshop. “Being in the places where there is an opportunity to really make a difference, but also to make our presence known…becomes a mandate for this present age, where the world is so broken.”

In St. Louis, Baltimore and Columbus, “we have a chance to transform three cities,” he said during the plenary. “We have a chance to put some feet on our prayers,” to create a witness. If Presbyterians are willing to do the work, “I think they will know we are Christians by our love.”

Casting a vision. Nelson said he will use the Nov. 2 address to help set a vision for the PC(USA) – including some recommendations about how things might change at the denomination’s national offices in Louisville. Among the points he may stress:

  • The Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency “are going to have to work together” in new and effective ways. At the local level, people don’t understand the distinctions between the two entities – referring collectively to “the expletive Louisville office,” Nelson said. The two agencies need to “work through past history, get over ourselves, and start working together.”
  • Nelson wants to consider new ways to use the headquarters building – imagining it as more than an office building. “It needs to be the ecumenical and interfaith center of Louisville, Kentucky,” he said during the workshop, with religious scholars and faith leaders who are in town coming to visit and speak. “We ought to be the center of religious work in this city.”
  • The chapel in the national offices could be used as a downtown congregation, not just for worship services for the staff. Nelson spoke of using the chapel “to begin a downtown church and model the very thing we’re going out into the church and telling people they need to do,” and “begin to look outward rather than looking inward.”
  • During the question-and-answer session, Nelson said that seminaries today “are vacillating between what it means to be a preacher factory or an academic institution.” He asked: “Where in the church do we have space to train and retrain, to teach people how to do the work of ministry” in new contexts?

His proposal: take empty space at the national offices and use it for a training institute, to train and retrain ministers for 21st century ministry. “It’s going to take some money to do that,” Nelson acknowledged. “But we’ve got some folks with money. You know some folks with money, don’t you?”

J. Herbert Nelson
J. Herbert Nelson at the Fall Polity conference in Louisville.

Departures to ECO. Nelson said he wants the PC(USA) to give some attention to its relationship to evangelical congregations that have left to go to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterian, some in response to decisions the PC(USA) made to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians who are in relationships and to allow its ministers to perform same-gender marriages. ECO states on its website that it has more than 300 congregations nationwide – and over the past several years some of the PC(USA)’s largest and most prosperous congregations have left.

“One of the great challenges we have with regard to ECO is what does it mean to be part of the body of Christ,” Nelson said – which means the PC(USA) must consider the implications of the relationships between the two denominations, as painful as that sometimes has been.

That conversation can include, Nelson said:

  • Raising questions at the ecumenical table to which they both belong – the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
  • Considering what it means to be in covenant community with each other.
  • Talking in local communities about what the relationship actually does and should look like.

“The responsibility for this does not rest solely with the Office of the General Assembly,” Nelson said. Each presbytery and synod must decide how to engage with congregations that have left or are considering it – determining how those departures will proceed.

Open to the spirit. In response to a question in the workshop about the impact the global South might have on the PC(USA), Nelson said Christianity in the southern hemisphere “looks like disorder and chaos sometimes,” but also is open to the movement of the spirit. Sometimes in the orderly Presbyterian way, there’s a spirit we miss “because we’re too deep in planning,” he said. “We still need to plan. We also need to be ready when the spirit gives us an opportunity…I am much more an organizer than I am a bureaucrat.”

Scarce resources. Nelson said he has had experience, going back to his work with a new church development in Memphis, of ministry in an area where resources were scarce.

“I learned a whole lot of things about faith in Memphis, Tennessee,” he said in the workshop. “I come into this position with an understanding that God will provide all of our needs. It may not come in the way we expect it, but the Lord does provide.”

Nelson said he sees the PC(USA) struggling with loss and scarcity. “I’m here to tell you, I know how to eat beans and rice,” and to work as a bi-vocational minister. “It was a raggedy life sometimes,” he said. “It was a way of trying to find your way back to the center….Remember what we are called to do, and remembering we are not called to do it alone.”

J. Herbert Nelson

Mid council relations. One man asked a question about how to assist “presbyteries in crisis” and potential changes in the PC(USA)’s office of Mid Council Relations.

Nelson responded that that office has moved from “a space of strategic planning for churches and presbyteries” to more providing pastoral care and training to mid council leaders in a time of tight resources, as some mid councils restructure.

Participants during the Oct. 31 evening session were asked to stand and offer thanks to Sue Krummel, who has served as the PC(USA)’s director of mid council relations, in what was said to be her last Fall Polity conference in that role.

“We are struggling with the issue of how to creatively manage difficult times,” Nelson said during the workshop. Some mid council leaders “quite frankly are there because nobody else wanted the job. Out of the benevolence of their spirit, they said ‘I guess I’ll do it.’ ” Other executives came out of retirement, or from careers in consulting or work outside the church, he said.

Churches also face challenges – as congregations which were established years ago try to make what Nelson called a “heavy turn” to meet current realities.

“I’m convinced that what the road ahead has to be is training and retooling and focusing individuals on how to read the current trends of ministry today,” he said. The job of the Office of the General Assembly: helping pastors and congregations learning to do 21st century in their own diverse and complicated contexts.