J. Herbert Nelson was elected on June 27 to serve a second four-year term as stated clerk of the General Assembly. Wilson Kennedy, chair of the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee, placed Nelson’s name into nomination, saying, “J. Herbert’s call to this office is undeniable.” Nelson was re-elected by a vote of commissioners from the 224th General Assembly, which is meeting online this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The stated clerk serves as the chief ecclesial officer and public voice of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). For the past four years, Nelson has brought to that role an intensity and a commitment to justice that has pushed the denomination out of what he called “the trappings of institutional life,” and further into connection with the issues and concerns of the world.
Nelson, 61, 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 served as pastor of three churches, including St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, from 1986 to 1997. Prior to that he was the organizing pastor of Liberation Community Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
Before being elected stated clerk in 2016, Nelson directed the PC(USA) Office Public Witness in Washington, D.C.
Kennedy told the assembly that the committee considered Nelson to be the right mix for the job of academic preparation and experience – saying: “Dr. Nelson has a scholar’s precision and nimbleness.”
On social media, some spoke of his personal touch, such as Katelyn Nutter Dowling who recalls meeting Nelson in an elevator.
I was once in an elevator with @jherbertnelson & his wife, Gail, a profound preacher & scholar of her own right. He asked what I did. At that point, I was serving as an intern in a church & said I was “just a church intern.” He shot back at me, “you’re not JUST anything.” #ga224
— Katelyn Nutter Dowling (@mskatelynnutter) June 27, 2020
Reflecting on Nelson’s long history of working for justice for Black and other marginalized people, Kennedy said the nominating committee was struck by Nelson’s “vision for a church rooted in love, building structures where straight, white people, and those identified as male are not centered.”
With Nelson’s re-election, along with the election on June 20 of co-moderators Elona Street-Stewart (the first Indigenous person to be elected to that role) and Gregory Bentley (a Black man), and with Diane Moffett (a Black woman) leading the Presbyterian Mission Agency, people of color hold many of the most visible leadership positions in the PC(USA), a denomination that remains 90% white.
A theme that has arisen during this year’s assembly is the call for radical inclusivity that Nelson often speaks about. In support of Nelson’s nomination, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians tweeted during the election that Nelson “has been a prophetic voice for inclusion of all people, and affirming of LGBTQIA+ people in the church’s life and leadership. We are grateful for his leadership.”
Nelson’s first term has been shaped by his call for Presbyterians to stand up for causes of justice, especially with those he says are often silenced. In 2018, as part of the then new “Hands and Feet” initiative, Nelson led the 223rd General Assembly on a march through the streets of St. Louis in opposition to cash bail systems that he said disproportionately affect people of color. Prior to the march, commissioners and attendees to that assembly raised $47,000, which Nelson presented to organizers in St. Louis working to end the practice. Following that assembly, Nelson went on to lead similar marches to end cash bail systems in other cities, including Louisville, Kentucky.
In response to the nomination, Nelson thanked the committee for the opportunity to serve a second term and acknowledged the staff of the Office of General Assembly, saying, “The work we have been able to accomplish over the last four years would not have taken place without a strong staff coming together.”
Nelson has been clear over the past several years about his intent to reshape the work of the Office of the General Assembly from an institutional model to a model for justice in support of the work of congregations and presbyteries in and for the world. After his nomination to the 224th GA, Nelson addressed the assembly and said, “I believe right now the Presbyterian Church in this particular moment has the opportunity to be a leader among leaders and among faith traditions.” He challenged the denomination to be willing to take risks, “to try to do what has not been tried before. … Christianhood will not look like it has ever been before. … [We need to] build a foundation once again as reformers of the faith.”
Despite decades of decline in membership among Protestant churches in the U.S., Nelson has been stalwart in declaring that, “the church is not dying, we are reforming.” In his remarks to the assembly this year, he repeated a major emphasis of his tenure that the impact of the PC(USA) should not be measured by numbers alone. He lifted up the call for the church to speak into the public square and stand up for issues of justice, stating, “I have sought to be stated clerk for another term, for there is still work to be done in such a time as this,” quoting Esther 4:14.
During a time for commissioners and advisory delegates to pose questions to Nelson, Natlily Kyremes, young adult advisory delegate from Western Reserve Presbytery, asked, “How can we as the church address the ways the church has oppressed people of color?”
Nelson responded: “We here in the PC(USA) are not resource-poor, in terms of people and other resources. This offers us a powerful witness to how wealth is viewed, how individuals in a different status may be part of these formative movements. All of this has been the continued work of the [General Assembly] and the [Presbyterian Mission Agency] — to really go into some significant places where power sits , where we are allowed to be in and be part of the discussions. … This is the challenge of the 21st century, to utilize all the forces, the history, and, let me say this, the integrity of the denomination, … to use our influence to free people, not just outside this country, but right here in the United States as well.”
In response to a question from Mooyoung Lim, a pastor from Midwest Korean American Presbytery, about the nominating committee’s expectations for Nelson’s second term, Kennedy said: “J. Herbert has a compelling vision. The committee left conversations with him confident that he is going to be leading the church into uncomfortable places, but so that we might be a uniquely faithful and prophetic church moving forward. J. Herbert is going to be doing the hard work of leading the church in this difficult season in the life of the church.”
Nelson stood uncontested for the role. Kennedy reported that there was another application submitted for the position, but the candidate did not complete the application process. Elona Street-Stewart, co-moderator of the 224th General Assembly, commented that it is the job of the nominating committee to bring a candidate forward to the assembly, that even if there were another applicant, the committee would still only nominate one candidate.
Michael Casey, a young adult advisory delegate from Albany Presbytery, questioned the gender balance of the nominating committee, which is majority male. Valarie Izumi, staff with the Office of the General Assembly, reported that the nominating committee is formed by five people nominated by the General Assembly Nominating Committee, and four others from two other agencies of the PC(USA): three from the Committee on the General Assembly, and one appointed by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. Each group nominates from among the pool of potential candidates available at the time.
After Nelson was installed by co-moderator Elona Street-Stewart, Nelson’s wife, Gail Porter Nelson, also a minister in the PC(USA), offered prayer for her husband, her family and the denomination.