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Stated clerk ends historic term in historic fashion

Retired Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson shares the joys and challenges of his seven years in the role. Acting Stated Clerk Bronwen Boswell shares her vision for the next year.

Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson bows his head for prayer at the 223rd General Assembly (2018) in St. Louis. Photo by Danny Bolin

In 2016, J. Herbert Nelson, II was elected to the highest ecclesial office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), stated clerk of the General Assembly. As the first African American to hold the office, his election was historic. Roughly seven years later, Nelson made an unprecedented announcement in late April 2023: he is stepping down, effective June 30, 2023, one year before the end of his second term.

In response to the announcement, Moderator of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) Eliana Maxim asked the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) staff, “So, how did you do this in the past?” The answer was quick: no stated clerk has stepped down mid-term.

The standing rules of the OGA state that COGA will appoint a new stated clerk, but they offer no guidance on process or format. The committee put together a small team to develop a process and agreed that an acting stated clerk will be appointed for one year, until the next General Assembly in 2024 when a new stated clerk will be elected in the scheduled election.

The committee placed an important stipulation on the acting stated clerk: whoever is appointed is not eligible to apply for the stated clerk position in 2024. Further, according to Maxim, the acting stated clerk will have limited responsibilities focused primarily on completing plans for GA next year in Salt Lake City and the unification of the OGA and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), as ordered by the 225th GA in 2022. The Unification Commission, which is overseeing the merger, is to offer a mid-term report to the 226th GA in 2024 and issue a final report to the 227th GA in 2026.

Acting stated clerk named

On June 22, COGA named Bronwen Boswell, current general presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of Shenandoah in Virginia, as acting stated clerk to begin July 10, 2023. She will serve until the election of a new stated clerk in 2024 and be the first female stated clerk in the denomination’s history. Boswell said she has been given a leave of absence from her presbytery during her year of service as stated clerk.

Boswell was ordained in 1987 by National Capital Presbytery and has had an extensive career as an interim pastor, presbytery executive, presbytery stated clerk, and on staff for past assemblies. Maxim said it became clear during the hiring process that Boswell was uniquely qualified for the position as outlined by the committee and understands the transitional nature of the position and the work that lay ahead in preparation for General Assembly to meet in 2024.

When asked about stepping into Nelson’s shoes, Boswell was clear on the limited scope of the acting stated clerk: “I’m not stepping into his shoes. … I have a different kind of calling. I’m a bridge. … My calling at this point really does have to do with the [PMA and OGA] Unification Commission, as well as doing the best we can with the parameters we have for a GA that hopefully will be life giving. … We’re all in this together!”

“I’m not stepping into [Nelson’s] shoes. … I have a different kind of calling. I’m a bridge.”

The 226th GA in 2024 will involve committees meeting online, with the assembly meeting as a whole in-person in Salt Lake City — the reverse of the 225th GA in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2022 where committees met in person and plenaries online.

According to Maxim, much of the other work of the stated clerk will be delegated to staff, with some oversight by the acting stated clerk. Boswell added that the stated clerk of the General Assembly is a voice of the church — unlike lower governing councils where the stated clerk serves primarily as parliamentarian. She will still be expected to sign on to statements that reflect the positions taken by the General Assembly, as well as public statements such as friend of the court briefs where the church offers opinions on certain legal matters. However, Boswell does not think she will be as involved in justice issues and other work of the church as Nelson and other stated clerks have been.

“I am not J. Herbert,” Boswell said. “I know that. He had a vision.” She said the next stated clerk will need to discern what vision will be carried by the office in accordance with the positions of the denomination.

Historic and controversial nature of Nelson’s service

While historic, Nelson’s tenure as stated clerk was not without struggles and controversy. Nelson oversaw the work of the church during an unprecedented pandemic during which he was called upon to help organize the 224th General Assembly in 2020. That assembly was held entirely online for the first time in history, with much of the work before the assembly being postponed to the 225th GA in 2022. Many criticized that decision, while staff and others struggled to find a way to hold an assembly for the first time entirely online.

In 2022, the assembly was held in hybrid fashion, with committees meeting in-person at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky, and the assembly plenaries meeting online. It took three weeks to complete the work the 224th assembly postponed, as well as the new work overtured to the 225th assembly.

J. Herbert Nelson preaches at justice center in St. Louis.

In 2018, just two years into his first term as stated clerk, Nelson led a march at the 223rd GA in St. Louis, Missouri, against a bail bond system that he and other activists deemed unjust treatment that punishes poor people, particularly poor people of color. Over 100 GA delegates, denominational staff and others marched through the streets of St. Louis from the convention center to the City Justice Center jail, despite requests from the local police to cancel the march, especially since no permit had been issued for the event.

Over $47,000 was raised to support the work of local organizations to end the practice. Nelson decided to not seek a permit for the march after local organizers refused to participate if a permit was sought, viewing it as collusion with the system they viewed as racist and unjust.

“We got a chance to see the power of the church.”

In the final week of his time in office, Nelson reflected on the action several years ago in St. Louis, saying, “I think we got a chance to see the power of the church. … We had more power than the police in that moment.”

Nelson has long shared his opinion that the church has a voice in many of the injustices plaguing our world, despite those who say otherwise. Unfortunately, he said, the church is too often afraid to use it. When it does exercise its voice, like it did in St. Louis, he cautioned that people feel good for a little while and then, “we drop right back to where we were. And I think that’s the challenge we have now.” He said the work of the church is to find a way to keep doing the work, despite the fears and struggles.

Institutional challenges facing the church

As he worked throughout his career to help the church find and embody its voice, Nelson lamented about how some of the fears affect the structures of the national church. While being the leader of the OGA, he said he was often shut out of committees when they went into executive session. As OGA staff, he was asked to stand outside and wait to be invited back. He said he also felt inhibited by the structures of the church to do the things he thought the church ought to be doing. “I think that’s the piece that has been most frustrating,” he said.

J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA) (left), and Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (center), were among those leading a 2019 march to end cash bail in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Cara Jennings.

Reflecting on his discernment that led to stepping down, Nelson reiterated, “I have loved the work. It’s been great. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.” But he still expressed frustration toward the structures of the church that limit its ability to respond in a timely way, especially when decisions made during executive sessions directly affected the work he believed he was called by God through the assembly to do.

“I’m the one who’s going to have to deal with whatever they come up with while I’m not in the room,” he said. Then, referring to PMA President and Executive Director Diane Moffett, he added, “I don’t mean to racialize this, but when you have two African American leaders and we can’t get in the room — we’re being asked to leave, and we’re supposed to be leading these organizations. … There’s a time where you just stop for a minute. And that was kind of what it came to.”

“I think that’s the piece that has been most frustrating.”

Juneteenth Worship in the chapel at the Presbyterian Center at GA 225 (Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, preaching. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Many of the challenges within the structures of the PC(USA) that Nelson witnessed as stated clerk were not new. He also experienced them as the executive director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. In his opinion, the denomination needs to do deeper identity work rather than focusing on reorganization and downsizing. “We know where we’ve been,” he said. “Why are we going through all of this all over again … and taking our time trying to get it done.”

At this point in his life, between the challenges of the unification of PMA and OGA and the call he is feeling to spend more time with his family, Nelson said he felt good about the work he had done and the church had done under his leadership. At the same time, he felt God was telling him it was time to step down and leave the work to those who may step up next. It was time to focus on his family.

What lies ahead for acting stated clerk

As Boswell prepares for her July 10th start date as acting stated clerk, she is clear about the realities on the ground in the PC(USA) and in the United States more broadly.

“It’s a very interesting time in the life of the church, what we grew up with coming out of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” she said. “We’ve come out of these growth movements, and all that is going by the wayside. All voluntary societies are feeling the diminishment of volunteers, and the church is one of those. So, one of the things I’m hoping I’ll be able to talk about is a deeper spiritual dive for many of us. Why are we here? What are we really doing?”

Giving thanks

The Presbyterian Outlook thanks J. Herbert Nelson for his decades of service to the church, especially the last seven years as stated clerk, and invites the whole church to hold him and his family in prayer during his transition out of office, as we also hold Bronwen Boswell in our prayers during her transition into the office of acting stated clerk.