After a brief delay Friday morning brought on by audio glitches, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), told GA Live host Fred Tangeman he’s both exhausted and hopeful heading into the 225th General Assembly, which begins Saturday with opening worship, three plenary sessions and the election of co-moderators. Watch this conversation and those that follow, available at 10 a.m. Eastern Time each day of the Assembly except for July 3-4, on the Spirit of GA Facebook page, by going here.
“There’s buy-in from commissioners who will be here because they love the Church and want to be part of this iteration of change,” said Nelson, who was elected to his first term as Stated Clerk, the denomination’s highest ecclesial office, at the 222nd General Assembly (2016) and re-elected during the online 224th General Assembly in 2020. At the same time, “issues around lament are popping up,” Nelson told Tangeman, noting the theme for the 225th General Assembly is “From Lament to Hope.” Those issues include “what the Church used to be and what we’re going to hold onto.” Nelson said he’s heard those themes discussed in session and mid council meetings. “What are we going to lose? What might we be able to keep but do differently?” That’s been a challenge “for people on the ground and for folks right here in the [Presbyterian] Center. We’ve had to recalibrate and weigh things one at a time, whether it’s something to hold onto or give up.”
“There is pain in that. The old landmarks — some of them will be in play here,” Nelson said. “This has been a time of lament and will be for many individuals who can’t come to the Assembly because of limited space … A lament is, ‘This is not the church we have known.’” Many ministers of Word and Sacrament used to take vacation time to attend General Assembly every two years, Nelson said, “to see seminary classmates and have a steak and a beer with them.”
For General Assembly planners, especially the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, it’s meant minimizing the Standing Rules of the General Assembly “as much as we can. We also recognize we have a cumbersome process. We’ve learned some things about ourselves, and we had to make some significant changes there,” he said.
Nelson told Tangeman that OGA is “opening up new avenues to become a very different agency to the denomination.” Among the guiding questions: “How do we allow ourselves to dream and vision and work together in ways that are innovative and not just following? The world is shifting around us. How do we make adjustments other than digging our heels into the ground and saying, ‘We are going to stay here because we are Presbyterians!’ That was a wakeup call for the entire Church. Mid councils had to figure this out. Congregations had to figure out how to have session meetings.”
On their last full day as Co-Moderators, Nelson praised the work of the Rev. Gregory Bentley and Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart, who were elected by commissioners to the 224th General Assembly. “They modeled in many ways that they can be touchstones for the issues we are dealing with,” Nelson said, citing the ability of the current Co-Moderators to “call groups of people together while lifting up a true belief that there are some restorative justice and reparations that need to be taken care of as part of the sin of our Church … They took that on the road via Zoom, through ongoing preaching and dealing with institutional life. Look at the great work they did on mediation with San Francisco Theological Seminary.”
Within the PC(USA), “there is a broader and diverse audience we can turn to, and I’m hoping the Church will begin to see that,” the Stated Clerk said. “I have to give kudos to [Street-Stewart and Bentley] every day. They were responsible for transformative change.”
“I still think we are a great denomination,” Nelson said while wrapping up the 26-minute first edition of GA Live. “We are in many ways out front in terms of innovation and being visionary for the 21st century. We aren’t there, but the reality is we continue to press forward and believe our role is one of transformation.”