Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Good faith, good company and ‘good trouble’ have guided the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II

The retiring Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) appears on ‘Leading Theologically’

by Nancy Crowe for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II stepped down Friday as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

J. Herbert Nelson, II, then known as Herbie, was nominated as a deacon at age 15.

“I had no idea what a deacon did,” he recalled, laughing.

What he did was begin a new season of serving others and fighting for justice, all of it underscored by faith.

That faith sustains the Rev. Dr. Nelson as another season beckons. After seven years as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), he is stepping down effective Friday. The first African American to serve as the denomination’s chief ecclesiastical officer is turning his focus toward time with his wife, the Rev. Gail Porter Nelson, and their adult daughter, Alycia Yvette Nelson.

In a Leading Theologically interview with the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director for Theological Education Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education (COTE), Nelson shared what makes him come alive and where the church might go next.

You can watch the entire interview on YouTube  here. You can listen to an abbreviated version of the interview as a podcast, which you can find on Apple or other podcast platforms.

Never walking alone

Nelson, who grew up in South Carolina, is the son, grandson and nephew of Presbyterian pastors. “Church was very much a part of how we sustained community during segregation,” he said.

Another important influencer was his grandmother — “a prayin’ woman, I tell you,” he said. “It reminded me I was never walking alone. No matter how bad things may have been, there was a God who would hold our hand as we ran this race, as the hymn goes.”

Nelson’s mother lost her job as a school principal when she would not persuade her husband to cease his civil rights work. The work also often took time away from his family. “Always the question was: When is Daddy coming home? He got home when the work was done,” Nelson said.

Only decades later, after running into a childhood neighbor, did he find out that some men of the church had come to his father. “They said, ‘We want you to continue to do civil rights. We’ll take care of Herbie,’” Nelson said.

“These were men who were at all my games.” Nothing was said, he added. They were just always around.

As a new deacon, and with a fresh driving permit, Nelson’s regular task was to take an elderly couple home from church. Having accompanied his father on hospital visits, acts of service weren’t exactly new.

Still, something was changing.

“Somewhere along the line, I came to understand that there was something valuable about being in the midst of individuals who needed your help,” he said.

‘I love this work’

In Nelson’s seven years as Stated Clerk, plenty of individuals have needed his help. The work has taken him to places he’d never dreamed of (some he couldn’t spell, he said). It’s allowed him to engage with people, often in the midst of difficulty, across language and other barriers.

“In the depth of their faith there was always a story. In that story, they were able to use that faith consistently as a way to understand that God was still at work in their lives,” he said.

That has strengthened Nelson as well.

“I love this work. It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he said, crediting the support — and sacrifice — of his family. His wife gave up her parish position in order for him to take the Stated Clerk position, he said.

Like his own father, he wasn’t home a lot when his daughter, now a master teacher, was growing up. He was busy raising funds, helping people understand difficult concepts, and more.

“I was out on the street getting arrested and doing a whole lot of other things. Good trouble,” he clarified, borrowing the John Lewis quote.

Thinking about what his family needs now led to a new understanding of ministry, Nelson said. “Is it about the time on the clock, or is it about the time we have left to love those who have loved us?”

Recalibrating ministry

“The church is not dying. It’s reforming.” This has been Nelson’s mantra.

The challenge for the not-dying church (and for all of Christendom, he added) is to keep finding new ways of recalibrating ministry.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in the house waiting for people to come. We have to get out, be proactive and get to the greatest resistance to the Gospel,” Nelson said. It’s an internal shift as well as an external one, he said. Dismantling the way things have always been requires a certain level of audacity, not to mention discomfort, but that doesn’t mean solutions aren’t there.

The pandemic, for example, forced changing not only the way congregations functioned but how the denomination conducted General Assembly, especially in 2020. Only because the younger adults had the tech skills to take the Assembly online did it happen at all, he said.

Seeing the gifts of young people — young adults are adults, Nelson noted — is key, and leaders need to be willing to teach and step aside.

The deacon who resigned and nominated Nelson to succeed him all those years ago might have thought so, too.

Nancy Crowe is a writer, editor, and animal wellness practitioner based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.