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Stated Clerk discusses renovating the Presbyterian Center and transforming hearts and minds

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II calls the moment ‘a very significant time in the life of the denomination’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II

LOUISVILLE — On Thursday the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) offered up his thoughts on the proposed renovation of the Presbyterian Center in downtown Louisville, a renovation that the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II also hopes will include the transformation of hearts and minds of employees inside the building and of Presbyterians working at carrying out Christ’s mission across the nation and around the world.

Nelson offered up nearly a half-hour of remarks to the Coordinating Committee of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. The entire board is scheduled to meet remotely July 21.

“It’s a very significant time in the life of the denomination to be who God has called us to be in the 21st century, a different call from any other period we have been in,” Nelson said.

There’s a piece of the planned $2.4 million renovation, which will prepare the Presbyterian Center, located in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, to host the 225th General Assembly next year, that involves neither brick nor mortar, Nelson said.

“It’s a recognition that the world in many ways has changed around us,” Nelson said. “How do we respond in ways that develop the collective understanding of who we are and whose we are in the 21st century?”

“This is more than just a building project,” Nelson told committee members, comprised of the chair and chair-elect of the PMA Board and board committee chairs. “Somewhere in this is the possibility of transformation in this denomination. We have to begin to look not only at the way the building looks, but how we represent the work Almighty God is offering us in this moment.”

What’s required at the present moment, Nelson said, is that “We as a church think about the ethical and moral core of our work and who Christ has called us to be as persons who love.”

If “we carry the same habits into the building after the remodeling,” Nelson said, a reference to traditional struggles and even rivalries that have existed between, for example, the Office of the General Assembly and the PMA, “the reality is we won’t reflect anything different … How do we learn to appreciate one another and to work in a way where the old stuff is left behind and we model for the church reconciliation and working together? That’s going to take some work, and I think it’s spiritual work.”

In addition, “How can we be of service to one another?” Nelson said he’s been hearing from the leaders of mid councils that have been struggling under the pressures and the isolation caused by the pandemic.

“Our relational connection will matter more,” Nelson said, adding that “I do know what it is to be locked up in the house and not doing the things I was taught to do in seminary.”

The pandemic “has created some really serious problems for mid council leadership, and a lot of it has to do with not being able to do what you can do,” Nelson said. It’s fine and necessary to have a brick-and-mortar renovation at 100 Witherspoon Street, he said, but “the vision is how do we invite people in and find out that healing can come in mysterious ways, both for folk out there and within our own confines.”

From Nelson’s point of view, one reason the PC(USA)’s rolls have declined in recent years is “because we didn’t capture the spirit and the vision God was calling us to, being a transformative agent in a place called Louisville, Kentucky,” dating back to when the riverfront building that would become the Presbyterian Center was given to the denomination nearly four decades ago by the former CEO of Humana Inc., David A. Jones Sr., and his wife Betty. Nelson called the renovation and what’s to come after the work is done “a second chance to make that right.”

Nelson praised the work of the Rev. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, who was elected to her position in 2018. Nelson was re-elected to a second four-year term during the 224th General Assembly, held online from the Presbyterian Center last summer.

“The continued expectations the Church will have is not the ‘rah-rah’ but getting people together to do the work,” Nelson said. “Otherwise, this becomes a building, not a place of transformation.”

The Presbyterian Center, at 100 Witherspoon Street in Louisville, Kentucky, is set to undergo a $2.4 million renovation to prepare the denominational headquarters to host the 225th General Assembly in 2022. (Contributed photo)

Once the renovation is complete, four General Assembly committees at a time will journey to Louisville next year to complete their committee work before returning home. Plenary work will be done online.

“There will be some inconveniences, but overall the intent is this will be a nice setting and an adequate one,” Nelson said. “It’ll be a little tighter than we have known, but when we are closer together we tend to talk more and share more. We will come together and break some good bread together.”

“While we are trying to reconstruct, so is the city” of Louisville, Nelson said, adding that city leaders have visited with him about the PC(USA)’s work of carrying out the Matthew 25 vision locally by, among other things, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty.

“Only God can make that happen at this time,” Nelson said.

PMA Board member the Rev. Ken Godshall asked Nelson whether Louisville will host future General Assembly meetings after the 225th, set for June 18 through July 9, 2022.

“There have been a lot of questions about that,” Nelson replied. For now, most of the attention is being focused on completing the planned renovation in time to host next year’s assembly, he said.

“It has to do with [declining per capita revenues]. It’s a real issue,” Nelson said. There’s been no decision on those future assemblies, he said, just “a whole lot of rumors. The reality is, we are trying to take it one day at a time … We have to have a lot of focus on this General Assembly right now.”

The Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo, the PMA Board’s chair-elect and its liaison to the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, said the renovation will permit multiple uses for the Presbyterian Center beyond the upcoming General Assembly, including as possible rental space and as facilities for boards and committees of the PC(USA), including the PMA Board.

“I’m excited we will have more flexible space at the Center,” Vance-Ocampo said, adding that GA committees can “begin meeting ahead [of the General Assembly] using Zoom and dig into their work in constructive and serious ways … I like the idea of having more hybridized space for meetings in the Center.”

Whose calling is it, Nelson wondered near the end of the conversation, to do the work the PC(USA) is being called to do?

“A lot of these things are gravitating toward us,” he said. “We are trying to recapture the excitement we had when we first moved into the building.”

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