PCUSA Stated Clerk, the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, was the featured plenary speaker at the All-Iowa Presbyterians Gathering on June 3, 2017 at Collegiate Presbyterian Church in Ames. Stated Clerk Nelson opened his reflection with the observation that there is a great challenge before us to find our way back to the essential connection between human beings that is forged through sustaining love. In a conflicted world, ecumenical and interfaith work becomes even more central to who we are. He noted how common and easy it is for us to conflate terrorism with Islam, for example.
In this context, our calling requires us to take risks to save humanity. Drawing upon Jesus’s definition of neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Nelson asked, who is our neighbor? The Good Samaritan, he noted, has to move beyond cultural scripting and culturally imposed boundaries in order to serve his fellow human being. This is radical love, what we are called to do today. This is reformation, a movement that transforms who we are so that we can live out whose we are.
This kind of love and acceptance has always been a challenge for our denomination, Nelson asserted. The antagonisms and misperceptions between the Northern and Southern streams of our body have not dissipated with reunion. Sharing an anecdote about befriending his college roommate from New York, a place he had been culturally taught to perceive as anathema, he noted that we need to accept one another’s stories, so that we are in deeper human relationship. “We have to go deeper,” Nelson advised, “for there is something about common rootedness in faith that we should not disregard.”
Stated Clerk Nelson addressed the perception that the church is dying and the accompanying criticism of his belief that the church is reforming. If we believe that we collectively carry the church in our hearts, he affirmed, then the church is not dead nor dying—nor has it been dying across the centuries. The institutional church is dying just as many previous forms of church have died. But in each instance when one form of church has passed away, God has reformed and reincarnated the church for the new moment in cultural history. This is the transformative experience that lifts up the essence of what it means to be the church—to be in love and commitment, in shared service with a willingness to sacrifice some of what is dear to us as change occurs. Reformation is a dynamic process that has been moving over the centuries, and the church has always been called to experience such a deep encounter with transformation, understanding that we are called to witness to the world, even at the risk of losing our lives as the church.
In this context, then, the institutions of the church must keep up with what’s going on in the world if they are to be effective. How do we live into this new reality? How do we become what the Lord wants us to be? How do we keep pressing on to be the church for the 21st century? As we seek answers to these questions, prayer and discernment become even more crucial practices for us. “For the Lord is calling,” Nelson proclaimed, “and the Spirit takes us places we never would want to go, but it can make something great our of us.”
Stated Clerk Nelson concluded his remarks with a specific reflection on the issue of church property. The disposition of church property, he observed, centrally involves discernment and stewardship. If we think of properties as mission centers, he noted, we change our focus about how we use our resources for mission. Sharing his father’s saying that “God ain’t makin’ no more land,” Nelson asked how we might creatively think through property situations as opportunities for ministry in these lean, transitional times to creatively utilize what we have. Affirming that we need to understand a theology of buildings, he said that church is the way we’re called to live.
This theology of building is intimately tied to other aspects of institutional life such as membership, voting power, and accountability. Presbyterian fellowships, Nelson explained, pay no per capita, but also have no ability to vote as a means to participate in decision-making bodies, and these groups also aren’t counted on denominational statistical reports. Since many of these groups are immigrant fellowships, this situation needs to be changed to welcome them more fully into the denomination.
How do we understand the work we are trying to do in righteousness? Christ call the Church to this work, even at the risk of losing its life.