ELCA Fires Whistleblower, Rev. Nelson Rabell-González

ELCA Fires Whistleblower, Rev. Nelson Rabell-González December 17, 2021

The saga of Rev. Nelson Rabell-González begins with a series of secrets.

As reported in my first post on this story, Rev. Nelson Rabell-González (pronouns: he/him) was fired by Bishop Megan Rohrer (pronouns: they/them) as pastor of Misión Latina Luterana in Stockton, California, on December 12, 2021. The white power structure of the ELCA wants to protect the secrets that have poisoned the relationship between the Hispanic community and the Lutheran church.  In fact, it’s done everything it can to silence Rev. Rabell-González who has, in good faith, tried to blow the whistle on these secrets.

Rev. Nelson Rabell-González

But as Jesus has said, “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light,” (Luke 8:17).

Full disclosure:  I am an ordained minister in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), and Rev. Nelson Rabell-González is my friend and colleague. I am writing this piece to help tell his story, because the polity of our churchwide system has shut him down at every turn.  There are details about this case that I am not free to share.  But I am calling for a full and independent investigation of Rev. Nelson Rabell-González so that the truth can be told and the secret-keeping stopped. 

Here’s what I can say based on public events and information available in the public domain, as well as details that have now been made public by members of Misión Latina Luterana.

Before serving as a mission developer for the Latinx congregation, Rev. Nelson (as many of his parishioners call him) had served as the Associate Pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Lodi, Ca., in the state’s Central Valley.  He served under Rev. Mark Price (he/him), senior pastor of St. Paul. This white, well-to-do congregation decided it wanted to support an Hispanic ministry, so they called Rev. Nelson in March 2018.  Rev. Nelson’s ministry to immigrant, migrant, and undocumented persons was about saving lives, strengthening families, and sharing the love of God through word and sacrament.  For example, he took PPE (personal protective equipment) to farm workers during the pandemic when their employers refused to protect them.  He advocated for immigration rights and undocumented workers.  And he led Spanish-language worship services averaging 60 in attendance.

Rev. Nelson also co-founded an organization called A New Lodi to advance progressive causes in one of the most conservative regions of California.  In 2020, following the police murder of George Floyd, he helped to organize a Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality.  Not surprisingly, members of the community, including some in his own congregation, retaliated.  As Rev. Nelson shared in his speech at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly in May 2021, wealthy, prominent members of the church, along with Rev. Price, demanded that he resign and sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in exchange for three months’ salary.

Why would a church want a pastor to sign an NDA? 

One reason is that they did not want Rev. Nelson to say anything about the racism he experienced in that congregation.

But there is another reason.

Rev. Nelson knew about a person at St. Paul who had engaged in inappropriate contact with a female member of the Latinx congregation.  He also knew about another woman who suffered emotional abuse from the same individual.  Rev. Nelson knew about these incidents because the women confided in him and trusted his guidance on what to do.  Rev. Nelson, following proper protocol as an associate pastor, reported these incidents to the senior pastor, Rev. Mark Price, in June of 2020 trusting that he would handle it appropriately.  In response, the senior pastor agreed that the behavior was inappropriate.  But, to Rev. Nelson’s knowledge, no action was taken.

(Note: this information was brought up by one of the women in Bishop Rohrer’s meeting with the Latinx community on Mon., Dec. 13th, following Rev. Nelson’s dismissal.  Thus, it is now public.)

Eight months later, in February 2021, Rev. Nelson was handed the NDA requiring his silence.

Did Rev. Nelson agree to sign the NDA?  No. 

“I did not sign the NDA, nor did I accept their monetary offer,” Rev. Nelson stated in his speech (which you can watch here at minute mark 1:16:28).

Rev. Nelson Rabell, speech for Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly, May 2021

In March of 2021, he left the congregation on his own terms and was called by the Sierra Pacific Synod Council to serve as the mission developer for Misión Latina Luterana.  St. Paul filled the vacant position by installing the former pastoral intern.  But by the end of March, the Hispanic congregation that had been worshiping at St. Paul left that church and began worshiping at Misión Latina which met at Zion Lutheran Church in Stockton, 10 minutes away.

After leaving St. Paul, Rev. Nelson learned that several other women had been harassed by the same person at St. Paul.  But he hoped for a clean slate for them at Misión Latina. Rev. Nelson thought that leaving St. Paul would be the end of the harassment – for the women and for himself.  He was wrong.

In May of 2021, Rev. Nelson was one of the candidates for bishop to replace Rev. Mark Holmerud (he/him) who was retiring.  His former senior pastor, Rev. Mark Price, was also a candidate.

The day before the assembly began, Bishop Holmerud informed Rev. Nelson that there were allegations that he had harassed the church’s former pastoral intern and members of the staff. Bishop Holmerud told Rev. Nelson that he had to disclose this during his nomination speech instead of sharing his vision for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion for their synod.

How interesting.  The very issue that Rev. Nelson had tried to report harassment of Latinx woman — was now being used against him.

(Note that Rev. Megan Rohrer was themself involved in a lawsuit at their former congregation, but was not required to disclose this in their synod speech. Neither was Rev. Mark Price made to answer for the allegations against Rev. Nelson that supposedly happened under his watch.)

These allegations, of course, torpedoed Rev. Nelson’s chances of being elected as bishop.

Yet to this day, no formal charges have been brought against him.  Yes, an advisory panel was convened to interview those involved in the allegations.  In that process, Rev. Nelson shared what he knew about the harassment experienced by the women at St. Paul, but this was disregarded.  Neither did the panel interview anyone in the Latinx congregation about the allegations against Rev. Nelson.

After receiving the panel’s report, Bishop-elect Megan Rohrer decided that instead of bringing charges and moving forward with a disciplinary procedure – which would allow Rev. Nelson to share the evidence that would clear his name – he would be required to undergo therapy instead.  And this would be a condition for him continuing his call at Misión Latina.

What was the purpose of this therapy?  This part is unclear since Rev. Nelson was never given a copy of the advisory panel’s report.

Nevertheless, the agreement stipulated that Bishop Rohrer would be able to communicate directly with the therapist and be permitted to see his records.  Yes, this was basically an agreement to relinquish his HIPAA rights.  But Rev. Nelson agreed to this so that he could move on with his ministry.

However, he changed his mind when the Bishop admonished him for posting on social media that he had he had been required to sign an NDA at St. Paul.  The therapist was copied on the admonishing email sent to Rev. Nelson accusing him of “lack of integrity.”

It was at that point that Rev. Nelson realized he was in a no-win situation.

If he went through with the therapy, anything he said would be used against him to remove him from his synod-appointed position.  At the same time, if he refused to go through with the therapy, this also would be used as a reason to fire him.

What recourse did Rev. Nelson have?

Feeling that his position and reputation were being threatened by his bishop, he contacted the ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton (she/her) to bring charges against Bishop Rohrer about the misuse of the ecclesial process against him.  Rev. Nelson’s lawyer sent a letter to the Presiding Bishop on Nov. 23rd asking her to investigate the case, including concerns about retaliation against Rev. Nelson.  The General Counsel of the ELCA sent a reply on December 10th stating that because the Presiding Bishop is not the employer or supervisor of synod bishops, and because they did not see any grounds for discipline of Bishop Rohrer, no action would be taken.

Two days later, at 8:00 a.m. on the morning of the most important cultural and religious holy day of the Hispanic community, Bishop Rohrer met with Rev. Nelson and informed him that they were firing him from his position at Misión Latina Luterana.  He asked that he at least be allowed to lead the community in worship because of the importance of the day.  The bishop refused.

At 12:30 p.m. the congregation of Misión Latina Luterana gathered to celebrate the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a service they had been planning for months.

But their pastor was nowhere to be found. 

The bishop and two of their assistants were there to lead the service instead.  Confused, members of the congregation called out during the service, “Where is Pastor Nelson?”  They were told they would have to wait until the end of the service to find out.

What happened after that is a story I will write about in a future post.  For now, just know that the community has been traumatized. Trust with the ELCA – a 97% white denomination – has been shattered. And the repercussions of this egregious violation are reverberating far beyond the Central Valley.

The ELCA fired a whistleblower. And Rev. Nelson, his family, and the congregation are left without any path forward for justice.

UPDATE: Bishop Rohrer and the Sierra Pacific Synod Council have removed Rev. Nelson from the ELCA roster of ministry as of Feb. 7.  Read the story here.

How can you help?

If you would like to stand with Rev. Nelson Rabell-González, we invite you to contribute to his Legal Defense / Life Expense Fund.

Click here:  https://fundly.com/nelsonsbills

The organizers who are supporting Rev. Nelson have asked that people contact the ELCA Churchwide Office (1-800-638-3522; Bishop.Eaton@elca.org) and the Sierra Pacific Synod (1-800-691-3207; bprohrer@spselca.org) to ask for three things:

  • Reinstate Rev. Nelson Rabell-González as pastor and mission developer of Misión Latina Luterana.
  • Issue a public apology to the congregation and the Hispanic community at large as well as to Rev. Nelson Rabell-González.
  • Conduct a full, independent investigation of the charges against Rev. Nelson Rabell-González.

The fact that Rev. Nelson has called for an investigation from the very beginning indicates that he has nothing to hide.  As he stated in his public address at the synod assembly, “I am committed to the truth. I am committed to the synod, to the church, my faith in Jesus Christ, and our collective faith in Jesus Christ.”

May Bishop Rohrer and Presiding Bishop Eaton share that same commitment to truth and faith.

(Read the next installment on the saga of Rev. Nelson here: The Day an ELCA Synod ‘Disappeared’ Pastor Nelson Rabell-González.)

Read also:

Part One: The Removal of Rev. Rabell-González: A Case Study in ELCA Corruption and Racism

Part Three: The Day an ELCA Synod ‘Disappeared’ Pastor Nelson Rabell-González

Part Four: The NDA, the Church, and the Attempt to Silence Rev. Nelson Rabell-González

Part Five: Why the ELCA Needs to Investigate the Case of Rev. Nelson Rabell-González

Part Six:  Pastor Nelson’s Wife Speaks:  The Year of Pain

“Is the ELCA an Inclusive Community?” by Yenny Delgado.  Her piece discusses the treatment of the congregation by the Bishop and their staff.

For a complete compilation of all documents, blogs, commentaries, and posts from all parties about the situation in the Sierra Pacific Synod, visit this website created by Shruti Kulkarni: https://whathappenedinthesps.weebly.com/. This website compiles communications relating to the controversy for accountability, clarification, and ease of access.

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is ordained in the ELCA. She does not speak for the ELCA; her opinions are her own.  She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).  Her latest book, co-written with Jerry Sumney is Apocalypse When?: A Guide to Interpreting and Preaching Apocalyptic Texts (Wipf & Stock, 2020).



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