Four weeks have passed since Bishop Megan Rohrer and the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA removed Rev. Nelson Rabell-González from his position as pastor and mission developer of Misión Latina Luterana in Stockton, Calif. In that time, Rev. Nelson and his supporters have repeatedly called for the ELCA to investigate his case.
Unfortunately, it seems that the Churchwide office is unwilling to undertake this investigation, based on a statement by ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. “The way in which the ELCA is structured as presiding bishop, I do not have the authority to interfere in the actions of synod councils and bishops,” she said in a Jan. 6, 2022, statement to the ELCA Latin Ministers Association. (You can read the full statement here.) This is not entirely correct, since both the synod and churchwide jointly called Rev. Nelson as a mission pastor. But we’ll focus on the premise of Bishop Eaton’s inaction at a later time.
For now, I want to explain why the ELCA needs to investigate the case of Rev. Nelson Rabell-González.
Both Pastor Nelson and I are ELCA clergy and have been friends and colleagues for twenty years. We both love the Lutheran church. But we have been frustrated and appalled at the way the ELCA’s institutional structure, governance, and policies have been used to enable, cover up, and perpetrate systemic racism against clergy and congregations of color. I’ll write more about these systemic issues in a future post. In the meantime, this piece focuses on the timeline of events that led to Pastor Nelson being vacated from his call on Dec. 12, 2021.
Why is this recounting of events and facts necessary?
Ever since allegations were made against Rev. Nelson in May 2021, he has called for a full investigation. The only process that occurred was the convening of an Advisory Panel which only interviewed some of the parties involved. They saw no evidence, since that was not their role. So in this piece, I will explain the timeline of events which raise concerns that warrant a full investigation.
How do I know this information?
What I share here will be things that are either publicly available, or I have been given permission to publicly disclose. I will not make any accusations or reveal confidential information. I am only laying out the sequence of facts and events that should make it obvious that the ELCA needs to investigate the case of Rev. Nelson Rabell-González.
We begin with a speech made by Rev. Frances Le Bas on May 8, 2021, at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly. She was a nominee for At-large Person of Color/Primary Language Other than English voting member to Churchwide Assembly.
Here is a portion of Rev. Le Bas’s speech which is available to the public. (You can watch the full speech here at minute mark 2:15:32.)
“As a victim of abuse in my life, I feel revictimized by comments made this morning that I perceived as defending my abuser. I’m a victim of misogyny, disrespect, and threatening comments by a fellow Puerto Rican pastor. The situation was not about discrimination based on race and ethnicity. It is about personal misconduct unbefitting of a person in a pastoral role and in a position of authority. At this point, I was going to withdraw my nomination for this position and for Synod Council. But I will not. I will not be victimized again.”
Incidentally, Rev. Le Bas lost the election, 246 to 188. But she was elected (running unopposed) to a position on the Synod Council later in the Assembly. Remember this fact; it will be important later.
We must be very clear. Rev. Nelson Rabell-González was never accused of sexual misconduct by Rev. Frances Le Bas.
What were the accusations? This part is unclear. Why? Because in the ELCA, formal written charges are only filed at the discretion of a bishop to initiate a formal disciplinary process. And in the case of Rev. Nelson, neither Bishop Holmerud (who retired on June 30, 2021) nor Bishop Rohrer (who was elected at the 2021 Synod Assembly) chose to initiate such proceedings.
Why didn’t either bishop initiate a formal disciplinary process against Rev. Nelson?
This part is also unclear. What we know is that Bishop Holmerud appointed an Advisory Panel whose function was to interview the parties involved and recommend a course of action to the bishop.
What was the recommendation of the Panel? This we don’t know.
We do know that Bishop Rohrer chose not to initiate a formal hearing. Why? This an important question to ask. And here is the reason.
If the charges were so serious, why was a disciplinary procedure not initiated?
Why hasn’t anyone other than Rev. Nelson and his supporters called for a formal disciplinary procedure? If Rev. Nelson is truly an “abuser,” shouldn’t he be disciplined to the fullest extent? Doesn’t the victim deserve justice, if it is warranted? If there is evidence that Rev. Nelson is a perpetrator of “misogyny, disrespect, and threatening comments,” shouldn’t that be brought forward? And shouldn’t he have the opportunity to defend himself against these allegations?
As we consider these questions, let’s look back on the events that led up to the accusations against Rev. Nelson.
Buckle up. This is a long and complex story. But it’s important to see all the pieces of the puzzle before us.
March 2018: Rev. Nelson was called as Associate Pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Lodi, Calif.
Rev. Nelson graduated with an MDiv from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in 2002. Prior to his call at St. Paul, he served Gethsemane Lutheran in Dorado, Puerto Rico, from 2002 – 2004. Then he served Apostles Lutheran in Turnersville, NJ, from 2005 – 2018.
At St. Paul, Rev. Nelson served under Rev. Mark Price, senior pastor.
St. Paul is a primarily white congregation that wanted to initiate a Spanish-language ministry in the Central Valley. Rev. Nelson was called to begin that ministry. Over the next three years, he connected with families in the community and built up a worship service with anywhere between 60-100 in attendance. He supplied PPE (personal protective equipment) to immigrant farm workers during the pandemic. He taught Confirmation classes to the youth. And he arranged for cultural and religious celebrations important to the Hispanic and Latiné community. In short, he had a thriving ministry.
However, he was also an activist on behalf of refugees, immigrants, and those without documentation. And he was an outspoken critic of the racism he witnessed in the community. This activism caused consternation among some members of the congregation.
(As a side note, the community is home to white grape growers who hire immigrant farmworkers. There is an interesting dynamic when there are two clergy in a congregation, one who primarily pastors the growers, and one who pastors the workers.)
August/September 2018: Seminarian Frances Le Bas begins her internship at St. Paul.
During her internship, there was tension between Rev. Price and Rev. Nelson regarding Frances’ husband who, according to what Rev. Nelson has told me, interfered in the internship and ministry of the church. The text messages between Rev. Nelson and Rev. Price give evidence of these tensions.
Why am I sharing this information? Because this is a fact that needs to be investigated. It has a bearing upon the allegations against Rev. Nelson.
Also, during this time, Mr. Le Bas was contacting certain female members of the Spanish ministry. There was also a domicile relationship with one of the families from the congregation. Rev. Nelson was not aware of this until much later, as we will see.
I will not comment on the nature of these contacts, other than to say that I have seen written documentation. These need to be investigated and the women should be interviewed. Why? Because what they have to share is important for understanding the context of the allegations. (Hint: Listen to the women.)
June 2019: Frances Le Bas finishes her internship at St. Paul. Rev. Mark Price keeps her on as a pastoral assistant, a position she holds until January 2020.
Tensions between Rev. Price, Rev. Nelson, and the Le Bas’s regarding the ministry of the church continue. I will not comment on the nature of these tensions. However, I can attest that there are text exchanges that must be part of the investigation regarding the allegations against Rev. Nelson.
Fall 2019: Rev. Nelson is nominated for bishop in a pre-nomination process for the Sierra Pacific Synod.
Rev. Mark Price is also nominated in the pre-nomination process.
Feb. 1, 2020: Rev. Frances Le Bas is ordained to serve as pastor of Our Redeemer Lutheran in Livingston, Calif.
Nelson writes an article (uncredited byline) about her ordination for the local newspaper The Lodi Sentinel. Also, Rev. Le Bas invites Rev. Nelson to preach at her installation at Our Redeemer in early March 2020.
May 2020: St. Paul serves as fiscal agent to distribute moneys from a Coronavirus Relief Fund grant through Faith in the Valley.
While Rev. Nelson identifies undocumented families in need and assists in coordinating these relief efforts, no money passes through his hands. Why is this important? Keep reading.
June 2020: Latina members of the Spanish-language ministry at St. Paul confide to Rev. Nelson that Mr. Le Bas has been contacting them.
Rev. Nelson reports this information to Rev. Mark Price, Senior Pastor, as per protocol. Again, I will not comment as to the nature of these contacts. But they need to be part of the investigation into the allegations against Rev. Nelson. (Reminder: Listen to the women.)
Sept. 2020: Rev. Nelson co-founds A New Lodi, an organization that advocates for progressive causes.
That same month, Rev. Nelson and activists lead non-violent protests in support of Black Lives Matter. These protests were in response to the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. On Nov. 10, 2020, the L.A. Times publishes an article about the backlash Rev. Nelson and other activists received, which you can read here.
Fall 2020: Rev. Nelson works to coordinate a $50,000 Covid relief grant through Faith in the Valley for Rev. Le Bas’s church, Our Redeemer, to distribute to families in need in Livingston.
Faith in the Valley is an interfaith organization spanning five counties in California’s San Joaquin Valley to work for “racial, economic and environmental dignity for all people.” Rev. Nelson is one of Faith in the Valley’s board members. Later, he secures another $60,000 grant for Rev. Le Bas’s congregation.
Nov. – Dec. 2020: More members at St. Paul complain about Rev. Nelson’s activism and anti-racism work.
There are text exchanges between Rev. Price and Rev. Nelson regarding these complaints. This is important for understanding the context of the NDA (non-disclosure agreement) that comes up later.
An NDA? In the church? Yes – keep reading.
Jan. 2021: Rev. Frances leaves her call at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church.
Feb. 12, 2021: Rev. Mark Price and the Executive Committee of St. Paul meet with Nelson to ask him to resign.
They tell Rev. Nelson that “it’s just not working out” because he has been so outspoken about racism in the community. Wealthy and influential members of the congregation are threatening to leave if he does not resign. Note: There is no mention of any tension between Rev. Price, Rev. Nelson, and Rev. Le Bas at this meeting. In other words, Rev. Nelson was not asked to resign because of anything having to do with Rev. Le Bas, as far as he is aware.
Rev. Nelson is presented with a “Separation Agreement” – a non-disclosure agreement that stipulates he must refrain from talking about his experiences at St. Paul. The agreement also stipulates that Rev. Nelson not disclose the existence of the NDA to anyone but his immediate family, and that they are not allowed to speak about the NDA either. (You can read more about that NDA here.)
Rev. Nelson refuses to sign the NDA. He reports the NDA to Bishop Mark Holmerud and one of the assistants to the bishop. Bishop Holmerud works with Nelson to begin a new mission start in Stockton, Calif., a town that neighbors Lodi.
(Note: In the ELCA, new mission starts are funded both by the ELCA Churchwide Office as well as the individual synod in which the mission is located. The call to the mission start is extended by the Synod Council, not an individual congregation. But the call is also coordinated with the Domestic Mission Unit of the ELCA. In other words, the ELCA does, in fact, have jurisdiction over this case with Rev. Nelson.)
Feb. 28, 2021: Rev. Nelson resigns from St. Paul Lodi. On March 1, he begins the new mission start, Misión Latina Luterana.
After meeting in family homes for a few weeks, they begin worshiping at Zion Lutheran Church in Stockton on March 28. Many of the congregants who had attended the Spanish language service at St. Paul begin attending at Misión Latina. Their attendance is not solicited by Rev. Nelson. Rather, word spreads in the community that he is now pastoring this new mission start, and they follow him there. The congregation offers Covid-19 vaccination clinics. They reach out to undocumented individuals and families to help them access city services. They host cultural events. And they connect immigrants and refugees with organizations that teach them tools for community organizing.
In other words, Rev. Nelson has established another thriving ministry.
March 7, 2021: Rev. Frances Le Bas becomes Interim Associate Pastor of Spanish Ministries at St. Paul Lutheran in Lodi.
Recall that St. Paul is where she served as intern from 2018 – 2019. She fills Rev. Nelson’s position and begins presiding over the Spanish worship services. However, by late March, the service fails to attract a significant number of worshipers. This is evident from videos of the services as well as from reports of people who attended the services.
March 28, 2021: Mr. Le Bas contacts a board member at A New Lodi. This initiates an exchange that continues intermittently over the next month.
Recall that A New Lodi is the organization that Rev. Nelson helped to co-found. I will not speak to the content of the exchanges between Mr. Le Bas and the board member. But this board member has given a written account of this exchange to Rev. Nelson. Rev. Nelson offered this information to Bishop Rohrer, but they refused to investigate.
This exchange constitutes evidence that needs to be considered when there is an investigation of the case of Rev. Nelson. Why? Because it provides context for the allegations against Rev. Nelson.
April 29, 2021: The board member at A New Lodi asks Mr. Le Bas to discontinue contact.
There are other actions taken by Mr. Le Bas and by A New Lodi in response to Mr. Le Bas. These also need to be taken into account when considering the allegations against Rev. Nelson.
May 5, 2021: Bishop Holmerud sends an email to Rev. Nelson regarding allegations of behavior “not consistent with expectation for the Rostered Ministers of the ELCA.” This is the day before the Synod Assembly begins.
Bishop Holmerud informs Rev. Nelson that he must either disclose the allegations during his speech as a nominee for bishop or withdraw his nomination. Rev. Nelson agrees to disclose the allegations and does not withdraw his name from the nomination process.
(Note that Rev. Rohrer was themself [Rohrer uses they/them pronouns] involved in a lawsuit at the time of the nomination that involved allegations against them. But they were not required to disclose this.)
May 7, 2021: Nelson gives a speech at the assembly and reveals that St. Paul had tried to get him to sign an NDA.
He states that he believes he is the target of “character assassination.” He calls for a full investigation of the allegations, asserting that he has evidence that will clear his name. (You can watch Rev. Rabell-González’s 5-minute speech here at minute mark 1:16:28.)
May 8, 2021: Rev. Frances Le Bas gives her speech as a nominee to be a voting member for the Churchwide Assembly.
As stated above, she revealed herself to be the one who made the allegations against Rev. Nelson. Thus, she has gone public with this information.
May 8, 2021: Both Rev. Frances Le Bas and Mr. Luke Price are elected as members of the Synod Council.
Luke Price is the son of Rev. Mark Price, senior pastor at St. Paul Lodi. This detail will be important later.
May 8, 2021: Rev. Megan Rohrer is elected Bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod.
Rev. Rohrer is the first trans person elected as bishop in the ELCA.
May 11, 2021: Rev. Frances Le Bas contacts a leader at Faith in the Valley. A phone call on May 19 follows.
I will not comment as to the content of these exchanges. But I can say that a letter by this leader describing these exchanges was given to Rev. Nelson on Aug. 9, 2021. He shared this letter with Bishop Rohrer. These exchanges need to be taken into consideration when investigating the case against Rev. Nelson.
June 16, 2021: The Advisory Panel convened by Bishop Holmerud meets with Rev. Nelson to hear his response to Rev. Le Bas’s allegations.
No names, dates, or formal written charges are shared with Rev. Nelson in this interview.
June 20, 2021: Bishop Holmerud retires. Bishop Megan Rohrer begins their term on July 1.
In mid-July, the Advisory Panel submits their report to Bishop Rohrer.
July 30, 2021: Rev. Nelson has a phone conversation with Bishop Rohrer and one of the assistants to the bishop regarding the allegations.
I will not comment as to the content of this exchange other than to say that Rev. Nelson repeated his request for an investigation of the situation. Rev. Nelson was told that in lieu of bringing charges against him to initiate a disciplinary procedure, the Synod Council stipulated that he must do therapy as a condition of continuing his call at Misión Latina Luterana. (Hint: Recall who was elected to the Synod Council.)
August, 2021: Rev. Nelson signs an agreement relinquishing his HIPAA rights so that Bishop Rohrer can be in direct contact with the therapist.
He agrees to do this because he wants to continue his work at Misión Latina. Also, because he was assured that doing this therapy would not constitute an admission of guilt.
Sept. 3, 2021: Rev. William Knezovich sends a letter to Bishop Rohrer and Synod Council VP Gail Kiyomura about “baseless claims that the Rev. Nelson Rabell Gonzalez was embezzling monies from the California Immigrant Relief Fund.”
Rev. Knezovich is pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran in Fresno. The church served as the fiscal agent for the second round of Covid relief funds which Rev. Nelson helped to coordinate. Rev. Knezovich later meets with Bishop Rohrer and an assistant to the bishop. According to what Rev. Knezovich has told me (and has given me permission to share), the meeting did not go well.
I will not divulge the contents of the letter or the substance of the meeting. But those who investigate the case against Rev. Nelson will need to ask — who made these claims? Based on what evidence (if any)? And why? It’s important to ask these questions because they have a bearing on the case.
Oct. 7, 2021: A leader at Faith in the Valley sends a letter to Bishop Rohrer in support of Rev. Nelson.
This letter confirms that St. Paul was the fiscal agent for the first round of funding and that Rev. Nelson was the facilitator of the disbursements to over 1,000 families and individuals in need during the pandemic. The letter also responds to “concerns” regarding the disbursement of these funds and states that they do not believe the funds have been mismanaged in any way due to the system of checks and balances that are in place. Finally, the letter states that Faith in the Valley is “more than pleased with the level of professionalism and integrity” of Rev. Nelson.
Pause here. Who raised the “concerns”? And why would the leaders of both Faith in the Valley and A New Lodi feel the need to communicate with Bishop Rohrer in defense of Rev. Nelson? Those who investigate the allegations against Rev. Nelson must ask these questions because they are relevant to the case.
Late October, 2021: Rev. Nelson posts on his Facebook page about the NDA that St. Paul wanted him to sign.
October 25, 2021: Bishop Rohrer sends a formal admonishment via email telling Nelson to “cease and desist.”
The email states that Rev. Nelson’s posts are misleading and lack integrity because the document is a non-disparagement agreement, not a non-disclosure agreement. (However, this is incorrect. In this post, I explain that the document is indeed a non-disclosure agreement. The non-disparagement clause is just one part of the overall NDA.)
The email also reminds Rev. Nelson that he must undergo psychological testing by Nov. 25. Bishop Rohrer copies the psychologist on this email.
Nov. 23, 2021: Rev. Nelson’s lawyer sends a letter on behalf of Nelson to ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton asking for an investigation into Bishop Rohrer’s conduct.
The letter asks for Bishop Eaton’s assistance because of the way Bishop Rohrer has misrepresented Rev. Nelson to the therapist. The accusation of lack of integrity is based on Bishop Rohrer’s misinterpretation of the NDA and would taint the process of the therapy. Rev. Nelson also notes that without the impartial findings of a disciplinary hearing, the requirements for therapy are, indeed, an indication that he has been found guilty without due process.
Dec. 10, 2021: ELCA General Counsel sends a letter to Rev. Nelson’s lawyer declining to take action.
The letter argues that because the Presiding Bishop is not the employer or supervisor of synod bishops, and because she did not see any grounds for discipline of Bishop Rohrer, she declines to action.
Dec. 11, 2021: Sierra Pacific Synod votes to vacate Pastor Nelson’s call at Misión Latina Luterana.
Here is an important detail. There are two members of the Synod Council who are directly or indirectly involved with the situation regarding Rev. Nelson. Those people are Rev. Frances Le Bas (his accuser) and Mr. Luke Price (the son of Rev. Mark Price, Rev. Nelson’s former senior pastor).
Did Rev. Le Bas and Mr. Price recuse themselves from the discussions about Rev. Nelson? Did they recuse themselves from the vote? If not, this is a clear conflict of interest. In any case, full transparency about this process is necessary.
Dec. 12, 2021: Bishop Rohrer meets with Rev. Nelson to inform him that the Synod Council has voted to remove him from his call. It is the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the most sacred days in the Hispanic and Latiné culture.
Later that afternoon, Bishop Rohrer and two assistants to the bishop lead worship at Misión Latina. During the service, a parishioner calls out asking, “Where is Pastor Nelson?” The bishop and their staff tell the congregation they must wait until the end of the service to find out. In response, the congregation gathers up the flowers, the statue of the Virgin, and the cross and leaves the sanctuary.
(You can read this post for the full account of the day and why the Bishop’s actions have done such egregious harm to the Hispanic and Latiné community and their relationship with the ELCA.)
This is where our timeline ends . . . for now.
Having walked with Rev. Nelson through this whole ordeal since he first shared with me what was happening a year ago, I can say a few things.
- If there are multiple accusers, Rev. Nelson needs to know who they are. Vague rumors and speculation lead to violating the commandment not to bear false witness. And unsubstantiated accusations are simply unjust.
- If there are “victims” of Rev. Nelson, then initiate a disciplinary procedure against him. Allow him to see the charges in writing. Let the accusers bring their evidence. Let Rev. Nelson bring his evidence. Ensure due process for both the accused and the accuser.
- If we’re going to “listen to the victims”– listen to all the victims. And if we’re going to “listen to the women”—listen to the Latina women of St. Paul and Misión Latina. They have experienced pain and harm, and this needs to be investigated.
- If there was good reason to vacate Rev. Nelson’s call, let the Synod Council be transparent about that. What was the reason? Who had voice on that matter? Who had vote?
As we are considering these questions, remember something important. There are several white men who, thus far, have not had to answer for their actions in the case of Rev. Nelson Rabell-González. They benefit from diversions, obfuscation, cowardice, and protecting each other.
This is how white power works.
In the meantime, as those who advocate for women, and those who advocate for LGBTQIA folks, and those who advocate for Latiné folks are fighting amongst each other, white men in power walk away scott free.
And so does the ELCA.
How can you help?
The organizers who are supporting Pastor Nelson Rabell-González have asked that people contact the ELCA Churchwide Office (1-800-638-3522; Bishop.Eaton@elca.org) and ask for the following:
- Conduct a full, independent investigation of the charges against Rev. Nelson Rabell-González as well as the actions of the Sierra Pacific Synod.
- Reinstate Rev. Nelson Rabell-González as pastor and mission developer of Misión Latina Luterana.
- Issue a public apology to Rev. Nelson Rabell-González as well as to the congregation and the Hispanic community at large who have been traumatized by these events.
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Want to see the church free of NDAs?
Visit: https://www.ndafree.org/, a global movement with a vision to see individuals, Christian organizations, and local churches free from the misuse of Non-Disclosure Agreements.
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or 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).