Last February, elders at Highlands Community Church in Renton, Wash., listened with disbelief as former Discipleship Pastor Alex Johnson recounted the trauma he had experienced due to the church’s mishandling of pastoral misconduct.
Several elders apologized. Some even wept with remorse.
“The sense of shock and sadness in the room was palpable,” Johnson told The Roys Report (TRR).
Three years earlier, Johnson had privately confronted former HCC Lead Pastor Jesse Campbell, who was hiding his DUI arrest. Although Campbell had disclosed a version of his arrest to elders—the board agreed to keep his crime a secret. And when Campbell spoke harshly about Johnson to staff members, the elders reportedly did nothing.
Then, three months later, two male staff members came forward with allegations that HCC Executive Pastor Derek Nelson had sexually abused them. Johnson urged the elders to commission an independent investigation. Instead, they quietly dismissed Nelson and assured Johnson that their investigation was sufficient.
Give a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report this month, and you will receive a copy of “The Ballot and the Bible” by Kaitlyn Schiess. To donate, click here.
So, in August 2020, Johnson resigned, broken and raw.
Since that time, the church has lost at least 15 staff members, attendance has shrunk from 2,000 to 900, and a new board is wrestling with the church’s past transgressions. Yet, in the past two-and-a-half years, the church seems to have made an about-face. And instead of covering up sin, it’s trying to expose it—and to reconcile with those who have been wronged.
In October 2020, HCC hired Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE) to conduct an independent investigation. The results of that investigation were released last Tuesday.
And last spring, the church mailed Johnson a formal letter of apology, acknowledging they did not heed his advice. They apologized for placing him in a position of secrecy, for not sticking up for him, and admitted to behavior that caused his family to “no longer be able to attend this church.”
Then, the church flew Johnson from his home in Colorado to Seattle for the February face-to-face meeting with the new board.
Johnson said he was “blown away” by the meeting. “They listened to me, and they heard me,” he said. “It was very validating.”
Johnson said the most significant change he saw was that HCC no longer seemed to prioritize protecting the institution.
“They were making themselves deeply vulnerable to me,” he said. “They laid it all out there, even putting themselves on the line. That was huge.”
Johnson’s ordeal with HCC began in February 2020. That’s when he says a church member called him, saying he had witnessed Pastor Campbell asking an auto shop employee to calibrate the car breathalyzer in his Dodge Charger.
Johnson and he and the churchgoer recognized the device as court-mandated for those convicted of alcohol-impaired driving offenses. The next day, Johnson approached Campbell privately in his office to ask what was going on.
He said Campbell confirmed that he had gotten a DUI in January 2019, six months after HCC hired him. Campbell reportedly said he was struggling with emotion over the death of his son in 2012 and “had a bad day” and “one too many.”
Campbell also told him he confessed to the elder chair and vice chair the day after his arrest. Johnson said he urged Campbell to confess before the church. Campbell reportedly told Johnson he desperately wanted to be open about it, but the elders insisted he keep quiet.
Johnson said he told Campbell that the situation was not “his story to tell.” But he disagreed with the decision, and if asked, would not lie for Campbell.
Then, in June of the same year, two male staff came forward to Campbell, alleging that Executive Pastor Derek Nelson, their mentor and boss, had groomed them as young employees and sexually abused them.
Campbell contacted the elder chair, and two staff pastors conducted separate interviews with the alleged victims. They also interviewed Nelson shortly afterwards.
Johnson said he attended a staff meeting Campbell called where leadership read a statement saying the church was firing Nelson for sexual misconduct against multiple adults.
The following Sunday, HCC announced that Nelson was being fired for “inappropriate sexual behavior.” Although Nelson admitted to the behavior, he was allowed to craft a statement to the congregation, which was included in the recent GRACE report.
Johnson said he wrestled with whether to report Nelson’s alleged abuse to police. He wasn’t sure why they hadn’t approached the cops themselves, so he didn’t know if he should. His dad, a retired cop, advised him that he would have to name the survivors to report the crime. Johnson was torn between helping the survivors and protecting their identities.
Given Nelson’s influence and control over teens and children for decades, Johnson urged the church to hire a third-party to investigate Nelson. But Johnson said Campbell adamantly refused to involve a third party, insisting that the church’s investigation was sufficient.
The next month, Johnson sent his resignation letter to HCC elders. In it, he stated the church had an “unhealthy culture” with “a different set of rules for senior leadership.” He added that his family felt so mistreated by the church that his wife and children stopped attending the previous year.
Two months after Johnson resigned—in October 2020—elders confronted Campbell, after discovering he had lied about the details of his DUI. Campbell had previously told the elders that his DUI charge had been dropped, which was false. According to court records, his blood alcohol level was around 0.08% and he was driving 18 miles over the speed limit, both which he significantly downplayed. Campbell reportedly acknowledged his dishonesty, and submitted his resignation.
To elders and staff, the events surrounding Campbell’s resignation exposed how badly the situation was spiraling out of control and their need for outside help. Soon afterward, HCC contacted GRACE to investigate.
GRACE report gives incriminating details
The 28-month investigation by GRACE revealed the extent of former pastor Nelson’s abuse and failure of HCC to handle the allegations properly.
Witnesses told GRACE that Nelson had an “in-crowd” of young men from the church, both teenagers and young adults. The group joined together regularly for nights of bathing in a hot tub, getting ice cream, seeing movies at the theater, and performing service activities for camp.
A former member of the “in-crowd” recalled many hot tub nights with Nelson, sometimes with naked boys participating.
Nelson would regularly pick a boy to sleep in the same bed at overnight camps, the report said. This was part of Nelson’s grooming behavior to normalize his actions, the report added.
The report also said the two survivors who came forward claimed they experienced sexual abuse during supposed “premarital counseling sessions.”
During the “counseling” Nelson was accused of providing and using images of sexual positions, using sexually oriented objects, and sexual activity in front of Nelson and Nelson touching their privates.
The survivors claimed on separate accounts that Nelson insisted on spending the night before their wedding with each man to “prepare the room.” They both said that though they felt uncomfortable, they agreed because they trusted him.
The report described a “bowtie” leadership system at HCC in which Nelson was the link between the church staff and the elder board. The report said that Nelson had a hand in every church ministry aspect.
A sign of Nelson’s influence is that even though he confessed to touching at least one survivor’s privates, the church still allowed Nelson to craft his departure announcement to the church.
“Including an apology from Nelson gave him a voice at a time the victims had no voice and allowed him to appear repentant when he had not confessed abusive behavior, but to ‘crossing a line,'” the report said.
The report said there should have been a “direct” and “unambiguous apology” to the reported survivors on behalf of HCC and HCC leadership. The church also should have acknowledged its failure to protect those under the care of an HCC pastor.
The GRACE report did not fully address Campbell’s DUI and how church leadership dealt with it. But it noted that the way church leadership dealt with Campbell’s DUI impacted how HCC responded to the abuse allegations against Nelson and treated survivors.
The 66-page report concluded with 18 recommendations on addressing the past, the present, and the future. Some of the advice mentioned generous funding for victims and policy updates that include a Safeguard team.
Hope for the future
Edmondson told TRR that while he is hopeful the church is healthier than it was a few years ago, “Many people are still hurting badly because of our church’s failures.”
Edmondson added that it was painful, but good, to hear Johnson’s story in-person. “There was a sweetness being able to express our sorrow over what happened and reaffirm our love for him,” he said.
When asked about the church’s relationship with survivor’s of Nelson’s abuse, Edmondson said “it is unique with each survivor.”
He added, “We know that we have sinned against them. We plan to publicly repent for the wrongs brought to light in the GRACE report, and we are hopeful that someday reconciliation could be possible.”
On Tuesday night, HCC published a response on their website to the GRACE report’s assessment.
The church said it would develop action plans for addressing each one of GRACE’s recommendations. In addition, HCC will host a congregational meeting on May 30 to answer questions, corporately confess their sins, and lament in prayer together as a church.
Johnson said he’s heartened by HCC’s response. Though he was initially skeptical that an “institutional” apology would mean much, it did. And he recommends it to other churches in similar situations.
But Johnson added he’s concerned that Campbell remains in ministry. Records show Campbell incorporated a new church, called Redemption Church, in the same city as HCC in February 2021—five months after his resignation.
Nelson is currently working for a seafood company. Johnson noted that other than the GRACE report, there’s no documentation of Nelson’s alleged abuse.
TRR attempted to contact Campbell, Nelson, and Redemption Church for comment, but no one responded.
Despite the trauma he and his family endured, Johnson said he’s still glad he spoke up and urges others in similar situations to do the same. “It’s going to hurt,” he said, “but at some level trust your gut. Do what you can. Speak the truth and go from there.”