May 12, 2021

Highlands Family, 

The purpose of this message is to update you on the progress of the GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) investigation. As you may recall from our first communication regarding the GRACE investigation, GRACE began their independent investigation on November 4, 2020 into sexual misconduct* committed by Derek Nelson during the time of his employment at Highlands. The investigation is expected to take 6-12 months.

*GRACE has been engaged to investigate any instances of sexual misconduct. This term is not used to minimize what happened to known survivors, but is rather a broader umbrella term that includes sexual abuse. The term sexual misconduct is used to investigate any and all other actions that might not rise to the level of abuse, but still fall under the umbrella of sexual misconduct. Given Derek’s role overseeing children and student ministries for many years, the investigation scope includes any sexual misconduct involving minors.

You can learn more about GRACE on their website:

What is the status of the investigation?

GRACE is conducting an independent investigation. In order to maintain the integrity of the investigation and GRACE’s independence from Highlands, GRACE is providing very limited and general information about the investigation status while the investigation is ongoing. Consequently, Highlands has only limited information to share until GRACE provides us with their final written report.

The investigation process includes two broad phases: 1) the data collection phase; 2) the report writing phase. Read more about their process.

GRACE is currently in the data collection phase and has been interviewing individuals within the Highlands family, including the initial male victims who first brought the accusations of sexual abuse against Derek Nelson. To this point, we have not publicly communicated the gender of the two initially-identified victims. As a general practice, GRACE does not typically recommend naming the gender of the victims so that potential victims of both genders feel the freedom to come forward. However, the two initially-identified victims feel strongly that their gender be revealed so as to encourage reporting. Highlands and GRACE believe it is important to listen to them and honor their request. While the reported victims are male, we want to encourage any and all victims of sexual misconduct, regardless of gender, to come forward and share their stories with GRACE.

Who can I contact if I am a victim or I have relevant information to share?

We urge anyone who is a victim of sexual misconduct or who has relevant information to contact GRACE in confidence. The investigation and assessment is being led by Lee Ann James with GRACE, and she can be reached directly by email at Please be assured that any contact you have with GRACE will remain completely confidential.

What is Highlands’ Leadership doing while waiting for the outcome of the GRACE investigation?

Highlands’ leadership is responding in several ways during this period of waiting:

  • HCC has been providing outside independent professional counseling to the two known victims, as well as other support.
  • HCC is pursuing long-term relief for identified victims through insurance.
  • HCC’s elders and elder candidates are deepening our understanding of sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, and abuse of power within the Christian community by learning from experts. Resources which we have found valuable and which we commend to you include:
    1. Abuse of Power: How the Church Can Respond, a webinar hosted by Jessica Minhas, Diane Langberg, Boz Tchividjian, and others.
    2. Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing, a book by Jay Stringer.
    3. Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, a book by Diane Langberg.
    4. When Sexual Assault Victims Speak Out, Their Institutions Often Betray Them, an article by Psychology Professor Jennifer J. Freyd.
    5. Why Grooming is So Hard to Spot: The Truth, an article by Dr. Jessica Taylor.
  • HCC’s pastoral care team is providing care and referrals to professional counseling. Please contact Barry Brenden, Michele Jancola, or Jim Munson if you need support for issues related to the GRACE investigation or for unrelated issues of trauma and abuse. We want to be a church who listens, grieves, and weeps with all victims of abuse and trauma.
  • HCC’s current governing elders are leading an intensive onboarding process for the elder candidates. Lord willing, the new elder candidates will be installed in August 2021 as the new governing elders of Highlands. We pray that new leadership will be part of restoring trust and confidence within our church.
  • HCC’s Kids and Students leadership have reevaluated and updated our safety procedures to ensure our church is a safe and trustworthy place for children of all ages. In addition to the national background check and reference check requirements we have already had in place, we will now be implementing child sexual abuse awareness training for all team members serving with kids and students as one more safeguard against sexual misconduct in our church. We will be implementing this new training in the coming weeks, beginning with those serving at student ministries summer camps.

Church-wide Prayer Meeting

We realize this is a sensitive and heavy subject. We want to invite you to a night of prayer on Sunday May 23 at 6:00 pm in the Highlands Renton Auditorium. This night will be focused on lament for the victims of any and all sexual abuse. We invite you to this intentional time of seeking the Lord together as a church. Our elders and elder candidates will be present to speak with you and pray with you.

We pray that the Lord will use this season to refine each of us, making us more holy and faithful as a church. Thank you for your prayers, faith, and commitment to each other and to Highlands during this difficult season. May the Lord be glorified in each of us and in His church.

The Board of Elders 
Highlands Community Church