GRACE Investigation & Assessment update

SEPTEMBER 9, 2022




Highlands Family,
We are writing to update you that the GRACE investigation, which we first announced in October 2020, will be resuming this month. Because it’s been nearly two years since the beginning of the investigation, and because the investigation has been paused for one year, we also want to provide context for why we’re doing this investigation and let you know that our elders will be hosting a meeting to discuss these things and answer questions you may have. Details about this meeting are below.

What happened that warrants an investigation at Highlands?
In May—June 2020, two males brought accusations of sexual misconduct forward against a former pastor at Highlands, Derek Nelson. These men served in ministry with Derek at Highlands for years, and Derek was involved in counseling them as well. Upon receiving these accusations, our leadership team investigated the situation and determined the accusations were credible. Derek also confessed to “having crossed a line” and identified both individuals making the accusations. Immediately Derek Nelson’s employment at Highlands was terminated.

Our initial internal investigation confirmed that the allegations made by the two initial victims agreed closely with Derek’s confession. Thus, our initial conclusion was that an independent investigation was unnecessary. However, subsequent to these events, concerns about Derek were raised by some parents who have been connected to our high school ministry over the years. These concerns involved accusations of inappropriate pastoral conduct and grooming behavior by Derek towards males. In light of these concerns and Derek’s long involvement with Student Ministries, we decided to pursue further investigation into these matters. In August 2020, we began searching for a partner to perform an investigation, and we announced our engagement with GRACE in October 2020.

In hindsight, we wish we would have initiated with GRACE sooner as a way of immediately providing a safe outlet for any potential victims. Additionally, given Derek’s long tenure in Student Ministries, we could have better equipped our church to understand grooming behaviors and encouraged parents to ask their students about anything inappropriate they may have experienced. We now require all elders, staff, and Next Gen ministry volunteers to take sexual abuse and grooming awareness training at least once every two years.

Why are we partnering with GRACE for an investigation?
By partnering with GRACE, we are committing to pursue an independent, third-party investigation into our church in order to provide an additional safe, independent avenue for any additional victims to come forward. In addition, GRACE’s investigation will assess our church’s historical practices to help us identify any vulnerabilities we may have had in order that we might put every defense possible in place to prevent this in the future.

GRACE, which stands for Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment, is the leading evangelical organization specializing in awareness, education, and investigations of sexual abuse handling by religious organizations. GRACE’s team has extensive professional experience interviewing victims of abuse, perpetrators of abuse, and witnesses with relevant testimony. Their desire is to get to the truth of the matter so that compassion and assistance can be demonstrated to those who have been hurt and the institutional leaders can be equipped to make the necessary organizational changes that will create a safer community for the vulnerable and a less safe community for those who abuse. You can learn more about GRACE on their website: netgrace.org.

Why was the GRACE investigation paused and when will it resume?
The GRACE investigation was paused in August of 2021 for two reasons. First, GRACE became aware of an administrative issue related to their license to conduct investigations in Washington State. This issue has since been resolved. Second, one of the two known victims filed a civil suit naming Highlands and Derek Nelson as defendants. GRACE’s policy is to pause any investigation until any outstanding suits are resolved. We are thankful that a settlement was reached in July 2022 and the suit was dismissed in August 2022. We have been diligently working with GRACE to resume the investigation as soon as possible, and they have confirmed it will resume no later than September 12, 2022. We will share any updates about this as soon as we can.

What steps is Highlands taking to safeguard children and students?
Highlands has taken steps to evaluate and improve our safety policies to ensure our church is a safe and trustworthy place for everyone, especially our children and students. In addition to the national background check and multiple reference check requirements we have already had in place, we now require sexual abuse and grooming awareness training for all elders, staff, and Next Gen ministry volunteers at least once every two years. We are also committed to taking additional steps as needed to safeguard our congregation based on recommendations from the GRACE report.

Meeting with the Elders
We realize this is a heavy subject and it may affect each of us differently. If you have questions or things you’d like to discuss related to the GRACE investigation, we want to do our best to answer your questions as transparently as possible. You’re invited to a meeting with the elders on Sunday September 18 at 6:30 pm in the Worship Center, following our prayer gathering at 5:00 pm. We will do our best to answer your questions as transparently as possible. Additionally, as always, you are free to contact the elders through the elder portal if you would like to ask a question or arrange a meeting with the elders.

If you have experienced abuse or trauma of any kind in the past, we grieve with you and want to walk with you as a church. If you would benefit from care or a referral to professional counseling, please contact Pastor Barry Brenden at barryb@highlandscc.org. If you prefer to contact a public organization, the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center may be a helpful resource for you: kcsarc.org/contact.

We are deeply grieved by the sin and pain that has taken place in our church. Please join us in praying for God’s healing for the two victims who initially came forward and those who may come forward through the GRACE investigation. Please also pray that the investigation would bring truth to light and make Highlands a safer place for all people. May the Lord be glorified in each of us and in His church.

The Board of Elders
Highlands Community Church