Regional Court of Appeals Upholds Guilty Verdict of Head SDFC Pastor Dee Kelley 

SD First Church: courtesy of Lainie Alfaro

Editor’s Note: The following story contains an edited quote attributed to Brandon Sawyer regarding the openness of the San Diego First Church of the Nazarene. The quotes have been modified for clarity and brevity, with the intent to convey the essence of Sawyer’s statements accurately.

Additionally, references to errors made during the Regional Board of Discipline trial are presented as alleged errors according to Dee Kelley. The terms “alleged errors,” “suggested errors” and “claimed errors” underscore that these claims are attributed to a specific source and may not represent definitive or universally accepted information.

On Dec. 5, The Point was notified by Elizabeth Schmelzenbach that Kelley submitted an appeal to the Church of the Nazarene General Court of Appeals on Dec. 4. Edits regarding Kelley’s appeal status were added to the end of the article.

The Church of the Nazarene Regional Court of Appeals upheld the guilty verdict from the Southern California District Advisory Board and rejected former Senior Pastor of San Diego First Church of the Nazarene (SDFC) Dee Kelley’s appeal on Nov. 20, confirming that he is required to surrender his credentials.

The appeal verdict follows Kelley’s Sep. 9 filing after he was determined guilty of false teaching of human sexuality and stripped of credentials by the Church of the Nazarene Regional Board of Discipline’s (RBD) on Aug. 14. 

The first verdict came after three pastors in the Southern California Nazarene district, Lead Pastor of Escondido First Church of the Nazarene Becky Pape, Senior Pastor of Arlington Avenue Church of the Nazarene JJ Murillo and Senior Pastor of Spring Valley Community Church of the Nazarene Steve Babbitt, who were also serving on the District Advisory Board, reported Kelley to District Superintendent (DS) Thomas Taylor. They reported Kelley following the publication of his essay, “A Hope for Change” in Nazarene Theologian Thomas Jay Oord’s book, “Why the Church of the Nazarene Should Be Fully LGBTQIA+ Affirming.”

Read reporting on the initial trial in The Point’s article, “Church of the Nazarene Votes to Remove Head Pastor Dee Kelley’s Credentials as New Rulings Affect Local Pastors.”

The following timeline of events that transpired was created through statements Kelley included within his Notice of Appeal.

Kelley wrote the essay in February and informed the SDFC board that he submitted the essay for publication on March 14. He presented the essay to the board alongside the sexuality and marriage statement from the Church of the Nazarene Manual.

On the same day, he sent his essay and a cover letter to DS Taylor. Three days later, DS Taylor called Kelley asking to meet. The two met in Kelley’s office at SDFC on March 18, where according to Kelley, DS Taylor accused him of false teaching and asked him to both resign and surrender his credentials. 

“I respectfully declined, stating that I did not believe that I had violated my vows as a member. I also did not believe that I had taught contrary doctrine,” Kelley said within the Notice of Appeal. 

Three days later, on March 21, DS Taylor called Kelley on behalf of the District Advisory Board and asked that he surrender his credentials and resign, citing that he had violated his ordination vows. On March 23, DS Taylor asked to meet with the SDFC board on March 24 without Kelley present.

The Board of General Superintendents issued a ruling that declared the Covenant of Christian Character and Covenant of Christian Conduct essential doctrine on March 29, making the sexuality and marriage statement from the Manual (paragraph 31) doctrine. 

Oord’s book containing Kelley’s essay was published in April. 

The District Advisory Board met on May 18; they were presented with the letter of allegation and formed an investigative committee.

The District Advisory Board had its first meeting on May 29.

On June 5, Kelley was asked to meet via Zoom with the investigative committee to answer clarifying questions. He was told that it was not a time to present his perspective or case. The meeting was chaired by district secretary and adjunct professor at PLNU Steve Rodeheaver. 

On June 22, the District Advisory Board met, received the investigative committee’s report and made the charges against Kelley. The following day, Kelley was notified of the charges.

On July 11, Kelley was informed by General Superintendent Carla Sunberg via email that the Regional Board of Discipline was selected.

Kelley’s initial trial was on Aug. 11 and the initial verdict convicting him of false teaching was delivered on Aug. 14. His appeal was submitted on Sept. 9 and was received and confirmed by the court on Sept. 11. 

Alleged Errors Found in Regional Board of Discipline Trial

This timeline is one of the areas in which Kelley, assisted by an attorney in Oklahoma City who is also an ordained Deacon in the Church of the Nazarene, found problems. 

“The inclusion of the Covenant statements, found in the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, as essential doctrines of the Church is seen by many as a significant shift in the posture and polity of the Church,” Kelley said via email. “However the Regional Court of Appeals contends that it was reasonable for those responsible for the original verdict (the Regional Board of Discipline) to assume that the Covenants were essential doctrines of the CotN [Church of the Nazarene] even before the Board of General Superintendents ruled it as so in their March 29th memorandum. I personally find that indefensible.”

Per Kelley’s Notice of Appeal, there were errors in the following: procedures from receipt of accusations to formal charges, procedures from formal charges to the hearing, during the hearing and in the hearing’s verdict.

The alleged errors in procedures from receipt of accusations to formal charges entailed violating the Church of the Nazarene Manual’s expectation for resolution by reconciliation and expectation for resolution by agreement, conflict of interest at multiple levels of the accusation process and Kelley not being accorded the presumption of innocence

“I was not asked if I could retract my essay from publication,” Kelley wrote within the Notice of Appeal.  “I was not asked if we could meet with the church board and come to agreement on an appropriate response. Apparently the two words in my essay, ‘I disagree,’ were enough to preclude any consideration of agreement and move toward the termination of a 41-year career of serving Nazarene institutions.” 

The Notice of Appeal stated that the alleged errors made in the procedures from formal charges to the hearing involved violating the Church of the Nazarene’s Manual requirement of disclosure, selecting members of the RBD that did not represent the region of the accused pastor, violating the Manual’s requirement for Kelley to be represented by counsel of his choosing and excluding Kelley’s character from being considered as evidence for the charges he received.

During the appeal hearing, the suggested errors included the RBD’s lack of guidance or definitions for crucial terms, making rulings without evidence, not ruling on some objections, allowing interruptions, denying Kelley the right to cross-examine, mishandling Kelley’s burden of proof and the procedure’s statement being unfairly prejudicial.

Kelley’s Notice of Appeal states, “No instructions or definitions were given to the Regional Board of Discipline to guide them in their deliberations and decisions when certain critical terms were key to their decision. What does it mean to ‘teach’? What are the precise parameters of the Church’s ‘doctrinal statement’ at the time the Essay was written? What was the effect of a BGS ruling issued after the publication of the Essay? These questions were never asked, nor were there instructions about, or consideration of, a range of lesser disciplinary actions provided by the Manual that could have been taken.”

With no guidance provided to the RBD about defining terms like “teach,” “holds” and “beliefs,” Kelley’s actions were dependent upon the RBD’s interpretation.

Elizabeth Schmelzenbach, SDFC member and department assistant of Point Loma Nazarene University’s Department of Sociology, Social Work and Family Sciences sent a letter to the District Advisory Board in support of Kelley on May, 28. She is one of many who have written in support of Kelley — either in a letter or social media post — about their experiences with Kelley in the church.

“In my consistent attendance at San Diego First Church of the Nazarene, I have not heard Pastor Dee voice any views from the pulpit, Wednesday night teachings or even casual conversations about LGBTQ+ affirming or otherwise,” Schmelzenbach wrote. “I did not find his essay to be prescriptive or to have a teaching tone […] I know that he would also be clear about any differences between his personal views and the current verbiage in the Church of the Nazarene manual.”

The claimed errors in the verdict were stated as a retroactive conviction, criteria for discipline, discipline not commensurating with the offense, unclear definition of doctrine statement and verdict’s harm to the Manual

The Notice of Appeal stated that “Each one of these errors meets the standard set forth in the [Church of the Nazarene] Manual, paragraph 607, ‘If the court discovers any substantial error prejudicial to the right of any person, it shall correct such error.’ In light of these alleged errors, the two options provided to the Court are to order a new hearing capable of giving relief to that person affected adversely (Manual 607), or reverse a finding of guilt (Judicial Manual J502).”

Taylor and Assistant District Superintendent Wink Davis of the Southern California District of the Church of the Nazarene did not respond after two requests for comment.

Impact on SDFC Staff

Per paragraph 159.5 of the Church of the Nazarene Manual, “upon resignation or termination of the pastor, any associates shall also submit their resignations effective concurrently with the pastor … [and] a local church board may request that the district superintendent approve the continued service of any or all associates.” 

For this reason, SDFC Director of Communication & Connection Tyler Ellison said that the future of the church’s leadership — comprising nine full-time and part-time staff members — is up in the air. 

“All of us on staff are submitting letters of resignation … and so then it’s up to our church board, and/or the newly selected senior pastor, when they are selected, to either accept or reject those letters of resignation,” Ellison said. “It’s just a very transitional and uncharted time that we can’t say for sure what it’s going to look like in the next month or two.”

According to paragraph 159.5 of the Church of the Nazarene Manual, ” […] upon resignation or termination of the pastor, any associates shall also submit their resignations effective concurrently with the pastor.”

For SDFC’s youth pastor Lexii Ybarra Mercado, the idea of resigning from the church is hard to grasp.

“Not only have we lost our boss, but now we’re at risk of losing our jobs because of a decision that we didn’t even make,” Ybarra Mercado said. “So there’s some of that layer of confusion of like, not really seeing the perspective of why [we’d resign]. And, at the same time for church structures where maybe a Nazarene pastor went through this process and lost their credentials because of an affair or because of the misuse of funds or something, in my mind, I’m like, ‘Oh, well, maybe you would want to clean house because we want a place of healing because this pastor hurt the congregation.’ In our case, it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. It feels like we didn’t have any part of this. And now we’re bummed because what do we do when we feel like our pastor doesn’t deserve this?”

Ybarra Mercado has been a member of SDFC since 2012, a staff member since 2022 and was raised in the Church of the Nazarene. She is also a PLNU alumna (‘16 undergraduate, ‘20 graduate) and the current PLNU assistant director of admissions. 

“The Nazarene church is all I’ve ever known,” Ybarra Mercado said. “And so there’s this sense of gratitude because it has been a foundational part of my faith, and it’s been a big part of my upbringing and so many of my memories. At the same time, it’s been kind of a pretty heartbreaking situation because the church that I’ve known and loved my whole life doesn’t feel like it’s listening or paying attention to people in need.”

Outside of his pastoral role, Kelley has assisted with the organizational administration of SDFC. According to Ellison, the church’s board has opted to keep Kelley on the payroll to keep the church operating as a functional business.

“We need him around to do what our church does to keep the lights on, like the facilities and finances,” Ellison said. “Those pieces weren’t handled by anybody aside from Dee for the last 17 years, so you can’t just turn things over to a brand new person.”

While the resignation of current staff members is instructed by the District Advisory Board, Ybarra Mercado said if the DS and District Advisory Board deem SDFC as a “church in crisis,” the DS can override decisions made by SDFC’s board when rehiring new staff.

If the DS determines “that a church is in an unhealthy, declining situation of which threatens the viability of the church and its mission effectiveness, the district superintendent may pursue contact with the pastor or the pastor and the church board to evaluate the circumstances.”

If the DS concludes that further intervention is necessary after working with the church’s pastor and/or board, they can get approval from the District Advisory Board to remove the pastor, dissolve the church board or initiate other interventions.

Impact on SDFC Board Members and Congregation

According to SDFC board member and PLNU professor of kinesiology and biology Brandon Sawyer, the church started updating the congregation about Kelley’s trials at Sunday services in October.

“Neither [the District Advisory Board nor the Regional Board of Discipline] have any direct communication with us the church board,” Sawyer said. “They just communicate with Dee. I think there’s a thought that the [SDFC] board might know more than the church does in general. So pretty much we’re updating the church weekly on whatever we find out.”

Ellison said the Church of the Nazarene’s leadership has appeared to concentrate on higher-level doctrine and policy, rather than caring about the health and community at each particular church. 

“So many of us love Dee so much as our pastor, boss and friend,” Ellison said. “It’s super unnerving just to know that this decision made by a small group of denominational leaders that don’t know our names, don’t come to church on Sunday, don’t know anything about our congregation, that they’re making such large decisions that impact the day-to-day lives of our congregants and our employees.”

As of Dec. 2, the District Advisory Board and RBD have not communicated with SDFC’s board members or staff about the future of SDFC’s leadership.

On Sunday, Nov. 26, SDFC staff invited Kelley to attend the church’s service. Ellison said it was an opportunity for Kelley to share his comments about the trial and an invitation for the congregation to respond through prayer stations and writing notes to their pastor.

“That’s kind of the cool thing about First Church is that we’re not all of one mind on the LGBTQ issue,” Sawyer said. “There are people on all sides of the belief on what they think God’s plan is for people as far as sexuality, sexual preference and gender. But it just shows the beauty of our church in that everybody supports Dee.”

Kelley said that while the response of the district and general church leadership has been disappointing, the actions of SDFC and other local churches have been uplifting. 

“My wife, my family and I have felt supported and encouraged beyond anything we could have expected. The heavy emotions of frustration, sadness and anger brought about by these circumstances have been balanced by peace, contentment and joy brought about in part by the kindness of others.  There is nothing more powerful than love,” Kelley said via email.

Kelley has the option for one last appeal to global representatives from the denomination, according to paragraph 608.2 of the Manual, to the General Court of Appeals rather than the regional court. On Dec. 4, he submitted the appeal to the General Court of Appeals.

Per Kelley’s appeal to the General Court of Appeals, he wrote: “In presenting this case I (the appellant) intend to show the ways in which the Regional Court of Appeals did not follow the Manual, the ways in which the Regional Board of Discipline did not follow the Manual and the ways in which the DAB did not follow the Manual. All of these constitute errors prejudicial to the appellant and merit a reversal of the verdict.”

See the latest appeal below. 

This is a developing story. The Point will continue coverage in the coming semester.