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Government experience helps Nelson shepherd transition process
November 30, 2006

He has served as a trusted adviser to the new presiding bishop and continues to serve her on some special projects.

The Rev. Canon Robert Nelson, canon to Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in Nevada, spent the week immediately after her investiture examining operations at the Episcopal Church Center in New York – a process he describes as conducting a “learning, rather than a review.” He also chairs the nominating committee for a new chief operating officer for the church center to succeed Patricia Mordecai.

“It’s been hard for [Jefferts Schori] to find an organization chart of the presiding bishop’s office, how things really get done,” he said. His week-long assessment will help her gain an understanding of running the office, he said, noting that there are “some canonical regulations, some bylaws of Executive Council and some practicalities” to learn.

“I have been working with some very … forthcoming people,” he said, including former Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold. The presiding bishop’s office is “not unlike the way that government works,” he said.

Detonation expert

Nelson knows well how government works. He spent 34 years working for the federal government and another 11 as a consultant researching organizational issues similar to those found in the church. An electrical engineer by education, he retired from the Department of Energy as manager of the Nevada Operations Office.

He claims to be the only Episcopal priest who ever detonated a nuclear device – actually more than 20, all underground, at the Nevada Test Site. He has walked and talked with nuclear protestors and with members of the site’s security forces.

“My real objective was this – to have the protestors focused on the issue: ‘Does the U.S. need a nuclear deterrent or not?’”

He said he worked with many people in the Department of Energy, “who believed that if we ever detonated a nuclear weapon in anger, we have failed. [That concept] is really important, especially to me.”

His route to ordination occurred through Nevada’s total ministry program. He recalled how the late Bishop Wesley Frensdorff, then bishop of Nevada, had asked the Energy Department for someone to speak about nuclear waste and nuclear power. Frensdorff “was probably the most anti-nuke person in the entire world,” he said. When Nelson’s parish subsequently called him as a priest, and Frensdorff called him and said, “I want to support you in that.” “I was speechless,” Nelson said.

He was ordained by the late Bishop Stewart Zabriskie, Frensdorff’s successor, and has served as chair of Nevada’s commission on ministry and as secretary for the Domestic Missionary Partnership, a coalition of small and rural dioceses.

He will continue to live in Nevada with his wife, Kathy, and serve at parishes in Tonopah, Boulder City and elsewhere. He also plans to assist Bishop Jerry Lamb, retired bishop of the Diocese of Northern California, who will be assisting bishop in Nevada until a successor to Jefferts Schori is elected.