ZELIENOPLE — The Rev. Jon Nelson first felt the call to faith in high school. It wasn't until after college he re-evaluated that feeling.
“I knew something was missing in my life,” said Nelson, 49. “I walked past a Presbyterian Church and I knew that's what was missing.”
The following Sunday, he attended service at that church where he eventually became an elder and met his wife.
“I felt God calling me back,” he said about his choice to go into the seminary.
Nelson, who has been a pastor for 20 years, started Feb. 2 at Park United Presbyterian Church, 115 E. Grandview Ave.
He grew up in Southern California about 30 minutes east of Los Angeles and attended the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., where he earned a masters of divinity degree in 2000 and recently completed a doctor of ministry degree in 2019.
He became a Christian in middle school.
“For me, it was kind of opening a door to a whole new world that was always there for me that I didn't know existed,” he said.
Nelson has seen God transform not only himself, but his family and life trajectory.
“For me, it's everything and incorporates being a loving father, a caring pastor, a good neighbor and loving my fellow man and woman,” he said about his faith.
During his time at seminary, Nelson was part of a group of seven other pastors from across the United States who were leading organization change as churches dealt with cultural shifts in society and how change can be encouraged.
Nelson also holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and a bachelor's of science degree in child development from California State University, Fullerton.
Nelson worked as a statistician for nearly three years before he felt the call to the ministry and the seminary.
His first call was to the Seattle area where he served several churches and was a mental health chaplain with the Church Council of Greater Seattle.
Most recently, Nelson served two Presbyterian churches, one in Marinette, Wis., and the other in Menominee, Mich., for about nine years, he said, adding he was the only Presbyterian minister in the area.
Although the churches were in separate states, presbyteries and synods, they were a mile apart in locations that were similar in size and population.
Park United Presbyterian Church is similar in size to his previous churches, he said.
Nelson and his family are excited to explore the state, he said, adding he enjoys Pennsylvania history.
As a mental health chaplain, Nelson enjoyed working with people and their families that struggle with mental health issues.
“We see a lot of that in the church,” he said. “The church is a place where people come to find solace.”
The other side of the job is working with children and youths, he said.
What makes Park United Presbyterian Church unique is that half the congregation is under the age of 40 and is made up of young families and children.
Its 9 a.m. contemporary service features a praise band that draws younger families. Children use a prop train and sing during the service.
Younger families are the key to growth, Nelson said, adding he wants to grow the contemporary service.
The 11 a.m. service is more traditional. Nelson wants to meet the needs of older parishioners who might feel left out as that younger population grows, he said.
He also hopes to engage and reach out to the community, he said.
Mainline churches and all denominations have seen a decline in attendance, he said.
“That's opened our eyes that we can't just do the same thing we've always done and expect different results,” he said. “Now in a postmodern era, you can't open the doors and expect people to come in. You have to go out and actually bear witness to the ministry.”
Nelson said he is excited to learn in this new ministry opportunity.
“I want to reach out to the community ... because of my past role working between two communities, I see myself as a bridge builder,” he said. “I want to try to get to know what Zelie has to offer and how we can serve Zelie better.”