Accusations of verbal harassment, and countercharges of racism, brought some local Lutheran church drama to a boil, and SF’s historic first trans Lutheran bishop has resigned their position.
It was a great feel-good story of San Francisco trailblazing, and the modernization of archaic Protestant church power structures. Just over a year ago in May 2021, a pastor at the Outer Sunset’s Grace Lutheran Church got a big and historic promotion, as Rev. Megan Rohrer (they/them) was named the first transgender Lutheran bishop in the U.S. And that description may understate the significance, as NPR described Rev. Rohrer as “the first openly transgender person in the U.S. to [lead] a major Christian denomination.”
But the feel-good story is ending badly for Rohrer. The Chronicle reports that Rohrer resigned as bishop last week, amidst some highly complicated drama after she removed a lower-ranking reverend in the region, but then faced counter charges of racism for doing so.
The Lutheran Church politics at play here are certainly, forgive the expression, byzantine, and the controversy is not cut and dry. But now ex-Bishop Rohrer’s jurisdiction (roughly 200 NorCal and Nevada congregations known as the Sierra Pacific Synod) removed a Rev. Nelson Rabell-González in Stockton from his post last December 12.
This is the most opaque aspect of the story. The Chron reports that Rabell-González was accused of “more than a dozen incidents” of “verbal harassment and retaliation.” We were unable to find any documentation specifying the allegations, but a progressive Christian blog called Patheos has (highly biased) accounts from his spouse and from a reverend with whom he was close. Both focus on Rabell-González being asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).
But it seems a provocative misstep that the Synod fired Rabell-González on December 12, which is the significant Mexican-American religious holiday of Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day. Rohrer forbade Rabell-González from even showing up in church that day, throwing gas on the fire.
“In our action and timing to protect the known victims and others continuing to come forward, we caused consequences for the Misión Latina Luterana, the Latinx community, our Synod staff, our pastors and deacons, and the greater church,” the Synod Council said in a February statement. “This unfortunate situation is a clear and painful example of how systemic racism is deeply rooted in our church, and the long journey ahead of us to dismantle it.”
Rohrer apologized, but the damage seemed done. They were asked to resign May 27, and did so, but national bishop Rev. Elizabeth Eato said Rohrer could be further disciplined “based on additional information that has come to light.”
We don't have a clue what that information is, but it was Rohrer who came forward and took the story public with the Chronicle and other publications.
It's a seemingly ignominious end to Rohrer’s tenure, but they’ll likely land on their feet. Rohrer has previously served as SFPD chaplain, and is well-connected politically in SF.
Image: @mmrohrer via Twitter