You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

S.F. transgender Lutheran bishop resigns amid controversy over removal of pastor

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 6/6/2022 By Jessica Flores

The Rev. Megan Rohrer of San Francisco, who made history last year as the first openly transgender person to be elevated as bishop in the country’s largest Lutheran denomination, has resigned amid accusations of racism in their removal of the pastor of a predominantly Latino congregation.

Rohrer, who led the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA) and uses the pronouns they/them, said in a letter to the synod Saturday they were resigning due to “the constant misinformation, bullying and harassment” they experienced after the synod voted to remove the pastor on a symbolically important day for Latino Lutherans.

Rohrer removed Rev. Nelson Rabell-González following a two-year investigation by the church into more than a dozen incidents in which Rabell-González was accused of verbal harassment and retaliation, according to the Sierra Pacific Synod council. Rabell-Gonzalez denied the accusations. He was removed from his position as mission director of Misión Latina Luterana in Stockton on Dec. 12, the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe — a significant day for many Mexican American congregants, according to a report released Thursday by the ELCA.

The removal upset many of the Latino congregants, and Rohrer apologized for the timing of the action.

“While I am likely strong enough to continue serving as your bishop, I believe I would be a poor role model for my black trans children if I continued in this position,” Rohrer wrote in their resignation letter.

According to the Sierra Pacific Synod council, church officials laid out a set of recommendations for Rabell-González in July. In December, the council said, Rabell-González told Rohrer he would not adhere to them, prompting the church to remove him. The report by the ELCA found that Rabell-González did not refuse to adhere to the recommendations.

According to the council, Rabell-Gonzalez and the council agreed to meet on Dec. 12 to discuss his employment, and he was notified at 8 a.m. that day that he would be removed. Rabell-González told The Chronicle on Monday that he was not allowed to attend the church on Dec. 12, the Feast Day.

The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA, said on May 27 she had asked Rohrer to resign after reviewing an internal report on what had happened, but said she would not initiate disciplinary action.

But in a statement Monday, Eaton said she had decided to start the process to “immediately” discipline and suspend Rohrer, “based on additional information that has come to light.”

In an email to The Chronicle on Monday, Rohrer said, “The ELCA has decided to move forward with a discipline process, even after I resigned, without providing any specifics about what I allegedly did, and that appears to be in conflict with their own procedures.”

Rohrer said they decided to resign as bishop after “listening to the important and prayerful conversation” at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly last week, and after speaking with the Synod Council.

“The final details of that agreement are still being negotiated, but I believe in light of today’s news, this information should be made public,” Rohrer told The Chronicle.

A representative from the ELCA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


Video: Transgender people still face barriers to competent health care (USA TODAY)

UP NEXT
UP NEXT

Rohrer’s resignation brings an abrupt early end to the six-year term of one of the first openly transgender bishops in any mainline Christian denomination. Rohrer was installed as bishop at a joyous ceremony at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in September.

They had previously served as pastor at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Parkside neighborhood and chaplain for the San Francisco Police Department before being elected bishop in May 2021.

Rabell-González, who is Afro-Carribean, told The Chronicle on Monday that the resignation of Rohrer, who is white, is “the beginning of the vindication of my community and I.”

He denied the allegations made against him and said Rohrer’s decision to remove him was “definitely racism.”

“Without hesitation, Bishop Rohrer interrupted our celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, without any concern for the sacredness of the occasion, or the pain they were causing by removing me unjustly, without due process,” said Rabell-González.

He added that the church — mostly comprised of migrant workers and mixed status and undocumented families — was forced to leave its former location after the December incident and now operates as Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina, an independent Lutheran church.

In a statement posted online the day after the incident, Rohrer said the decision to remove the pastor was made unanimously by the Synod Council.

“It was heartbreaking, yet necessary as the synod considered the well-being of that community and those it serves,” the statement read.

In a statement in February, the Synod Council said it removed Rabell-Gonzalez after alleged accusations of verbal harassment and retaliatory actions from victims between 2019 and 2022.

“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.

Several groups, including the Asociación de Ministerios Latinos, criticized Rohrer and the Sierra Pacific Synod for the move. In a statement on Facebook, they said the incident “highlights a lack of empathy and understanding toward their Latinx siblings.”

“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,” the group said.

The Asociación de Ministerios Latinos did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rohrer issued a public apology Dec. 22 on behalf of the Sierra Pacific Synod and asked the Latino community for forgiveness.

“I understand that trust can be lost with one action and must be rebuilt with hundreds of trustworthy actions,” Rohrer wrote.

The December incident led Eaton, of the ELCA, to appoint a “listening” panel of three people to investigate what had happened and to come up with recommendations for the next steps. The 25-page report was released Wednesday.

“Let me state clearly,” Eaton wrote in a statement Wednesday. “The ELCA is a church that will not tolerate racism in any way. We will hold ourselves as fully accountable as any other person or group, and we will condemn racism wherever it exists.”

Jessica Flores (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jessica.flores@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jesssmflores

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Chronicle
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon