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Transgender bishop asked to resign by Lutheran denomination leader

Megan Rohrer is the first openly transgender bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (John Hefti/Associated Press)

The presiding bishop of the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States has asked its first transgender bishop to resign amid criticism over their removal of the pastor of a Hispanic congregation on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December.

In a report published May 27, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, announced she had asked for the resignation of Bishop Megan Rohrer from the Sierra Pacific Synod denomination.

The request comes after Sierra Pacific Synod removed the Rev. Nelson Rabell-González from his position as mission director at Misión Latina Luterana in California on Dec. 12. The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, when many Mexican Americans celebrate their religious and cultural identities, commemorates the day in 1531 when many Christians, particularly Catholics, believe the Virgin Mary appeared in Mexico to a man named Juan Diego.

In a previous statement online, the Sierra Pacific Synod council said it had unanimously decided to vacate Rabell-González’s call after “continual communications of verbal harassment and retaliatory actions from more than a dozen victims from 2019 to the present.” Rabell-González denied those accusations to Religion News Service.

But Rohrer’s actions were criticized by the Asociación de Ministerios Latinos of the denomination as showing a “lack of empathy and understanding toward their Latinx siblings” and led Eaton to appoint a listening team to review what had happened.

The presiding bishop said she does not plan to pursue disciplinary charges against Rohrer, a decision the Asociación de Ministerios Latinos and other partner organizations also criticized. “I do not believe that the circumstances of these unfortunate events and Bishop Rohrer’s involvement in them rise to the level of formal discipline against Bishop Rohrer,” Eaton said.

“However, I believe that Bishop Rohrer has lost the trust and confidence of many constituents, both within and without the Sierra Pacific Synod.” According to the statement of the presiding bishop, “unwise decisions” are not automatic grounds for discipline in the denomination. But, Eaton said, she has asked Rohrer to respond after attending the Sierra Pacific Synod assembly next week, listening to constituents and prayerfully considering her request to resign.

In a statement published last weekend, the Asociación de Ministerios Latinos, the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice and Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries called the decision of Eaton not to pursue disciplinary charges against Rohrer a “culturally insensitive dereliction of duty.”

The three-person listening team also released a statement over the weekend saying her decisions “totally disregard the heart and intent of our report.” It said, “We do not want it to be supposed that our work is aligned with or supports the proposed actions.”

The listening team criticized Eaton for never once mentioning racism in her report. It urged the presiding bishop to make its findings public, saying it concluded “racist words and actions caused trauma and great pain to many people of color” in the Sierra Pacific Synod.

“To characterize racist actions as simply ‘insensitive’ or ‘misguided’ is to validate the charge against” the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America “that we are blind to the pain we cause our siblings of color. When we do not name and confess the sin of racism in our institutions, we are doomed to continue in its power,” according to the statement from the listening team. A spokesperson for the Sierra Pacific Synod did not respond to a request for comment.

During the 2021 synod assembly, where he was nominated for bishop, Rabell-González acknowledged allegations against him, saying he was accused of “verbally mistreating a pastoral intern and members of the church staff” in a previous position at a different church. The pastor, who is Afro-Caribbean, said he had been asked to resign from that church and sign a nondisclosure agreement, which he declined, after members complained about his support for Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights.

He welcomed an investigation into the allegations, he told the synod assembly. “I am not perfect. I’m just a sinner in need of God’s grace. But these allegations are a character assassination brought up exactly one day before this assembly,” he said.

In the end, Rohrer was elected bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod. The synod council created an advisory council to look into the allegations against Rabell-González and identified “compassionate steps” for him to take, which became part of the terms and requirements of his call, according to the council statement on the Sierra Pacific Synod blog.

Rabell-González informed Rohrer on Dec. 9 that he would not fulfill those terms and requirements, according to the council, which took action Dec. 11 at its regular meeting. He was told the next morning, on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, that his call had been vacated, it said. His congregation at Misión Latina Luterana was informed afterward and offered care by synod staff.

The synod council statement said the timing of its decision was necessary because staff continued to receive “communications of concern” regarding the pastor. “The synod council believed then and now that it would be irresponsible to postpone our decision until a later meeting for the severity of the situation required immediate action to safeguard the Latinx community,” it said. The council has apologized for disrupting the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Misión Latina Luterana.

So has Rohrer. “I understand that trust can be lost with one action and must be rebuilt with hundreds of trustworthy actions,” they wrote publicly in late December. “I am grateful to all who have educated me about the needs of the Latino/x/é community and remain committed to doing the work needed to repair relationships. The Sierra Pacific Synod and I seek to be ever-reforming in our anti-racism and anti-bias work.”

In addition to criticism from Asociación de Ministerios Latinos and the African Descent Lutheran Association, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries suspended Rohrer’s membership in late December after they dismissed Rabell-González.

In a written statement at the time, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, which organizes queer ministry leaders in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, accused Rohrer of “an existing pattern of behavior” that does not align with its vision, mission and values, “specifically as it pertains to being an anti-racist organization.”

The election of Rohrer in May 2021 made them the first openly transgender bishop in the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, and of any major denomination in the country. Rohrer also has celebrated being a neurodivergent bishop, part of their identity they said gets less attention.

Rohrer responded to several posts on Twitter expressing support for the bishop. “As requested, I’m listening deeply and prayerfully discerning,” they said in one tweet. In another, they wrote, “There has been so much more kindness and compassion expressed to me than anger, frustration and hurt. This fully human appreciates all the prayers.”

— Religion News Service