There is a mainline Protestant denomination that, like its siblings, is losing congregations like an Akita shedding fur after a cold winter. Members as well, in the hundreds of thousands, are bolting for the denominational door, seeking freedom from the church’s full-bore embrace of same-sex marriage and attendant “liberations,” and relief from the social-justice harangues noising from their pulpits every Sunday.
What the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) does not need right now is a scandal involving race and transgenderism and a power play by what one commentator called a “corrupt, ‘racist’ ecclesial system.” But that’s what they’ve got out in California’s Central Valley.
Consider the hubbub in broad strokes: The Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA elects a transgender bishop, Megan Rohrer, first one of its kind in the synod, not to mention the denomination, or even the whole American Protestant ambit, and the elevation comes with the metaphorical balloon drops and confetti bombs that accompany first-this or first-that celebrations in lefty precincts. A couple of months later that bishop “fires” a Hispanic Lutheran pastor of a Stockton church but won’t say why. Okay, so we’ve got a little tension on the Hispanic–LGBTQIA+ fault line, right? No lefty likes to see a fissure in the grand alliance, but, hey, it happens — no new furrows being plowed here. But something doesn’t smell right. You’ve got a 97 percent white ELCA — the whitest denomination in all of America — that is all-in for the “woke” rebellion booting out a pastor of color! Oooh, can you say “bad optics”?
And then, a national LGBTQ group accuses the trans bishop of racism and kicks “them” (preferred pronoun) out of their sodality. A group called the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice calls for the bishop’s ouster, as does an LGBT-heavy congregation in the synod. A denominational “listening” panel is organized to get to the bottom of things; the presiding bishop (president) of the denomination gets involved; churches and pastors choose sides, and feces of all sorts hit the whirring ecclesiastical blades.
It all came to a head last week. Presiding bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, in a May 27 report to the church, requested Rohrer’s resignation from the synodal bishopric. Rohrer reportedly resigned June 4. The next day church leaders initiated a disciplinary inquiry into Rohrer’s December “firing” of Rev. Nelson Rabell-González of Stockton.
“The constant misinformation, bullying and harassment has taken too hard a toll in the Synod I love, my family and myself,” Rohrer posted on Twitter on June 6. Rohrer added: “I believe I would be a poor role model for my black trans children if I continued in this position.”
On to the story behind the story. According to accounts published at Patheos (here, here, here, here, and recapped here), written by a cleric sympathetic to the sacked Hispanic pastor, Rev. Nelson Rabell-González was called to be associate pastor by St. Paul Lutheran Church, a congregation in Lodi, California, in March 2018, to institute a Hispanic ministry at the well-to-do, largely white church. While there, he cofounded A New Lodi, an advocacy group designed to push progressive causes.
In June 2020, Rabell-González reported to St. Paul’s senior pastor incidents of sexual abuse by a member of the congregation against women in the Hispanic group. The senior pastor promised to look into it, but, to Rabell-González’s knowledge, nothing happened.
In September 2020, Rabell-González, with his advocacy group, organized a Black Lives Matter march in Lodi to protest the George Floyd death. This upset the locals, including wealthy, prominent members of his congregation, and a few months later, Rabell-González was asked by St. Paul’s senior pastor and the congregation’s executive committee to resign, and to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA), requesting his silence “about the racism he experienced in that congregation,” as Leah D. Schade, writing in Patheos, put it.
He did not sign the NDA, nor receive the severance package attached to it, but landed on his feet anyway, accepting a new charge in March 2021 from the Sierra Pacific Synod, to develop a Hispanic ministry in nearby Stockton. Within a month’s time, the Hispanic group from the Lodi church was traveling the 10 minutes to Stockton to worship with the newly formed Misión Latina Luterana.
Rabell-González decided to run for the office of synodal bishop, that is, presidency of the nearly 200 congregations that constitute the Sierra Pacific Synod. In early May, the day before Rabell-González was to give his nomination speech to the synodal assembly, he was first told by the current bishop about charges brought against him of harassing personnel at his previous church — he was, ironically, being charged with committing the same offenses he reported against a prominent member of his former congregation a year before. He was forced to answer these charges in his speech seeking the synodal presidency, a post for which he and San Francisco pastor Megan Rohrer, among others, were vying. He has denied the charges, labeling them a “character assassination brought up exactly one day before this assembly.”
Rohrer won, on the fifth ballot, 209 to 207, defeating a pastor from Berkeley.
Soon after “their” (remember: pronouns!) installation, Rohrer decided, rather than bringing charges against Rabell-González and proceeding with a disciplinary hearing, thus allowing him to clear his name, to require him to undergo therapy or relinquish his call. Rabell-González thought the therapy was rigged, so he refused. Writes Schade: “If he went through with the therapy, anything he said would be used against him to remove him from his synod-appointed position. At the same time, if he refused to go through with the therapy, this also would be used as a reason to fire him.”
Rabell-González appealed to the denomination, taking the matter to the top. On November 23, 2021, his lawyer sent a letter to Presiding Bishop Eaton, asking her to investigate the case, including concerns about retaliation against Rabell-González. On December 10 the ELCA general counsel informed Rabell-González that no action was forthcoming from denominational HQ.
And on December 12, Rabell-González was sacked, hours before his congregation was to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a particularly meaningful day for Hispanic Christians. The gala service (video here) featured mariachi bands and Aztec dances (traditional Lutheran worship elements 😉). Rohrer forbade Rabell-González to lead the service, however, and replaced him in the chancel (wearing a bulletproof vest!). The congregation expressed surprise at their normal pastor’s absence, then outrage, and finally walked out en masse during the service.
Within days, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, an LGBTQ advocacy group prominent for decades in gay clergy issues, suspended Rohrer from their body for “racist words and actions,” a move the group says it had been contemplating for much of 2021 and was, in part, in response to the events in Stockton as well as to an overall pattern of behavior.
In March 2022, the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice called for Rohrer’s resignation “as a first step in a sorely needed healing process” from the “acts of white supremacy perpetuated by Bishop Rohrer.” A week later, a church in Fresno, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, with a 50 percent LGBT membership, citing the aftermath of the Rabell-González situation but also Rohrer’s behavior at Rohrer’s previous congregation in San Francisco, unanimously passed a resolution accusing Rohrer of “a pattern of abuse, bullying, manipulation of facts, deceit, and character assassination” and calling Rohrer an “embarrassment to the LGBTQIA+ members” of the church, before requesting Rohrer’s ouster.
Shortly thereafter, denominational head Eaton organized a three-person panel to interview principals in the case; the interviews, she wrote, would “be times of holy listening to people who have been affected in various ways by the situation and report back to her.”
That report was released May 31. In it the panel recommended “that the Presiding Bishop [Eaton] bring disciplinary charges against Bishop Rohrer … with the full knowledge that such action could result in removal from the Office of Bishop and the removal from the ministry of Word and Sacrament of this church.” It also indicted the denomination as a whole, calling the events emanating from the “Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe” celebration “the result of a system of white power and institutional racism that exists throughout all expressions of the [ELCA].”
Schade sums up the report (remember: “they” = Rohrer): “The 24-page Listening Team Report demonstrates that Bishop Rohrer engaged in dishonesty, deception, duplicity, and manipulation. They spiritually assaulted and then neglected the Community after stripping them of their pastor, effectively cutting off their ministry with the ELCA. They abused their staff. And they refused to follow the ELCA Constitutional procedure and denied due process to Rev. Nelson [Rabell-González].”
Also, Rohrer reportedly engaged in a racist verbal assault against a 10-year-old Latina girl who was preparing for the worship service in the church’s sacristy, threatening to call the cops if she didn’t leave the room; this warranted particular attention in the panel’s report.
While Eaton initially balked at instituting disciplinary proceedings against Rohrer, intense criticism prompted her to rethink the decision.
As it stands now, Rohrer is gone from the bishopric and faces disciplinary action; and Rabell-González is in Puerto Rico, his ancestral home, awaiting a decision on whether he can return to his erstwhile rostered position in the denomination.
Mainline Protestantism long ago married the zeitgeist. And, as the saying goes, he who marries the zeitgeist soon gets divorced — in this case, from theology.