Bay Area gay man elected Lutheran bishop

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday September 27, 2023
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Bishop-elect Jeff Johnson will officially begin his duties December 9. Photo: Courtesy Jeff Johnson
Bishop-elect Jeff Johnson will officially begin his duties December 9. Photo: Courtesy Jeff Johnson

It was January 20, 1990 and three seminarians, Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, and Phyllis Zillhart, were to be ordained extra ordinem (contrary to the official church policy) in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Johnson, a gay man, was going to serve as pastor of First United Lutheran in San Francisco while lesbians Frost and Zillhart would minister at St. Francis Lutheran, also in the city. They were ordained at St. Paulus Lutheran Church in San Francisco at a service attended by over 1,000 people "who gathered to both affirm their ordination and to resist the ELCA's official policies of discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people," as Johnson stated.

All three were in violation of the ELCA's denominational policy of requiring lifelong celibacy of openly LGBTQ pastors. As a result of those ordinations, in 1996, both First United and St. Francis Lutheran would be disciplined and expelled from the denomination. This episode would play a pivotal role in fighting for queer equality and inclusion in the Lutheran Church.

Johnson again made ELCA history, when, on September 17, he was elected on the fifth ballot, by a vote of 226-168 (the Reverend John Keuhner, pastor of Unity Lutheran Church in South San Francisco, was the other candidate) to serve a six-year term as bishop of ELCA's Sierra Pacific synod, which includes Northern and Central California and Northern Nevada. Johnson is the first openly gay man to be elected bishop in the synod. After his term as pastor ended at First United Lutheran in 1999, he became pastor of University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley.

This election was not the nail-biter that the one in 2021 was, when Johnson lost by two votes to Megan Rohrer, the first openly trans person to serve as bishop of a major U.S. Christian denomination. Rohrer, however, resigned under pressure in June 2022, after firing a Latino pastor at a Central Valley church on the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a sacred day for Latino Christians, as previously reported by the Bay Area Reporter.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton after an investigation requested Roher's resignation. Eight days later with Eaton announcing she would begin a disciplining process including suspension, Rohrer resigned.

In March, Rohrer, now using male pronouns, filed a federal lawsuit alleging he was demeaned, harassed because of his gender identity, defamed as a racist, and eventually pushed out of the Sierra Pacific Synod, causing a breach of contract since Rohrer was appointed to a six-year term. Rohrer claims he was terminated for blowing the whistle on the church's violation of California labor laws. He also claims the firing of the Latino pastor was justified.

In his suit, Rohrer stated, "While bishop, the church resisted my efforts to make the church more inclusive to the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized groups and forced me out of my role. My hope is that this lawsuit accelerates the changes that LGBTQIA+ folks, and all historically underrepresented groups, need to be safe and equal in our church."

Johnson succeeds Rohrer as bishop-elect. Johnson married his husband, J. Guadalupe Sanchez Aldaco, in 2014. They live in Oakland's Piedmont neighborhood. Johnson, 61, spoke with the B.A.R. in an email interview.

Johnson stated that he was surprised by his election.

"Even as I had prepared for the possibility of my election, I was stunned," he wrote. "It was a very serious process of communal discernment. There was a slate of excellent candidates, any of whom would have made a wonderful bishop for our synod. I was stunned, at the end of the day, that I was the one chosen. Stunned and energized, even as I know there is so much I need to learn about this role.

"Our interim Bishop Claire [Burkat] likes to say that nobody knows how to be a bishop. 'We elect a pastor and raise up a bishop,' she says. Our synod elected a pastor. Now I'm looking forward to the congregations and people of our synod teaching me how to become the bishop," he added.

While Johnson is the first openly gay man to be elected bishop in the Sierra Pacific synod, there are other LGBTQ bishops in the ELCA.

"Remember that the synod is a geographic designation," he wrote. "There are 65 synods in the ELCA. This one covers 181 churches in Northern California and Northern Nevada. And while I may technically be the first openly gay bishop of our geographic area, this is hardly a new thing for us. We elected an openly trans bishop in the last election, and I will be the fifth openly LGBTQIA+ bishop elected throughout the ELCA. I am currently one of three, joining Bishop Brenda Bos (Southwest California Synod) and Bishop Kevin Strickland (Southeastern Synod)."

Johnson believes the ELCA has definitely turned the corner for good. "Discrimination and bias are on the losing side among us. Affirmation, diversity, resistance, welcome are all prevailing," he stated.

In these days of polarization, Johnson was asked why would anyone want to be a bishop, especially because criticism on social media can be fearsome.

"I love being a pastor. A bishop is a synod's pastor," he wrote. "I've been in Berkeley for over 20 years. As a pastor here, I have baptized, confirmed, and married; curated liturgy, preached, and celebrated the sacraments; cultivated vocations, nurtured service, and forged solidarity. I have picketed, protested, invoked sanctuary, built resistance to supremacy, and organized in community."

Johnson expects he will continue to do some of these same activities as bishop. "Additionally, I will ordain rostered leaders and help place them in churches, foster our diversity and unity, repair relationships, build alliances with ecumenical and interfaith partners, plan for the future, create space for emerging models of ministry, respond to crisis and emergencies, etc."

Johnson discussed how he would approach his new role. "The most important thing I will do is what all pastors do, perhaps what all followers of Jesus do: bear witness in what I say and how I live my life to the unconditional loving kindness at the center of all things. It is this loving kindness that creates joy and generosity and gives us what we need to live with gratitude and courage," he stated.

Johnson also wrote about what he hopes to accomplish. "We have urgent work ahead of us, given any number of overwhelming, era-defining problems we face as a people: the climate emergency and the collapse of planetary sustaining systems; the rise globally of antidemocratic authoritarian governments; desperation; mass migration; our enmeshment with the systemic evils of racism, misogyny, nationalism, heterosexism, etc.," he stated.

Johnson is concerned that his denomination is not as ready as it needs to be.

"For the problems ahead of us our visions and programs can be too timid, our small congregations too tenuous, and our relationships too fragile," he stated. "Our organizing around candidacy, mobility, and interim transitions can be too slow, overly bureaucratic, and anachronistic, sacrificing vital momentum and energy. Now is the moment for initiatives that build resilience, strengthen connection and collaboration, and create a sustainable community. I hope to be part of helping to lead this moment."

The B.A.R. asked Johnson about Rohrer, specifically, about outreach to Latino Lutherans, who have reportedly felt demoralized in the aftermath of Rohrer's tenure.

"A couple of years ago, our assembly made the beautiful and bold decision to call as our bishop the Reverend Dr. Megan Rohrer, the first trans bishop elected to a denomination in the U.S.," he wrote. "Dr. Rohrer's election was a sign of how much progress the church has made in resisting heterosexism and homophobia. We all celebrated this election as a sign of the church's welcome and affirmation.

"Dr. Rohrer's tenure was difficult and they stepped down after a year in office. There were a lot of reasons for this. But many communities within our synod felt demoralized and discouraged. There is significant repairing of relationships and rebuilding of trust that needs to happen among us in the synod, with synods across the ELCA, and with our ecumenical and interfaith partners. I am committed to help with this process of repair, and to deepening our spiritual practice of becoming an even more anti-heterosexist, anti-sexist, and antiracist community of faith," Johnson added.

Making history

After January 20, 1990, Johnson could never have imagined that he would one day be elected a bishop in the ELCA, and in that respect much progress has been made in the denomination.

"Prior to these ordinations, I graduated from seminary along with three other gay men, the so-called Berkeley Four," Johnson wrote. "Because we came out as openly gay, none of us were recommended by our bishops for call to congregations. They were not allowed to hire us. We were supposed to just disappear. But because of the courage of First United and St. Francis Lutheran churches, the story continued. In spite of the church's official policy, they hired us as their pastors and were disciplined as a result."

Johnson continued, "The policy of discrimination was eventually overturned 19 years later in 2009 after much activism, education, and legislative battles at all levels of our church. During this period, we created an alternative program of credentialing so that LGBTQIA+ pastors had a choice of not disappearing — they could be called by other congregations throughout the U.S. who also wanted to resist the policy."

In 2009, the denomination voted to allow the ordination of openly LGBTQ+ clergy in committed relationships. In 2010, these four were received onto the ELCA's roster of clergy, their ordination recognized in a huge liturgical celebration. Johnson stated, "In 2010, after the ELCA changed its policy, almost 50 of these pastors were officially received back onto the church's official roster, including myself" in a huge welcoming service.

More work to do

Johnson said the ELCA continues to be accepting but has more to do.

"This church is on the path to becoming a more welcoming, affirming, reconciling, and trustworthy space and partner when it comes to race, gender, and orientation. But it has a long way to go in its anti-oppression work," he stated. "I intend to continue to stand with the many in our church who are committed to this work and to the ongoing and difficult struggle of addressing the personal, structural, and systemic changes that we need to make to be beloved community, together."

Johnson wrote that he has gained a lot both from his experiences over the years and from other queer people across religious traditions.

"I have learned so much from the struggle for life and love that LGBTQIA+ people are forging across denominations," he noted. "So many champions of justice! So much sacrifice! So many steps forward. Especially during this era of rising hatred and violence against us."

Johnson is astounded even in the small steps some of these people have taken under homophobia and transphobia in their churches.

"In each place and within each church context/culture, given the constraints and parameters that are unique to each denomination, there has been sustained resistance to discrimination and amazing forward movement," Johnson wrote. "Not always in an unswerving line. But enough so that collectively we have confidence, we know that we have the wisdom, the perseverance, the courage, and ability we need to claim our right not only to exist, but to live authentically, to love fully, to partner expansively, to form resilient community together."

Church attendance in decline

Lutherans, similar to other mainline Protestant denominations, are in decline. The Gallup organization has tracked this over the decades and in 2021 reported that U.S. church membership had fallen below a majority for the first time.

Johnson commented, "Churches across the country are having a hard time of it. But it is not the people who are the problem. Our churches are full of beautiful, faithful people. It is the structural model that we have inherited from the 1940s and 1950s when churches sprung up on every corner and citizens were pushed to join churches in large numbers as part of a national identity project during the Cold War. Remember, this was the era when "in God we trust" showed up on our currency, when "under God" was written into the Pledge of Allegiance, when the U.S. tax code was changed to the benefit of religious nonprofits, etc."

Having to deal with this reality, Johnson wants to create space for new structural models to emerge.

"The story of God's unconditional loving kindness remains the same; it is even clearer now that it has been decoupled from the Cold War identity project of the 1940s and 1950s. What is still elusive, however, is what the new structures will look like and how they will be sustainable and resilient!" he wrote. "But I have no doubt that something new will emerge, (they already are in synods across this country), if we but create space for it, and are willing to change, to experiment, to dream, and to risk something new together."

Johnson will begin his duties November 1. For the next six weeks, he will say goodbye to his beloved parish community at University Lutheran Chapel Berkeley that has been "at the center of my life for over two decades." Johnson's installation ceremony will occur Saturday, December 9, though the time and place are still being arranged.

Updated, 9/28/23: This article has been updated to clarify the resignation of former bishop Megan Rohrer.

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