Racism at heart of trans bishop's exit, but corruption allegations surface

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Friday June 10, 2022
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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bishop Megan Rohrer has resigned. Photo: Courtesy ELCA Sierra Pacific Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bishop Megan Rohrer has resigned. Photo: Courtesy ELCA Sierra Pacific Synod

Allegations of racism are at the heart of the sudden resignation of trans Lutheran Bishop the Reverend Dr. Megan Rohrer, but court documents also reveal allegations of corruption tied to a now-closed San Francisco church that they once led.

The catalyst for Rohrer's resignation as bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was their firing of a Latino pastor at a church in the Central Valley last December. But documents and court records show Rohrer's brief tenure was marked by controversy, with some incidents, such as the closure of their former church in San Francisco amid alleged financial misdeeds, taking place before their history-making turn as the first trans bishop of ELCA, the country's largest Lutheran denomination.

Rohrer resigned June 4, at the request of Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of ELCA. The move occurred a little more than a year into Rohrer's six-year term.

"After listening to the important and prayerful conversation at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly, I spent some time with my family and then had a conversation with the Synod Council," Rohrer tweeted June 6. "I resigned from the office of Bishop, effective around 4pm on June 4th."

Eaton's request came after the Sierra Pacific Synod's annual Assembly — which includes both clergy and lay members representing nearly 200 congregations in northern and central California, and northern Nevada — voted by 57% to remove Rhorer as bishop. That vote, however, was shy of the necessary two-thirds majority needed.

The presiding bishop announced on May 27 she had requested Rohrer's resignation.

According to a statement published by the Sierra Pacific Synod on its website, actions to dismiss Rohrer by Eaton were already in play.

"On Sunday, June 5, negotiations of the separation agreement continued and per our agreement, the resignation letter was not released," the statement began. "At 6:00 p.m. PT, the Conference of Bishops gathered via Zoom as Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton shared 'that she is initiating the discipline process immediately, including suspension of Bishop Rohrer, based on new information that has come to light that is beyond the scope of the Listening Team report.'"

Rohrer's run as bishop was controversial. While their election was hailed as a milestone and celebrated at their formal installation in September 2021 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the bishop had already run into problems at their first church appointment a few years earlier. (Rohrer also served in a volunteer capacity as chaplain for the San Francisco Police Department from 2017 until they were named bishop.)

SF church closes

In 2014, Rohrer was hired as minister — their first assignment — for Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, a small congregation in San Francisco's Sunset district. The congregation had been dwindling in size for a while by that point, and Rohrer was hired at a salary more than twice that of the previous pastor, according to a civil lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court in December 2018.

The church was also home to Grace Infant Care Center, or GICC, a secular child care service that had been renting space from the church since 1983. Brenda Moore, a member of the GICC board as well as Grace church, and other GICC board members filed the lawsuit. Efforts by the Bay Area Reporter to reach Moore for comment were unsuccessful.

As the church's membership and finances continued to dwindle, Rohrer apparently viewed the daycare as a source of income to help meet their salary which, at the time of hire, had been deemed beyond the resources of the church, the complaint states.

Hired at $90,000 per year with an additional housing allowance, Rohrer was responsible for supplying $40,000 of their salary through means outside the church. At that time, the congregation had a little more than half a million dollars in available funds, most of which "was residue from a bequest of real estate that had been liquidated," according to court documents.

Rohrer "failed to meet that commitment last year since and has breached her contract," the court filing states. Consequently, Rohrer's salary drained the bequest.

"From the date of defendant Rohrer's hiring through 2017, the church has run over budget at least $308,000, mostly as a result of her salary," court documents state, using incorrect pronouns for Rohrer. "The church has, as of June 13, 2018, approximately $275,000 in available cash, the vast majority of which is in its reserves left from the bequest. According to defendants, the church currently has only 15 members according to their June 2018 roster."

In October 2017, according to court documents, Rohrer suggested the infant care center move its payroll to the company ADP.

"Unknown to plaintiffs," the documents state, "the church placed its payroll in the same common account with ADP and used GICC funds to pay defendant Rohrer's salary. The church did not have enough funds to pay the church payroll and Rohrer used GICC funds to cover her [sic] salary. When the GICC board learned of these events after two months, it terminated ADP as the payroll processor and denied Rohrer access to the bank accounts."

At the time the court case was filed, plaintiffs told the court, "In its present condition, the church will be out of funds to pay defendant Rohrer's salary by the end of 2019. The congregation made a decision to close the church once the account falls to $200,000, which is anticipated to occur by the end of 2019."

Through various schemes detailed in the lawsuit, Rohrer attempted to seize control of GICC's assets, doing so successfully in one instance and, in another, by attempting to bring in a new daycare center, which would have had a larger number of children and paid a larger amount of rent to the church. This, according to the lawsuit, was in violation of the contract GICC had with the church.

Other charges against Rohrer detailed in the suit include stacking the church's board of directors, including the appointment of their wife to the board, not providing notice of meetings to members, thereby depriving some of the opportunity to participate in decision making, and appointing unqualified supporters to the board. Rohrer also attempted to have their two children, ages 4 and 5 at the time, placed on the voting roster of the church which, by then, was down to 22 members.

Eventually, in February 2021, the case was settled, with both parties agreeing to sell the church property and divide up the proceeds.

Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church closed in January 2022. Its members were asked to sign non-disclosure statements, according to the Reverend Leah Schade, a seminary professor and ELCA minister in Lexington, Kentucky, who has written about the Rohrer controversies on her Eco Preacher blog at Patheos, a website addressing religion and matters of faith. According to the website for GICC, the infant care center is planning to move to a new location. Its phone, however, has been disconnected.

Central Valley pastor fired

But it was an incident in December 2021 that seems to have given the most impetus to Rohrer's departure. Rohrer fired a popular Latino minister, the Reverend Nelson Rabell-González, pastor of Misión Latina Luterana in Stockton, on December 12, which happened to be the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, even after having been told doing so on such a culturally significant day could cause serious damage to a mission community of Latino/a congregants. According to a report issued to the ELCA by a "listening team" organized by Eaton to investigate the incident:

"Staff members also confirmed that Bishop Rohrer was repeatedly made aware of the potentially devastating effects of implementing that action on such an important day for this community. In addition, staff members reminded the bishop how this community had already suffered from an action by the synod when they were forced to abandon their home at St. Paul Lutheran Church, without previous communication or conversation."

Despite those warnings, Rohrer pushed ahead, much to the anger of the members of Misión Latina Luterana. A video of the service depicts the congregation reacting angrily to the realization that Rabell-González was not going to be present at the service and demanding that Rohrer explain what had happened. Throughout, Rohrer stood impassively, watching the enraged congregants as they demanded answers. The congregation, after removing a large statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe used for the service, left the church.

But the disastrous event at the mission was only the culmination of months of actions directed against Rabell-González. Prior to that, according to Schade, who's a friend of Rabell-González, he had been an associate pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Lodi, California, where he had been instrumental in building Latino/a membership.

It was at the Lodi church that Rabell-González was approached by more than one Latina congregant who complained about being harassed by a white male member of the church, said Schade in a phone interview.

Rabell-González approached the senior pastor of St. Paul's at that time, Schade said, to tell him what he had been told by the women, which he was required to do, and he trusted that the senior pastor would do the right thing, as well. Instead, Rabell-González was accused of doing the same thing by that congregation's intern, the Reverend Frances Le Bas.

In a speech later in May to the Sierra Pacific Synod, Frances Le Bas told the assembly "As a victim of abuse in my life, I feel revictimized by comments made this morning that I perceived as defending my abuser," Schade quoted the pastor. "I'm a victim of misogyny, disrespect, and threatening comments by a fellow Puerto Rican pastor. The situation was not about discrimination based on race and ethnicity. It is about personal misconduct unbefitting of a person in a pastoral role and in a position of authority. At this point, I was going to withdraw my nomination for this position and for Synod Council. But I will not. I will not be victimized again."

Schade said she feels this was an act of retaliation.

Rabell-González had been actively involved in anti-racism efforts as well as helping undocumented immigrants. He had successfully brought in many new Latino/a members at St. Paul's but his actions, according to Schade, were drawing the ire of some of the white members of the church (The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is 97% white). Several prominent members of St. Paul's told church leaders "they would withdraw their financial support from the church because of his involvement with Black Lives Matter and migrant rights," Schade wrote in her blog.

Greater consequences

The accusations leveled against Rabell-González would have even greater consequences.

Earlier, in February 2021, Rabell-González was asked by congregation leadership to resign and to sign a seven-page separation agreement containing both non-disclosure and non-disparagement statements. The pastor went to then-Bishop Mark Holmerud, who told him if were to leave, he would be assigned to a new mission of his own. He started that new call — Misión Latina Luterana in Stockton — the first Sunday in March, said Schade. Most of St. Paul's Latino/a members followed the pastor to his new assignment.

Rabell-González, however, refused to sign the separation agreement, and Le Bas was appointed to fill Rabell-González's position at St. Paul's, said Schade.

That May, Rohrer was elected bishop. They assumed office on July 1. Things did not improve for Rabell-González, who had also been a candidate for the office Rohrer won. The accusations against the pastor were made public to the synod the day before the conference began and Rabell-González was required to address them before the assembly. In a five-minute video presentation to the assembly, which Schade posted on her blog, Rabell-González called for a full investigation.

"I have evidence not only to clear my name, but also I'm willing to answer any question regarding this incident," he told the synod in his video address. Notably, Rohrer had not been required to disclose the events at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, however.

Before Holmerud left office, he had referred the case to a panel to check out Rabell-González's story and see if it was legitimate, said Schade. This panel was not charged with finding evidence, only to ask whether there was enough evidence to pursue an investigation, which it did.

Holmerud declined to comment to the B.A.R., saying through a representative that "he doesn't think it would be appropriate for him to talk to you for your story on former Bishop Rohrer."

Throughout this, Rabell-González asked repeatedly to be investigated, said Schade, because he knew that an investigation was the only way the evidence about what had happened to the women who had reported being harassed, and to him, could come out.

Rohrer, however, refused to authorize an investigation and, instead, insisted Rabell-González see a counselor. Rohrer told him that doing so was a condition of his being able to maintain his ministry, Schade said. But the bishop added a twist to their demand.

Rohrer sent an email to the counselor accusing Rabell-González of having a lack of integrity because he kept talking about the NDA, which included the non-disparagement clause he had refused to sign. The bishop also insisted he sign a waiver allowing Rohrer to communicate with the counselor about his case, thereby relinquishing his HIPAA rights. When the pastor realized that Rohrer was "trying to poison the well with a counselor he hadn't even met yet," he knew that Rohrer wasn't acting in good faith, Schade told the B.A.R., but Rabell-González did not want to lose his call at Misión Latina Luterana.

Reverend Nelson Rabell-González. Photo: Courtesy Eco Preacher blog  

Rabell-González disputes accusations
In September 2021, new allegations, this time of embezzlement, were lobbed against the pastor, suggesting he had misappropriated funds intended for COVID relief. The funds were handled through St. Paul's and disbursed to more than 1,000 families and individuals, Schade wrote in her blog. In support of Rabell-González, the Reverend William Knezovich, the pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Fresno, wrote a letter to Rohrer calling the allegations "baseless." Another letter in support of the pastor came from Faith in the Valley, a faith-based organization assisting "the people most impacted by equity issues: low-wage workers, young people, immigrants, and the formerly incarcerated," according to its website.

That letter, Schade wrote in her blog, responded to "'concerns' regarding the disbursement of these funds and states that they do not believe the funds have been mismanaged in any way due to the system of checks and balances that are in place. Finally, the letter states that Faith in the Valley is 'more than pleased with the level of professionalism and integrity' of Rev. Nelson."

The next month, Rabell-González posted a statement on Facebook decrying the NDA that had been hanging over him for months, accusing the ELCA of "white supremacy disguised as Christian virtue."

"When I was offered the NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) by the Executive Committee of my previous call, I was the only person of color present in that Zoom meeting with 'Leadership.'" he wrote. "These leaders, clothed in White Privilege, protecting the racism of their own by White Solidarity, and using White Supremacy disguised as Christian virtue, justified silencing a Person of Color in order to hide the institutional racism and bigotry of the congregation."

Shortly afterward, he received a cease and desist order via email from Rohrer with an added proviso, according to Schade, reminding Rabell-González "that he must undergo psychological testing by Nov. 25. Bishop Rohrer copies the psychologist on this email."

With the help of a lawyer, Rabell-González contacted Eaton, the denomination's presiding bishop.

"The letter asks for Bishop Eaton's assistance because of the way Bishop Rohrer has misrepresented Rev. Nelson [Rabell-González] to the therapist," Schade wrote in her blog. "The accusation of lack of integrity is based on Bishop Rohrer's misinterpretation of the NDA and would taint the process of the therapy. [Rabell-González] also notes that without the impartial findings of a disciplinary hearing, the requirements for therapy are, indeed, an indication that he has been found guilty without due process."

Eaton declined to help, insisting that she is neither the employer nor the supervisor of synod bishops, and could see no reason to discipline Rohrer. Schade takes a very different stance on this matter, though. Again, in her account of the events, she wrote:

"In the ELCA, new mission starts are funded both by the ELCA Churchwide Office as well as the individual synod in which the mission is located. The call to the mission start is extended by the Synod Council, not an individual congregation. But the call is also coordinated with the Domestic Mission Unit of the ELCA. In other words, the ELCA does, in fact, have jurisdiction over this case with Rev. Nelson [Rabell-González]."

Three weeks later, Rohrer, and possibly others who were involved in the dust-up at St. Paul's, informed Rabell-González they had decided to remove him from his call. In other words, he had been fired from the mission he started in Stockton. Further, he was no longer allowed to act as a pastor in the ELCA. That afternoon, after forbidding Rabell-González from even making an appearance at Misión Latina Luterana, the congregation angrily turned their backs on Rohrer and left.

That was apparently the beginning of the end for Rohrer.

Shortly after the incident at Misión Latina Luterana, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries — a self-described group of "queer seminarians and rostered ministers" which "confronts barriers and systemic oppression, and activates queer ideas and movements within the Lutheran Church" suspended Rohrer's membership in the organization, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

That suspension, according to ELM, had its roots in the other actions by Rohrer before they were elected bishop.

"This is a response to an existing pattern of behavior from Bishop Rohrer that misaligns with ELM's Mission, Vision, and Values, specifically as it pertains to being an anti-racist organization," said the ELM board in a statement issued December 16. "This suspension is not only a response to recent harm done by the Sierra Pacific Synod Council and Bishop Rohrer to the Latinx community in Stockton, CA. This is a decision that ELM staff and Board have been discerning for much of 2021, leading to the creation of a formal ELM Accountability Team and process."

Despite efforts to work with Rohrer, the statement continued, the bishop declined the group's Invitation "for continued work to repair these relationships."

Those relationships will take some time to repair. Rabell-González's congregation has kept him as their pastor and formed an independent church, outside the jurisdiction of the ELCA, called Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina or St. Mary the Pilgrim Lutheran Church.

As of June 8, a few days after Rohrer was removed as bishop, Rabell-González told the B.A.R. he had not heard from either the Sierra Pacific Synod or Eaton, the presiding bishop. Speaking from Puerto Rico where he was visiting family, he said he didn't want to talk about it. But he was somewhat hopeful.

"I think this is the beginning of vindication for my community and I," he said.

Schade is hopeful, as well.

"We've been asking for a full investigation of the allegations and that has been denied him at every level," said Schade. "And so, as much as we are relieved that Megan Rohrer is no longer in the position of bishop, this is really the first step. What needs to happen now is that his name needs to be cleared."

Requests for additional comment from Rohrer were not returned. Requests for comment from Eaton and the Sierra Pacific Synod were made through the synod and the denomination's media personnel, who did not respond.

In their tweet, Rohrer was distressed that their family first found out about the resignation on social media.

"Pray for my family today," Rohrer tweeted June 5. "They learned the news on social media, because I wasn't informed in advance."

Updated, 6/13/22: This article has been updated to more accurately explain the Sierra Pacific Synod's Assembly.

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