Should the ELCA remove Bishop Megan Rohrer? A California Lutheran church raises new questions about Rohrer’s patterns of behavior. Court documents reveal that the problems began long before the ordeal with Rev. Rabell-González and Misión Latina Luterana.
[Note: This article was updated on April 13, 2022, with more specific information from the court documents.]
On March 22, 2022, a small but intrepid congregation in the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA made a bold move for justice. By a unanimous vote, the Congregational Council of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Fresno, Calif., together with the leadership of Misión Esperanza, a ministry of Our Saviour’s, passed a resolution calling for the removal of Rev. Megan Rohrer as bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod. Not only that, but the resolution also calls for the removal of the Synod Council. You can read the full resolution here.
The congregation sent the resolution to ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Bishop Tracie Bartholomew, Chair of the Conference of Bishops, as well as to Bishop Rohrer and the Vice President of the S.P. Synod Council. All of this was done as Eaton’s “Listening Team” reviews Rohrer’s actions and prepares to offer recommendations after Easter.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church is not the first to call for the removal of Bishop Rohrer.
The Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson, Assistant to the Bishop for Authentic Diversity and Inclusive Community and Service, also called for Rohrer’s removal. She sent a 26-page letter detailing the way Rohrer mistreated her and the congregation of Misión Latina Luterana (now Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina) over the removal of Rev. Nelson Rabell-González as their pastor and mission developer.
Also, the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice put out a statement on March 15 calling for Rohrer’s resignation “as a first step in a sorely needed healing process” from the “acts of white supremacy perpetuated by Bishop Rohrer” (see their pinned post here.)
Prior to that, the Board of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM), an organization that affirms and supports LGBTQIA+ Lutheran rostered leaders, announced its decision on December 20, 2021, to “suspend the membership of Bishop Meghan Rohrer [the first trans bishop elected in the ELCA] in the ELM Proclaim community and events.” This decision was “a response to an existing pattern of behavior from Bishop Rohrer that misaligns with ELM’s Mission, Vision, and Values.”
Clearly, there are many who believe that Rohrer’s actions constitute deeply embedded racist attitudes that cannot be fixed by a few “cultural competence” classes and “listening sessions.”
When someone with Rohrer’s ecclesiastical power exercises it in such a way that an entire Hispanic congregation is shattered and a Latino minister is removed from the roster without due process, apologies and promises to learn from mistakes and to be “ever-reforming” are not enough.
To be clear, while we can critique Rohrer, we can’t let this become a reason to devalue or disparage transgender individuals, especially as they are under unprecedented attack in this country. This is one of the reasons why Our Saviour’s resolution is important. Their pastor is Rev. Bill Knezovich, who was named a 2018 Grand Marshal of the Fresno Pride Parade and Festival for his work on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ Community, the first clergy person in its 28-year history to receive this honor. What’s more, in addition to having a membership with a racial and ethnic diversity rate of 60%, half of the congregation identifies as LGBTQIA+. The congregation has been an advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community and houses two preeminent Fresno-based LGBTQIA+ advocacy organizations, Trans-E-Motion and the Spectrum Center. As well, the church council, which voted unanimously for the resolution, has three gay and two transgender members.
From this we can conclude that Our Saviour’s call for Rohrer’s removal is not motivated by trans-phobia or hatred.
In fact, the resolution states that the Bishop’s actions actually give “ammunition” to those who wish the LGBTQIA+ Community harm and reflect poorly on LGBTQIA+ Christians who seek to live moral and godly lives to the best of their ability. The resolution states: “the episcopate of Bishop Megan Rohrer, the first Transgender Bishop of the ELCA, should be cause for great celebration but, instead, by their actions as both Pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Francisco and as Bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod, their episcopate is an embarrassment to the LGBTQIA+ members of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church and its Misión Esperanza.”
Wait, hold on. Go back a minute. What happened when Rohrer was the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church?
Some may recall my first post about Rev. Nelson’s disclosure of allegations against him at the 2021 Synod Assembly when he was a candidate for bishop. At that time, I raised questions about why Rohrer was not made to disclose allegations against them as well. The allegations involved their former congregation, Grace Lutheran in San Francisco, and an Infant Care Center which had rented space in the church for three decades.
However, it turns out that these weren’t just allegations against Rohrer.
Through Our Saviour’s resolution, I have learned that the Superior Court of the State of California granted a preliminary injunction against Rohrer and the church using the money in the Grace Infant Care Center’s Wells Fargo account, which Rohrer had allegedly fraudulently appropriated by the use of an illegal resolution to change signature cards at a bank branch. Rohrer did this in order to take control of approximately $70,000. This was money that was, in part, designated tuition fees parents had paid for the care of their infants and toddlers.
The court ordered Rohrer and the Church to refrain from withdrawing, transferring, or using the money in the account for any purpose but for the sole benefit of the nursery, and to stop taking any action to lease out space used by the nursery under their state license. (Superior Court of the State of California, Case No CGC-18-567512 — Ruling by The Honorable Harold E. Kahn, Judge, Superior Court of California, June 26, 2018, and August 1, 2018). [Note: these documents are in the public record. It takes some digging, but you can find them here]:
But Rohrer’s behavior didn’t stop there.
Here is what the court found:
The current dispute centers on violations of nonprofit corporation codes and the church’s constitution alleged in the SAC’s seventh cause of action. Specifically, the SAC [second amended complaint] alleges “vote manipulation” by defendants to deprive church members of “the right to vote at congregation and special meetings.” (SAC 13:18-20.)
The judge found it “reasonably probable” that plaintiffs “will prevail on the merits” among them:
First, the evidence is that Grace’s church council invented a new category of member — “Friends of the GELC” (Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church) — found nowhere in the church’s constitution, to which members were transferred in an apparent voter-suppression effort. (See Ryan Dec. Ex. B.)
Second, defendants have purported to terminate memberships in the Grace congregation for reasons others than those set out in §C8.05 of the church’s constitution. Third, defendants opine that members of other churches cannot also be Grace members, but the three sets of brackets in §C8.02(d) of Grace’s constitution indicate that this issue was not resolved when the constitution was created.
Fourth, after apparently purging plaintiffs from church voter rolls, defendants now concede that three of the six plaintiffs are, in fact, bona fide voters. (Opp. 3:21-23.)
Fifth, defendants’ opposition does not dispute plaintiffs’ assertion that “Defendants claim that the Church’s voting roster is only comprised of 22 people including two of Ms. Rohrer’s children who are four and five years of age.” (Memo. 4:22-23.)
(October 25, 2019, Order Granting In Part and Denying In Part Plaintiff’s Application for Preliminary Injunction, page 2)
Did you catch that?
The court found that Rohrer and the council purged members from the church rolls and created their own voting block including Rohrer’s 4- and 5-year-old children as confirmed voting members.
These are not rumors and allegations, folks. These are actual court documents complete with depositions in which Rohrer had to admit to these actions.
Fraud. Illegal resolution. Disenfranchisement. Manipulation. Violation of the church’s Constitution.
Is this behavior consistent with the ELCA’s expectations of their rostered clergy, let alone of a bishop?
The question is not just whether or not Rohrer should be removed as bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod. The question is: why was Rohrer not subjected to the disciplinary process as an ordained minister in the ELCA back in 2018? Why are they even still on the roster?
Could it be that that former Bishop Mark Holmerud simply did not know about this case against Rohrer in the Superior Court of the State of California?
Of course, he knew. In my interview with Rev. Knezovich, he explained that Christopher J. Rillo, the pro-bono lawyer for the plaintiffs, alerted Holmerud of the situation and tried multiple times to meet with him. Holmerud refused. (Full disclosure: Rev. Knezovich served as a pastor at Grace Lutheran from 1991-1997.)
Why didn’t Bishop Holmerud intervene? Follow the money.
Here’s the thing. The sale of property in California is very lucrative. If Rohrer succeeded in closing down Grace Lutheran, which had been an active and viable congregation before they arrived, the synod stood to gain nearly $4 million from the sale of the property.
But things did not go exactly as Rohrer had planned.
Rohrer had wanted the case dismissed instead of going to settlement. But instead, the judge ordered that the parties go to a settlement conference. The parties then settled the case and Rohrer and the Church agreed that the Infant Care Center receive 40% of the proceeds from the sale of the property. Nevertheless, the Synod still received more than $2 million from the sale. That’s a lot of money.
But it’s not as much as they had planned. More than $1.5 million dollars was lost due to Rohrer’s attempt to take the $70,000 account, ostensibly because they were afraid of “liability” associated with operating an infant care center that had operated successfully for almost 30 years. What followed was frankly incredible and disturbing enough that Rohrer basically had to force a sale of the church and turn over a huge amount of the church’s money to quietly settle the case.
Why did Grace Lutheran close?
One reason is because Rohrer and the council paid all their legal fees with Grace Lutheran’s money (as detailed in the treasurer’s deposition). This was yet another violation of the constitution which allowed only $2,500 for the council to spend above the budget. The legal fees exceeded $13,000. The result was a depletion of the church’s savings.
The other reason was that members were devastated by Rohrer’s treatment of them.
Twice Rohrer tried to bring disciplinary procedures against the congregation to the Synod Council and wrote defamatory descriptions about members who opposed their abuse of power (including a 90-year-old woman). The chaos and division had so traumatized the church, there was no one left to keep things going when Rohrer was elected bishop in 2021. In a cruel twist of the knife, it was Rohrer, now bishop, who celebrated the closing of the congregation in a service on Jan. 29, 2022. (You can read the gleefully-written article describing the “holy closing” here.)
This is why Our Saviour’s resolution urges “a full review by the legal staff of the ELCA of all court documents, sworn testimonies, depositions, and other evidentiary documents found in the public record of the civil case brought against Bishop Megan Rohrer: ‘Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Francisco, Case No CGC-18-567512: Brenda Moore et al., plaintiffs — v. — Megan Rohrer et al., defendants,’ including the hiring of a forensic accountant.”
It’s also why Our Saviour’s has stated that they are refusing to participate in any activities, meetings, assemblies, or other gatherings of the Sierra Pacific Synod while Rohrer and the current Synod Council remain in their respective positions.
Why should the Synod Council be removed from their positions?
There are several reasons. First, the Synod Council knew about the ongoing litigation between Grace and Rohrer and did nothing to help the church.
Second, remember that two people were elected to the Council in 2021 with conflicts of interest regarding Rev. Rabell-González. One is Rev. Frances Le Bas, the former intern at Rev. Rabell-González’s former congregation, St. Paul Lutheran in Lodi. According to the resolution, Rev. Le Bas made “unproven allegations” against him, “thereby skewing the electoral process for bishop.” [You can read the whole timeline of events here.]
What’s more, the resolution states that Rev. Knezovich raised concerns with Bishop Rohrer about other allegations made by Rev. Le Bas against Rev. Rabell-González. She falsely accused him of embezzling money from the California Resilience Immigrant Grant, and, by implication, accused Our Saviour’s as well, since they signed the memorandum of understanding to distribute these monies. Instead of responding with an investigation, however, Rohrer “questioned his mental stability” and suppressed the letter.
The other person elected to the Synod Council in 2021 was Luke Price, the son of Rev. Mark Price, senior pastor of St. Paul. Again, this is the church that tried to force him to sign a non-disclosure agreement so that he would not continue to speak publicly about the racism he encountered in that congregation and community.
It’s a matter of mistrust
Given Le Bas’s and Price’s possible vendetta against Rev. Rabell-González, and, given the Council’s negligence regarding the situation with Grace Lutheran, as well as their unwavering support of Rohrer’s decisions against Rev. Rabell-González and Misión Latina Luterana, it’s no wonder Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church is withholding their participation in the synod. As the resolution states:
To participate in any activity of the Sierra Pacific Synod at this time would give tacit approval to the past damage done to Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Francisco (now defunct) by Bishop Megan Rohrer; it would be a betrayal of the core values of our Congregation, and would give credence to the current damage and racist “dog whistles” being used against Pastor Nelson Rabell- González and the people of Iglesia Santa María Peregrina (people formerly of Misión Latina Luterana).
In fact, the resolution names the consequences of inaction if the ELCA and Conference of Bishops refuse to remove Rohrer.
If Rohrer is allowed to retain their office, the church will “begin the process of severing its ties with the ELCA . . . in order to protect the ongoing mission and ministry of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, its property, and its assets.”
The ELCA has already lost one congregation because of their mishandling of the case of Rev. Rabell-González and Misión Latina Luterana. That congregation has left the ELCA and is now an independent Lutheran congregation, Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina, incorporated in the state of California. It may lose two more congregations as well – Our Saviour’s and Misión Esperenza.
You may be wondering: how did Bishop Eaton and Bishop Bartholomew respond to Our Saviour’s resolution?
Rev. Knezovich has told me that Bishop Bartholomew sent him an email stating that the Conference of Bishops has no authority to intervene in the Sierra Pacific Synod. This is, unfortunately, not true. The ELCA Constitution states that disciplinary action against a fellow bishop can be brought by a group of ten or more bishops. According to †S8.57, proceedings for the recall or dismissal of a synod bishop can be instituted by written petition in one of four ways:
- the Synod Council on an affirmative vote of at least two-thirds of its elected members present and voting;
- the Synod Assembly on an affirmative vote of at least two-thirds of its members present and voting;
- at least 10 synod bishops; or
- the presiding bishop of this church.
So, in fact, it only takes ten members of the Conference of Bishops to initiate proceedings for a recall or dismissal of Bishop Rohrer.
And why would they do this? The ELCA Constitution states: “The recall or dismissal of an officer and the vacating of office may be effected for willful disregard or violation of the constitutions, bylaws, and continuing resolutions of this church . . . or for such conduct as would subject the officer to disciplinary action as a rostered minister or as a member of a congregation of this church.”
As Our Saviour’s resolution and the Superior Court of California documents demonstrate, Bishop Rohrer has certainly shown willful disregard and violation of the constitution of the ELCA.
For her part, Bishop Eaton’s response to Rev. Knezovich only shared a link to an update about the process of the “listening team” which you can read here.
Why is there so much reticence to hold a bishop accountable in the ELCA?
That is a question I’ll address in my next piece about this saga. In the meantime, it is clear there is corruption in the ELCA. From the use of non-disclosure agreements, to the abuse of power by certain bishops, to the negligence of some synod councils, to the double and triple standard of justice determined by race, this denomination that prides itself on the Reformation has some serious reforming to do.
Want to make a donation to Santa Maria Peregrina Lutheran Church?
You can send a check to:
Iglesia Luterana Santa Santa María Peregrina
2217 S. Mills Ave.
Lodi, CA 95242
If you would like to stand with Rev. Nelson Rabell-González, we invite you to contribute to his Legal Defense / Life Expense Fund.
Click here: https://fundly.com/nelsonsbills
Your contribution will go towards the legal costs that will enable the truth to come out and due process to proceed. Our goal is for the ELCA to fully investigate Rev. Nelson’s case and to restore him to the roster of Word and Sacrament Ministry.
OTHER WAYS TO GIVE:
WANT TO MAIL A CHECK?
Make checks out to “Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church – Fresno” with “Rabell” in the subject line and mail them to: 2101 N Fruit Ave, Fresno, CA 93705
Thank you for standing in solidarity with Rev. Nelson Rabell-González and his family, the congregation of Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina, and the Latiné/Hispanic community.
The Saga of Rev. Nelson Rabell González
For a complete compilation of all documents, blogs, commentaries, and posts from all parties about the situation in the Sierra Pacific Synod, visit this website created by Shruti Kulkarni: https://whathappenedinthesps.weebly.com/. This website compiles communications relating to the controversy for accountability, clarification, and ease of access.
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Her latest book, co-written with Jerry Sumney is Apocalypse When?: A Guide to Interpreting and Preaching Apocalyptic Texts (Wipf & Stock, 2020).