Bishop Eaton refuses to bring disciplinary charges against Bishop Rohrer. Welcome to the ELCA’s Whiteness Protection Program.
Eleven weeks after convening a Listening Panel about Bishop Megan Rohrer of the Sierra Pacific Synod, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton released their “Report to the Church” on May 27. Aside from the fact that she released the statement on the Friday of a holiday weekend, the content of the statement itself is disgraceful. She has refused to bring disciplinary charges against Bishop Rohrer. Instead, Eaton has asked for Rohrer’s resignation due to “serious concerns that influence Bishop Rohrer’s ability to remain impactful in their role.”
Why did Bishop Eaton ask for Bishop Rohrer’s resignation?
Bishop Rohrer removed Rev. Nelson Rabell González from his call as pastor of Misión Latina Luterana on December 12, 2021, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, with no due process and no chance for appeal. Then in February, Rohrer removed Rev. Rabell from the ELCA clergy roster by refusing to grant his request for “On Leave from Call” status.
Yet, despite calls for justice from across the ELCA, Bishop Eaton has decided that Rohrer’s actions, “while they may be insensitive or in hindsight seen as misguided – are not automatically grounds for discipline.”
Invading a Latiné congregation on their high holy day (despite the repeated warnings not to do so from Rohrer’s Latina assistant) to remove their pastor is merely “insensitive”? Threatening to call the police on a Latiné father and his daughter in the worship space is simply “misguided”? Removing an Afro-Puerto Rican pastor without due process does not meet “disciplinary criteria”? My, but whiteness sets the bar high, doesn’t it?
It appears that Bishop Eaton has placed Bishop Rohrer in the ELCA’s Whiteness Protection Program.
Let’s examine the logic of Bishop Eaton’s statement step by step.
Racism does not warrant discipline in the ELCA
In the second paragraph, Eaton insists that “A high burden of proof exists to translate allegations into substantive findings that can be presented to a disciplinary body. In this situation that high burden was not able to be met.”
Frankly, that statement is disingenuous at best, a lie at worst. How can she possibly make the case that Rohrer’s actions against Rev. Nelson and Mision Latina didn’t meet the standard of discipline given the evidence?
Eaton’s refusal to find grounds for discipline is a damaging “tell” on herself and the ELCA as an institution.
The fact that a pattern of grossly and demonstrably racist acts is not grounds for discipline in this church tells us all we need to know about the white supremacy upon which this denomination is based.
It also tells us a great deal about the double and triple standards of the ELCA when it comes to applying discipline to clergy and bishops, especially when comparing those standards on the basis of race and ethnicity.
Remember that Rohrer’s pattern of racism was enough for the board of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries to suspend them from membership in the LGBTQIA+ organization. So, how is it that Rohrer’s behavior did not meet the “burden of proof” for discipline for Bishop Eaton? Here’s why: because the ELCA does not consider racist acts to be a sin that meets the standards for discipline.
But the absence of the letter of the law does not in any way remove the sin. It only points to the sin of institutional deficiency in confronting racist behavior within its denominational system.
Not worth our time?
Eaton also stated in that same paragraph, “Moreover, disciplinary proceedings that would be likely to arrive at a similar conclusion as my review are time-consuming and risk delay in the necessary healing processes that must occur.”
So, what Bishop Eaton is saying is that getting the truth out and bringing justice for Rev. Nelson and the Latiné community is not worth the time of this denomination? I see. I also note the audacity of assuming that such proceedings would arrive at her same conclusion. Apparently, the ELCA’s Whiteness Protection Program affords one the gift of omniscience as well.
A series of “unfortunate events”
In the third paragraph, Bishop Eaton reiterates that “these unfortunate events and Bishop Rohrer’s involvement in them (do not) rise to the level of formal discipline against Bishop Rohrer.”
This is a classic white-power move: minimize the pain and cries for justice from the oppressed community. Calling them “unfortunate events” is like saying, “Oopsies! Sorry you were offended!” What an insult. Call a sin what it is instead of using euphemisms to gaslight the church.
Membership in the ELCA’s Whiteness Protection Program has its privileges
In that same paragraph, Eaton says that she has “asked Bishop Rohrer to attend their assembly, speak and listen to their constituents, and give this the prayerful consideration it deserves after which I will expect their response.”
So, let me get this straight. The white perpetrator of harm gets to decide whether or not they remain in their position? And the church is being made to wait while they are allowed to continue in their role and make their decision? And the assembly has to navigate this highly unethical situation on their own?
As Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson wrote in her post responding to Bishop Eaton’s statement: “this action is actually putting the power back into the perpetrator’s hands. It’s their choice whether or not they submit their resignation. It’s their choice whether or not they hold space with their constituents. They were never asked to step away while the process unfolded.”
Giving Bishop Rohrer a platform for yet more abuse
Some may argue that allowing Rohrer to preside at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly will force them to listen to the pain they have caused. But as long as Rohrer remains in power, anyone who speaks out will likely be subject to a “wellness check,” placed on leave from call without cause, and forced from the roster. How do we know this? They have made their intentions clear, which is explained in this piece: Bishop Megan Rohrer Doubles Down on Abuse of Power with “Wellness Checks.”
Anyone who can’t possibly fathom a bishop doing such things only needs to look at what Rohrer has already done to Pastor Nelson Rabell. Also, as attorney Craig Lundgren has painstakingly documented, Rohrer has a pattern of unethical actions and constitutional violations with their previous congregation, the former Grace Lutheran, in San Francisco.
When someone shows you who they are, believe them. Rohrer will use whatever means possible to keep and wield power.
As this country witnessed during the previous presidential administration, malignant narcissism does not willingly relinquish power, no matter how obvious the offenses and how loud the cries for justice. This is the case both for individuals and institutions. Eaton’s decision is not only naïve and foolish, it gives Rohrer a platform for yet more abuse.
Failing our Lutheran theology
What makes Eaton’s statement especially outrageous is the fact that she is doing so as the Presiding Bishop of a Lutheran denomination. Our theology gives us the language by which sin is to be confronted. Martin Luther explained that the law exists to “bridle civil transgressions, and then to reveal and to increase spiritual transgressions.”[i] Seminarians learn these two uses of the law as the “curb” and the “mirror.”
As a curb, the law restrains evil in society and allows for civil order. As a mirror, the law reflects our own sinful state, showing us where we have harmed ourselves, others, and God, thus revealing our need for Christ.
In the case of Bishop Eaton’s adjudication of the case of Bishop Rohrer, she failed both uses of the law.
As I have documented in this piece, not only did Rohrer violate their oath of office as an ordained minister of this church, but they have been found by a secular court to be in violation of the secular law. For Bishop Eaton not to initiate a disciplinary process on either of these grounds is negligence at best, complicity at worst.
Furthermore, glossing over the pain of the communities of color in this denomination is a way to fog the mirror so we can’t see ourselves for who we truly are. And I write this as a white, ordained Lutheran pastor knowing that I must constantly keep that mirror in front of myself, as well.
Tried to be Solomon, got Pilate instead
In her statement, it appears that Bishop Eaton was aspiring to a Solomonic approach: seemingly wise, judicious, and threading the needle between two factions. Unfortunately, this statement places her squarely in the shoes of Pilate. She is, in essence, washing her hands of responsibility for the whole mess and leaving it to the uproarious crowd to figure out.
Such a stance seeks to position itself as above the fray while being “deeply concerned” in a Sen. Susan Collins kind of way. Instead, by taking no action to enact justice for the Latiné community, Eaton has proven true the worst fears of those who have suspected the white supremacist underpinnings of the ELCA. The result is the continued crucifixion of clergy and congregations of color.
Bishop Eaton’s statement is nothing more than whiteness clutching its pearls and patting itself on the back for talking the talk instead of walking the walk. This statement is about protecting the institutional church from litigation instead of protecting historically marginalized black and brown clergy and congregations from abuse. Her words give yet more evidence of what I have called the “Corporate Captivity of the ELCA.”
What about the report of the Listening Panel?
If Bishop Eaton was truly committed to transparency, she would release the report of the Listening Panel to the public. Instead, she withholds it on grounds of “confidentiality.” Not only is this a euphemism for toxic institutional secret-keeping, it is also a red herring. A redacted report anonymizing the parties involved could easily be sent out.
But Eaton will not do this. Why? Likely because what the Listening Panel discovered is incriminating not just of Bishop Rohrer, but of those who enabled their behavior and are complicit in what led up to Dec. 12 and the “unfortunate events” that followed.
In short, releasing the Listening Panel’s report could implicate many individuals in positions of power and threaten the stability of the entire ELCA.
So, Eaton is choosing to preserve stability.
But here’s the problem with that choice. Preserving the institutional church means sacrificing the oppressed who have borne the brunt of the ELCA’s racist policies. This report provides further confirmation that the churchwide office cares nothing about them. Paying lip service to “healing” by promising “anti-racism training“ and “cultural sensitivity training” amounts to hollow words of empty promises. It reeks of lawyerly language designed to avoid exposing the church to litigation rather than following the gospel of Jesus Christ that promises resurrection – but only after we have died to our sinful institutional self.
What’s more, calls for removing Bishop Eaton are proliferating across social media. There is talk of calling for a vote of no confidence in her leadership at the Churchwide Assembly in August. Is it really worth falling on one’s sword to protect and uphold white supremacy in the church?
Luther’s mirror is cracking
When I learned of the Roman Catholic Church covering up the scandal of priests abusing children, I must admit, I felt a bit smug. At least the Lutheran church doesn’t systematically cover up abuse, I told myself.
When evidence emerged this past week of the Southern Baptist Convention covering up the scandal of sexual abuse and misconduct, it’s likely that many Lutherans also felt a bit smug. At least the Lutheran church doesn’t systematically cover up abuse, many probably thought to themselves.
But it’s time for ELCA Lutherans to hold up Luther’s mirror and see the truth of our denomination. One of the reasons racism is rampant is because it has never been codified as an offense that can lead to discipline in the ELCA – not for congregation members, not for churches, not for rostered ministers, and certainly not for bishops.
By refusing to initiate a disciplinary procedure, many people are being excused and protected from consequences of this whole fiasco that began back in 2018. Pastor Nelson’s accuser and her spouse. His former senior pastor and congregation. His former bishop and current bishop. Bishop Eaton herself. All of them are implicated by this scandal of systemic racism. As it stands, Bishop Eaton is covering for the abusers and the institution instead ministering to the people she’s charged with protecting.
Benefits of the ELCA’s Whiteness Protection Program
Here’s the real kicker about the ELCA’s Whiteness Protection Program. By not bringing disciplinary charges against Rohrer, even if Rohrer does step down, they are still free to serve a congregation or in any leadership capacity in any synod. Thus, some other church(es) will be subjected to Rohrer’s tyranny in the future, and the abuse will continue.
Ah yes, membership in the ELCA’s Whiteness Protection Program has its privileges.
There is no healing without truth and reconciliation
Bishop Eaton indicated that she plans to “visit the Sierra Pacific Synod and request time with the people of Iglesia Luterana Sta. María Peregrina (formerly known as Misión Latina Luterana), the Synod Council, and synod staff to consider steps toward healing.” But she of all people should know by now that there can be no healing without a full investigation, truth-telling, confession, repentance, and reparations.
What the ELCA needs is a version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to come to terms with its long history of racism, especially against its own clergy and congregations.
If the congregation of Santa María does meet with Bishop Eaton, I hope they make it crystal clear that Eaton’s inaction has made the pain of Rohrer’s actions that much worse. This is especially the case, given that she knew exactly what was coming down the pike — because Rev. Rabell told her what was happening to him back in November of 2021 (read the whole timeline here.)
The only thing good that can be said about Eaton’s statement is that she has likely eroded public support for Rohrer by publicly calling for them to step down. But we can surmise that this public call means that the private request did not yield the intended result.
If Bishop Rohrer refuses to step down, the synod constitution delineates four possible ways that disciplinary procedures can be initiated.
1) The Synod Council on an affirmative vote of at least two-thirds of its elected members present and voting.
2) The Synod Assembly on an affirmative vote of at least two-thirds of its members present and voting.
3) At least 10 synod bishops.
4) The presiding bishop of this church.
Eaton has reneged on her constitutional duty, so that eliminates #4.
As for #2 and #3, the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly is coming up on June 2. Synod Council Members and the Assembly can choose to pick up that mirror, cracks and all, to see the truth reflected there. And then they can choose to “bridle the transgressions,” as Luther put it.
However, given Rohrer’s hold on both the Synod Council and the assembly, the first two options are unlikely. Therefore, it will be up to the Conference of Bishops to initiate a disciplinary process against Rohrer. They are the denomination’s best hope for both the mirror and the curb of the law.
May God’s will for truth, accountability, and justice prevail.
[i]Martin Luther. Lectures on Galatians (1535). Jaroslav Pelikan. and Walter A Hansen, Saint Louis: Concordia. 1963, 144.
Author’s update, June 7, 2022
Megan Rohrer is no longer bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA. The Listening Team Report was finally released on June 1, which you can read here. Following the contentious Synod Assembly, an announcement was released on Mon., June 5, that Bishop Eaton and the Conference of Bishops initiated a disciplinary process against Rohrer. Rohrer subsequently released a statement that they had resigned from the position of Bishop. This is a developing story which I will address in future posts.
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).