A Lutheran pastor in California has become the first transgender bishop in a major American Christian denomination.
On Saturday, the Rev. Megan Rohrer, pastor at San Francisco’s Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, was elected bishop for the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Based in Sacramento, California, the assembly encompasses 36,000 members in 180 congregations across central California, Northern California and northern Nevada.
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, ELCA’s presiding bishop, praised the synod for recognizing Rohrer’s talents.
“When we say all are welcome, we mean all are welcome,” Eaton said in a statement. “We believe that the Spirit has given each of us gifts in order to build up the body of Christ.”
Rohrer was elected on the fifth ballot, edging out by just two votes the Rev. Jeff R. Johnson, pastor of the Lutheran chapel at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 2006, Rohrer, who uses they/them pronouns, became the first transgender person ordained in the ELCA. They became the denomination’s first trans pastor in 2014, when they were called to Grace Lutheran.
Rohrer, 41, currently lives in the Bay Area with their wife, Laurel, and children McKayla, 7, and Dominique, 8. They were born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where religion was a big part of family life: Both their mother and grandmother are Lutheran, and Rohrer was baptized at just a few weeks old.
As their queer identity began to solidify, though, fractures emerged: Rohrer was expelled from a church youth group as a teen after coming out as lesbian.
“I came out around the same time period as Matthew Shepard’s murder,” Rohrer said. “That was a very palpable time in American history, particularly for LGBTQ folk. For me, it was some of the most intense moments of experiencing people questioning whether or not God could love me.”
In religion classes at Augustana University, a private Lutheran college in Sioux Falls, classmates would sing hymns “to try to get rid of my gay demons,” Rohrer told KALW.
But instead of walking away from their faith, Rohrer leaned into it. They credit the support they received from teachers and clergy at Augustana.
“I had a campus pastor who, in the midst of things being the most difficult in my life, let me know that God didn’t have a problem with me being LGBTQ,” Rohrer said. “She said, ‘A real-life problem is not having someone to babysit your kids.’ So she had me babysit her kids — and read them ‘The Hungry Caterpillar.’”
When Rohrer’s congregation in Sioux Falls refused to endorse their ordination, their religion professors at Augustana stepped in.
“You have to have a home congregation that signs off that you’re a faithful person, and mine refused to because I was LGBTQ,” Rohrer said. “So the professors at the college took on that role of being my home congregation and supporting me.”
They moved to the Bay Area in 2002 to attend Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley and later transferred to the nearby LGBTQ-affirming Pacific School of Religion. It was around that time that Rohrer began to identify as transgender.
“I wouldn’t have gotten elected into this position if it wasn’t for my campus pastors and college professors — and the seminary professors out here in Berkeley — just affirming that God was with me and for me,” they said. “And affirming that I had gifts that could make a difference in this world, even if not everyone was able to imagine it yet.”
In addition to their pastoral duties at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rohrer serves as community chaplain coordinator for the San Francisco Police Department and is an outspoken advocate for San Francisco’s LGBTQ community and people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity.
With nearly 3.3 million members, the ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States. The Rev. Dawn Bennett, a Lutheran pastor at The Table, an LGBTQ-centered congregation in Nashville, Tennessee, called Rohrer’s election “quite encouraging.”
“We know that in order to see and experience ourselves in the full body of Christ, we also have to see ourselves represented in places of leadership,” Bennett said.
Ross Murray, senior director of education and training for the GLAAD Media Institute and a Lutheran deacon, agreed that Saturday’s vote is further proof the church has evolved on LGBTQ issues. In 2006, Rohrer had to be ordained under an “extraordinary candidacy process” because the national ELCA had banned noncelibate LGBTQ ministers.