But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:15-16

I’m writing today to discuss the recent controversy and conflict taking place in the Sierra Pacific Synod and the ways that this situation has revealed that our part of the body of Christ, the ELCA, is not working properly but is instead hurting and broken. I recognize that many people in our synod have not been following the events there very closely, so I will begin with a very brief summary.

The controversy surrounds the situation of Pastor Nelson Rabell-Gonzáles (he/him), a pastor who had been serving as a mission developer of a Latine congregation in Stockton, CA, and the response of Bishop Megan Rohrer (they/them), the first transgender bishop of the ELCA, who also identifies as autistic. There were allegations that Pastor Rabell-Gonzáles had engaged in verbal harassment and abuse, and as part of the process investigating those allegations, the recommendation was made for him to engage in a counseling relationship. When he informed Bishop Rohrer that he would not be complying with this recommendation, Bishop Rohrer and the synod council voted to end his call. This decision was then announced to the congregation on December 12, the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an important festival day in the Mexican-American community. Subsequently, Bishop Rohrer did not endorse Pastor Rabell-Gonzáles’ application for “on leave from call” status, which meant that he was removed from the ELCA clergy roster. The congregation has since re-organized as an independent (non-ELCA) congregation and continues to be served by Pastor Rabell-Gonzáles.

In the months since these events took place, significant questions and concerns have been raised about these actions and the ways they have been communicated. There have also been concerns expressed about the behavior of Bishop Rohrer, including allegations that they demonstrated a pattern of racist and abusive behavior. In March of this year, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton (she/her) convened a listening team to investigate the actions of Bishop Rohrer and the synod council. In response to the Listening Team report, Bishop Eaton issued a statement that she would not be filing disciplinary charges against Bishop Rohrer, but publicly requested Bishop Rohrer to resign. (You can access the Presiding Bishop’s Report to the Church and the ELCA Listening Team Report here.) Bishop Rohrer did not agree to resign. When the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly took place June 2-4, a resolution that requested their resignation or the formation of a discipline panel to remove them from office received 57% of the votes cast, falling short of the 2/3 majority required. Since the assembly concluded, a news release issued on Monday confirms that Bishop Eaton, with strong support of the Conference of Bishops, is initiating the discipline process, including suspension of Bishop Rohrer. A subsequent letter from the Sierra Pacific Synod vice-president indicates that Bishop Rohrer resigned, effective June 4, 2022. It is my understanding that the discipline process investigating Bishop Rohrer’s actions will continue, and it would determine whether former Bishop Rohrer remains on the ELCA clergy roster.

I recognize that this is a lot of information to digest, and you may be wondering how this impacts us in the Greater Milwaukee Synod and how we might respond. First, I invite us to be in prayer. Many, many people are angry, hurt, and confused by all that has transpired. Specifically, I would ask us to pray for:

  • The members of the community now called Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina (Holy Mary Pilgrim Lutheran Church)
  • Pastor Nelson Rabell-Gonzáles and his family
  • Former Bishop Megan Rohrer and their family
  • The Sierra Pacific Synod staff and synod council
  • The pastors, deacons, and congregations of the Sierra Pacific Synod
  • Latine bishops, leaders, and congregations of the ELCA
  • Members of the LGBTQIA+ community
  • Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and all leaders of this church
  • All who have been harmed by racist structures and actions in the church

Second, we have work to do. Even though there are many dimensions of this situation that are unique and unprecedented, it has revealed ways that many policies, practices, and behaviors in our church are steeped in racism and privilege and need to be thoroughly re-examined. This work will likely be addressed at our ELCA Churchwide Assembly this August, and I invite your prayers for the 15 members of our synod who will participate, alongside the 1,000 other voting members from across the church.

In our synod, those who were present at our recent synod assembly heard the announcement that we will be engaging in an Authentic Diversity Audit, led by Gold Enterprises, LLC, a firm that specializes in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives. This process, which will last approximately one year, will include a review of synod documents, policies, practices, and behaviors as we strive to become an anti-racist and fully inclusive church. There will be surveys, focus group conversations, and interviews that we will be asking folks to participate in, and the resulting analysis will contain specific action steps, including possible structural changes that could be considered at next year’s synod assembly. The synod council will be overseeing this work, which will only succeed if we have robust participation of diverse voices from across the synod.

Through it all, I pray that we will be emboldened to speak the truth in love, and that those of us in positions of power and privilege will be able to listen to these truths, even when they are hard to hear. As your bishop, I am committed to engaging in this work with boldness, recognizing that the systems and structures to which we have grown accustomed may need to be changed or set aside so that we can become the church we need to be. The pain and brokenness experienced by many in our church is not new, and we are called to place our trust not in human institutions or leaders, but in the One who can take our brokenness and fashion a new creation.

© 2017 Greater Milwaukee Synod

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