A number of you have asked me about the situation going on in the Sierra Pacific Synod. Like you, I have been watching it and trying to understand. It’s always precarious to comment on situations in sibling synods because we won’t have all the internal information, especially in personnel matters. Silence can be golden, but it also can create a culture of secrecy. We must also value transparency, accountability of pastors and institutions, and open conversation. Silence all too often benefits those in power. Here’s what I know.
March 24, 2022 Listening Panel Update: https://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/8134
February 17, 2022 Update: The Sierra Pacific Synod has issued this statement.
The Sierra Pacific Synod has about 200 congregations in California and Nevada. In September, the Sierra Pacific Synod held a bishop election that had been long-delayed due to the pandemic. At the election, it was announced that allegations of misconduct were underway for one of the bishop candidates, Pastor Nelson Rabell-González. The investigation was in process. Leaders knew that sharing this information with the assembly could affect the outcome, but not sharing it would be considered a breach of trust with the assembly should he be elected.
Pastor Megan Bishop Rohrer was elected Bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod, the first openly transgender bishop in the ELCA. It is hard to imagine the pressure this creates for Bishop Rohrer, who has had to fend off everything from subtle microaggressions to blatant bigotry.
In time the Synod Council made its determination and chose to terminate Pastor Rabell-González’ call. The Synod Council calls and terminates calls of mission developers. On Sunday, December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bishop Rohrer was present for worship at Misión Latina Luterana in Stockton, a mission of the Sierra Pacific Synod. Bishop Rohrer announced that Pastor Nelson Rabell-González’ call had been terminated. There was tremendous anger and grief as one can imagine.
I have had to do several disclosures over the years after a pastoral misconduct. It is usually very painful. Anger is frequently directed to the bishop. We have not had to remove any pastors. In every case, the pastor has resigned. This is a unique situation. It has not been our practice to do disclosures on a Sunday morning. December 12 is a huge day in Mexican-American Christianity, a day that the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego as a mestiza, a member of a new race created from the intermarriage of Spaniards, native Americans, Africans and others. If you can imagine this removal happening on Easter Sunday, with families, guests, food, and plans, you can begin to feel the weight of the day.
Unaware of any of this, I don’t know what collaboration was involved with Latinx leaders in the synod. I am not privy to the details of the misconduct allegations. Pastor Rabell-González denies the allegations, saying he “tried to blow the whistle” on “secrets” related to the relationship between the ELCA and the Hispanic community.
The internet exploded with disappointment and accusations of racism. The following day, December 13, the Sierra Pacific synod posted this about the event.
December 14 Pastor Lamont Anthony Wells, National President of the African Descent Lutheran Association expressed concern at Pastor Rabell’s treatment, raising “concerns of ecclesiastical process and historical harmful actions” that can be buried in red tape and non-disclosure agreements. 2 Black congregations and pastors have certainly experienced discrimination over the years by the dominant culture in our very white denomination.
On December 15, the Asociación de Ministerios Latinos de la ELCA (Association of Latino Ministries of the ELCA) expressed its “deep disappointment” in the decision. This and many subsequent statements can be read here.
December 16, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM) suspended Bishop Rohrer’s membership. According to Michael Wilker, this was for 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.” He said was not a response to the situation in Stockton alone.
On December 23, Bishop Rohrer issued an apology.
Presiding Bishop Eaton posted this on January 6:
Dear Friends in Christ,
On the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe this year, Misión Latina Luterana was informed that its pastor’s call had been ended. This news at any time would be painful, but the pain was particularly acute for the community because it came on the day that the community holds sacred and beloved. The Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego was a clear message from God that the community was seen, known, and imbued with the dignity of being made in the image of God. The intrusion of the announcement of the pastor’s termination of call on that day was an assault on that dignity. I am sorry.
Many of you have wondered about my silence. The way in which the ELCA is structured as presiding bishop, I do not have the authority to interfere in the actions of synod councils and bishops. However, I do have the responsibility to acknowledge a community’s pain. There is real hurt and real damage has been done. I should have spoken sooner. I am sorry.
No institution, including the ELCA, can erase the image of God imprinted on each and all of us. Sometimes it takes a painful lesson to sharpen our sight so that we can see each other the way God sees us. The majority culture in our church, of which I am part, made it clear that those whom God makes visible, were not seen by us. This means that part of the body of Christ was discounted, and the entire body is not whole. I am sorry.
In 2022 the Conference of Bishops will begin cultural competency training. This is a first step. The journey will be long. I pledge to stay on this road as long as I serve as your presiding bishop. I covet your prayers.
In Christ’s Peace,
The response from members of the association was not favorable. These comments called for repentance and an investigation of the Sierra Pacific’s decisions.
Dr. Leah Shade is a teaching theologian of the ELCA has shared Pastor Nelson Rabell-González’ side of the story, with permission. Pr. Hazel Salazar-Davidson, Sierra Pacific Synod Assistant to the Bishop has written extensively. Rather than interpret these, I’ll let them speak. Bishop Bill Gohl, of the Delaware-Maryland Synod, has helpfully gathered these in his message, while also posting thoughtfully on the reality of our situation in this church.
There are many aspects of this situation that have not been made public. Because of this, those of us on the outside find it difficult to respond. We must not be silent in cases of injustice against individuals or institutions. We have a responsibility as a church to pastors, victims of misconduct, and the institutions that adjudicate. In cases of misconduct, public disclosure is very important. Secrets are corrosive. If there has been misconduct, there should be transparency.
I understand there were multiple allegations. I have been told an advisory panel in Sierra Pacific Synod was convened and made recommendations, after a two-year inquiry process, for action taken by the Synod Council. If there is any doubt, I would welcome a churchwide review of the process. I know an independent, outside review is taking place. I am told information will soon be available.
Is the ELCA a racist institution? Of course it is, if we truly understand institutional racism as a system into which we are socialized (DiAngelo), something baked into our laws, procedures and culture. If racism is the marriage of racist policies and ideas, and being racist means supporting racist policies through action or inaction (Kendi), then it would be naïve to say otherwise. If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves. Bishop Patricia Davenport has written insightfully on the challenge.
What can we do about it? Denial certainly isn’t the way forward. Repentance is. In the Gulf Coast Synod Leaders, our Anti-racism Team led by Cynae Punch Brown has made slow progress. There is much work to be done. The next step will be listening to leaders of color, and then considering a curriculum for congregations reaching into new, diverse communities. I asked one of the leaders of the Association of Latino ministers of the ELCA what needed to happen next. He recommended The Conference of Bishops do anti-racism training, together, and so we are, starting this month. Journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.
The problem is much deeper than this current situation. We have a eurocentric perspective on worship, theology, architecture, administration, and church leadership that views all else as inferior or un-Lutheran (sometimes heretical), a byproduct of colonialism and modernity baked into our church structures, much of which was formed in colonial realities.
For now, let us keep asking questions. “Let us work so that what has happened with La Misión Luterana Latina” and Pastor Rabell never happens again. Let us work together so that people of color in the ELCA as equal siblings in Christ. Let us speak the truth in love and humility. Let us work on the log in our own eyes. Let us pray for Pastor Nelson Rabell-González, Misión Latina Luterana in Stockton, Bishop Megan Rohrer, the Sierra Pacific Synod, Bishop Eaton and the Conference of Bishops.
“Any gospel that does not… speak to the issue of enslavement” and “injustice” and “inequality –
any gospel that does not want to go where people are hungry and poverty stricken
and set them free in the name of Jesus Christ – is not the gospel.”
– Tom Skinner, How Black is the Gospel