Megan Rohrer once walked away from the church community they now lead. Years before being installed as a bishop in the 3.3 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in September, Rohrer had doubts about having any future with the congregation after facing discrimination for being gay.
“I just thought, I don’t need this nonsense. I don’t want to be in a job where you either have to be a superhero or you could get in trouble,” said Rohrer, who uses they/them pronouns and lives in San Francisco’s Sunset neighborhood.
Rohrer’s tenure with the church has been long, winding and complicated, even at just 41 years of age. In a kind of shorthand origin story, Rohrer starts our meeting off by pointing to their official baptism certificate, conveniently located on a wall of books lining the office at the quiet church grounds in Millbrae.
“Church always was a part of my life. But the reason that I choose as an adult to stay Lutheran is because I just see how harmful it can be when people try to do that gatekeeping at the church doors and decide who should come in,” Rohrer said.
With time, Rohrer’s relationship with Lutheranism has evolved, but it has almost always harkened back to a foundational belief in radical compassion and serving those most in need in The City they now call home. Now, as bishop, Rohrer oversees 65 synods encompassing nearly 200 congregations running from just below Visalia, up to Oregon and east to Elko, Nevada.
But much of their work extends beyond the sanctuary walls, reaching into the streets and even into San Francisco city agencies, where perhaps some faith is needed now more than ever.
Faith in reform
Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Rohrer grew up surrounded by other Lutherans. “In Sunday school, I was a little nerdier than other people. They had a thing where you take a card with you if you go on vacation,” Rohrer said. “And if you went to Sunday school at the place you visited, you get perfect attendance. I was into that kind of stuff.”
But their faith was put to the test at a young age while attending Augustana University, a Lutheran college in South Dakota. News about the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, had hit Rohrer and the rest of the small local LGBTQ community hard. Rather than finding support from the church community that had been previously encouraging Rohrer to become a pastor, the congregation instead promoted anti-gay literature.
The experience led Rohrer to step away from church responsibilities and work at a home for abused children, where they saw a way to continue their work serving homeless youth outside of a religious context. But ultimately, they would feel called back after an encounter with a 6-year-old boy who found his way to the facility after he attempted suicide.
“One day he came over to me and he said, ‘Do you want to know why I’m doing this? Because I’ve heard in church that if you’re bad, you go to hell. And I want to die before I have to go to hell,’” Rohrer explained. “I realized I was always going to have these kinds of encounters and it felt like getting trained to be a pastor would be the best route.”
The decision to again pursue a career in the church led Rohrer on a road trip from Sioux Falls to Berkeley, to attend the Pacific School of Religion where they earned a master of divinity in 2005 and later a doctor of ministry in 2016.
Even with the degree, Rohrer, who was publicly transgender once they moved to Berkeley, was not permitted to run a congregation. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did not recognize LGBTQ pastors and required openly gay church leaders to practice celibacy.
But changes were coming for the Lutheran church, whose own history of reform dated back to its roots in the 1500s when Martin Luther spearheaded the Protestant Reformation. In his famous Ninety-five Theses of 1517, Luther, then a Catholic priest, rejected the notion of celibacy among pastors and indulgences, which at the time could require prayer or payment to reduce punishment for sins.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, and a group of queer Lutherans was taking up some of those early church traditions and modernizing them for the present day. They established what became called “Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries” in which LGBTQ people could be ordained as pastors and run congregations even though the broader church did not officially recognize their titles.
“We followed that list of things that you do to get ordained in 1500. It defied the contemporary rules, but followed the more ancient ones,” said Rohrer. “So that put the Lutheran Church in a weird situation where it was like, ‘Will you follow the rule?’”
San Francisco’s bishop
As a pastor, Rohrer has made their mark by taking ministry to the streets of San Francisco. You’ve likely seen them leading the Dyke March or passing the mic at protests for racial justice. You might have also walked by them sleeping alongside unhoused residents on The City’s sidewalks.
The issue of homelessness is not only rooted in scripture but also in Rohrer’s personal journey. It wasn’t uncommon in their practice to meet queer youth who escaped churches or families that turned them away. “If the loudest faithful people are the ones condemning others, then folks will always think it’s better to live homeless in San Francisco than amongst their own community,” Rohrer said.
That approach to supporting people experiencing homelessness wraps around the entire service and care continuum, from spiritual to physical and political. So when the COVID-19 pandemic sent most of The City’s direct outreach workers home to shelter in place, Rohrer was providing counseling to people experiencing homelessness as well as to the frontline workers regularly dispatched to handle street-level problems.
“If you pick a different time period of my life, it would be shocking to provide care for a police officer. But at this time, it was the bravest thing I could do,” said Rohrer, who served as chaplain for the San Francisco Police Department, beginning in 2017. Rohrer still ministers to police officers and other first responders, however, they no longer have a paid position with SFPD while serving as bishop.
Grounded in The City
Despite the wave of publicity and now superstardom in the religious world, Rohrer isn’t leaving people behind that helped lead to this moment.
“It seems like it was just yesterday that Megan walked down the aisle at Ebenezer Lutheran Church,” said Bea Chun, pastor at St. Francis Lutheran Church, referring to Rohrer’s ordinance as pastor. “They continue to stay in touch and it’s so admirable. Megan is coming back to St. Francis for service in November on the Trans Day of Remembrance.”
As bishop, Rohrer must face challenges like traveling for work to places less accepting of LGBTQ people, which could put their life in serious danger. But having a family in San Francisco helps keep them focused and grounded.
On weekends, you might find Rohrer with their wife and two kids, who are 7 and 9 years old, hanging out at Golden Gate Park or Harvey’s restaurant in the Castro.
“I’m able to commit to doing this work for six years because I know I have a safe home base where I can recharge and refuel,” said Rohrer. “To be able to have a town that is wide open and embracing of me allows me to be a person who has faith.”
Those who have walked with Rohrer since those days still remember the pushback they faced while fighting for LGBTQ rights within their church.
“It was voted down and voted down again but we kept at it,”said Chun. “I think going ahead and not waiting for the church to be ready was necessary. By having people get ordained and letting them serve, the church saw what it was missing.”
Chun has seen the horrors of anti-gay sentiments in church communities up close.
“I was once close to leaving the church. It was a question for me often: How can I as a lesbian woman be part of an institution that has hurt so many people? I’ve witnessed that hurt in counseling and people have deep depression. It’s terrible, it should never happen.”
The Lutheran Church would not officially recognize all 18 extraordinarily ordained pastors — 10 of which were in the Bay Area — until 2009, carving a pathway LGBTQ Lutherans to one day become bishop.
“It was bittersweet because it’s not like there was a big apology. But it was an affirmation of the fact that we were pastors,” Rohrer said about the recognition. “It was the culmination of hundreds of people advocating over 20 years. It took them 20 years to change the rule.”
Now, Rohrer has a long list of duties and responsibilities looking ahead at their six-year term. Near the top of that list is figuring out ways to keep small churches fiscally stable at a time when membership is declining by some measures. (Although that can be difficult to track, Rohrer said, given many attendees participate online now and member counts are unreliable.)
That will require increasing the diversity among the majority-white church membership and leadership ranks as demographics shift in California and beyond, they said.
Those priorities come amid a backdrop of many folks still struggling with the lingering impacts of the pandemic, including isolation and mental illness. Rohrer and their supporters think the church will be part of that larger spiritual recovery.
“Now is the time for healing,” said Chun, “and I hope that people who have been hurt or are still hurting can look to Megan.”