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For years I have been writing articles about the ELCA – often with the subtitle, “What Will It Be Next?”  The images I have chosen for those articles have often been a car or motorcycle careening out of control, a road with the pavement washed out, a road with a bridge ahead washed out, a road covered by an avalanche of rocks, or a road that goes over a cliff.  I have been certain that eventually the ELCA will crash. 

That “eventually” could very well be soon.  Last December the bishop and synod council of the ELCA’s Sierra Pacific Synod (northern California and northern Nevada) terminated the call of a Latino mission developer, and did so on December 12, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most special days for many in the Latino community.  At first Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton did not follow the recommendations of the “Listening Team” which she had convened, but instead felt that the words and actions of Bishop Megan Rohrer of the Sierra Pacific Synod did not rise to the level of initiating disciplinary procedures.  Instead she merely asked Bishop Rohrer to resign because they (Bishop Rohrer’s chosen pronoun) no longer had the trust and confidence of the synod.  A resolution proposed at the June 2-4 synod assembly that Bishop Rohrer resign by the end of the assembly and that they be dismissed from their position if they do not resign failed to pass by a vote of about 56% to 44%.  A two-thirds majority vote would have been required.  The synod assembly ended with Megan Rohrer still serving as bishop, but the fallout continues across the ELCA.  Congregations within that synod have said that they will leave the ELCA and at least one other synod has said that they will stop sending financial support to the ELCA as long as Megan Rohrer continues as bishop.  In addition I read of plans for demonstrations during the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August.

Here is a link to a website that contains the most complete list that I am aware of to articles and videos related to the crisis.

I have been reading about the situation and watching it unfold for months, but I certainly do not claim to fully understand it.  Nor is it my role or my responsibility to make a statement about the rightness and/or wrongness of the actions and words of the people involved.  But I would want to make it abundantly clear.  Racism is wrong.  Abuse of power is wrong.  Discrimination and unequal treatment of people are wrong.   

In this article I want to explore two things.  First, Why has this whole situation been so explosive within and damaging to the entire ELCA? (For shock waves have been reverberating not just in one synod, but throughout the entire church body.)  And second, What does this whole situation say about the ELCA? 

First, Why has this situation been so explosive within and damaging to the entire ELCA?  I can think of six reasons. 

First, because the ELCA already was a weakened and injured church body.  The ELCA is painfully aware of the fact that it is significantly diminished from what it was when it was formed in 1988.  The number of members has decreased from over five million to less than 3.3 million in thirty-four years.  The number of congregations has dropped from over 11,000 to under 9,000.  And the congregations that remain are significantly diminished.  Smaller congregations mean less income to congregations, which means less income to synods, which means less money to churchwide.  The ELCA is obsessed with the fact that it has been labelled “the whitest denomination in the United States” (and this in spite of all of its efforts to be inclusive and multi-ethnic).  And the ELCA is constantly apologizing for everything and for all of the ways in which it has been complicit in the mistreatment of all disadvantaged peoples.  How could any organization – or any person – who is significantly diminished, failing to meet goals, and constantly apologizing be healthy and strong?

Second, the ELCA promotes a culture of victimization.  Throughout this whole situation – including at the recent Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly – people have been talking about how victimized they and other people are.  Now, I fully agree that it is wrong to victimize people.  I do not want to deny, minimize, or disregard the pain of those who have been victimized.  But I believe that any organization where such a high percentage of the people see themselves as and will frequently talk about themselves as being victimized will not be healthy and strong.

Third, in the ELCA there is competition for who is the most oppressed, marginalized, abused, and powerless.  For the person or group who is the most oppressed, marginalized, abused, and powerless actually has the most power.  They are the ones who are most to be listened to because that they are the ones who have the most accurate insight into the way things “really are.” 

Fourth, in the ELCA racism and white supremacy are the worst of sins.  A synodical bishop, who a few short months ago was the greatest of celebrities, has become the worst of sinners.  Even the presiding bishop is now being seen as having committed the unforgiveable sin.  Because Bishop Eaton at first did not follow the recommendations of the “Listening Team” and did not see racism as sufficient reason to initiate disciplinary procedures against a synodical bishop, she is being accused of being what she has been speaking most strongly against.    

Fifth, in the ELCA there is an absence of grace.  Oh, the ELCA talks about grace.  But it is the grace of being inclusive.  According to the ELCA, God is inclusive; therefore I need to be inclusive.  And anyone who is not as inclusive as God and me has committed the worst of sins.  If grace is all about being inclusive, then there is no grace for anyone who is not inclusive.  Not being inclusive is the unforgiveable sin.   

I wrote about this in my article, “Did Jesus Die for Our Sins?” which appeared in the May issue of our newsletter, CORE Voice.  A link to that article can be found here.  For many within the ELCA the reason Jesus died on the cross was not to pay the price for our sins (for if He needed to do that, then God the Father would be a Cosmic Child Abuser).  Instead Jesus was killed because His being inclusive was a threat to the Roman empire.  But the problem with that view is that without the blood of Jesus the only resource I have to deal with my own sins and the sins of those who sin against me is my being inclusive and following the example of Jesus who was inclusive and who resisted oppressive, non-inclusive power structures. 

Towards the end of the second day of the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly there was talk about wanting to be able to find reconciliation and healing.  But without the blood of Jesus to cover over sin – without grace – how would you ever hope to be able to find reconciliation and healing when someone has committed the worst of sins?  

Sixth, there is a real zeal for works righteousness within the whole “woke” movement.  People need to show that they are just as woke as, if not more woke than, everyone else.  Therefore, if someone has committed the worst of sins, I must jump in and show myself to be totally woke.   

Those are six reasons why I believe the whole situation has been so explosive within and damaging to the entire ELCA.

Now I would like to turn our attention to my second question – What does this whole situation say about the ELCA?  I can think of eight things.

First, just being part of a so-called “marginalized” people group does not qualify someone to be bishop.  Enough said.

Second, Bishop Eaton has a habit of being very quick to issue statements and make judgments regarding issues outside the ELCA.  And yet she was very slow – it took her three weeks – to make a statement about and to become involved in this issue within her areas of responsibility.   She has plenty to deal with within her own arena of oversight.  She needs to focus her energy and attention on her areas of responsibility.   

Third, at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly Bishop Eaton made a very strong statement against racism and white supremacy.  A similarly strong statement was made by the interim vice president of the ELCA, Carlos Pena, who presided over much of the proceedings.  I wonder whether Bishop Eaton will ever be able to regain full credibility.

Fourth, the vote on the resolution to call for Bishop Rohrer’s resignation or dismissal if they do not resign failed by a margin of 56% to 44%.   (A two-thirds majority vote would have been required.)  A majority voted to dismiss, but not a two-thirds majority.  That alone is a recipe for a disaster.  I think of congregations where the vote to leave the ELCA failed.  A majority voted to leave, but not a two-thirds majority.  There are many tragic examples of what happened next.

Fifth, before the formation of the ELCA, I was a part of the ALC (American Lutheran Church).  The ALC was much more congregational, much less hierarchical, than the ELCA was designed to be.  In the ELCA synodical bishops have been given a great deal of power and authority.

But recently there has been much discussion that there needs to be a curbing of the power and authority of synodical bishops and synod councils, because the bishop and synod council of the Sierra Pacific Synod are seen as abusing that power and authority.  I wonder how many synod assemblies will be working to have that issue come to the floor of the Churchwide Assembly.

Sixth, another dynamic that I have heard mentioned is what has been called the “Purple Code” – the at least unwritten agreement that the Conference of Bishops will circle the wagons whenever there is controversy and no synodical bishop will ever speak against another synodical bishop.  But several synodical bishops have been calling for the need to bring charges against Bishop Rohrer.  The wagons are no longer circled.  Will they ever circle again?  The Purple Code has been broken.  Will it ever be intact again?

Seventh, I have heard that there has been much discussion the last few months that such things as parliamentary procedures and Roberts Rules are all rooted in systemic racism and all promote and maintain white supremacy.  They disadvantage ethnic minorities, people whose primary language is other than English, and people of color.  Therefore, they must all be dismantled.  Again, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August should be interesting.

Eighth, for months Bishop Eaton has been talking about Future Church and her goal to reach one million “new, young, and diverse people” by the end of this decade.  If people in the ELCA are already calling for a dismantling of everything in the ELCA that fosters racism and white supremacy, what will it be like when one million “new, young, and diverse people” become a part of the equation?  I assume that most of these one million “new, young, and diverse people” will not have a history with the ELCA, will not value the ELCA, and will not have experience in being a part of church life.  Is the ELCA really ready for what it says it wants?    

How all of this will play out I do not know.  Major new developments have occurred between the time when I started writing and when I finished writing this article.  Bishop Eaton announced that she would bring charges against and would initiate a disciplinary process against Bishop Rohrer and Bishop Rohrer has resigned.  I assume that there will be further developments by the time that you read this article.  Part of the reality of writing an article like this is knowing that it will always be out of date.

Please join with me in praying for all those within the ELCA.  No matter how far they have strayed, Jesus still loves them and He shed His blood for them. 

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • David says:

    Well written, Rev. Nelson. This was all predictable in 2009 and before, and, in fact was predicted at the 2009 Churchwide in one of the discussion comments of two minutes. That was, for the “moderates” thinking they are compromising for peace and putting an end to the angst, don’t count on it, as, if this passes there will be no end to it. And there has not been, sooner and more virulent and dismissive of those who practice their bound conscience. What has occurred is that in the praise of victimhood, the growing list of victims has caused cross competition for most favored victim, and the transgender lobby has now caused negative reaction to negative results for the feminist community, primarily through the Title IX dilemma caused by men swimming and otherwise competing physically with women in organized athletics. This has been happening in the secular world as well between Hispanics and African-Americans in the Democratic Party. The victimhood of each becomes a priority when it serves the political purpose of the “progressives,” notably the Democratic Party, and not other times. Witness the young man from the Florida high school where the mass shooting took place who was used thusly by Democrats until something else came up, then was discarded. Have you seen or heard from him in the media lately, or for well over two years for that matter? Similarly Greta, of Scandinavian origins, who knows little about climate change or real science, who is used when it is convenient. Again, all this is and was predictable and predicted.

  • Leanne says:

    So from what I gather about this situation – the pastor that Bishop Roher dismissed was let go without any sort of due process or chance to answer his accusers for whatever he has supposedly done. It was considered racist because he was dismissed on an important “feast day” of “Our Lady of Guadalupe” during which they were having a special celebration which included a statue of Mary, flowers, Aztec dancers and incense. What I’ve not seen anyone mention, anywhere, is that statues of Mary, Aztec dancers and incense do not belong in a Lutheran worship service! I find it interesting that you mention that the ELCA was designed to be hierarchical – two things all false religions have in common are hierarchies and goddess worship.

    • Linda M. Olsen says:

      Hi, Leanne,
      It’s complicated. But after about 3 hours of reading yesterday, I found the details I outline below (and more) in this article and embedded links put out by the ELCA itself:

      In this 25 page document and related links, it cites and talks about everything but Jesus.

      Summary of events:

      Both Bishop Megan Rohrer (then Pastor Rohrer) and Pastor Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez were both up for voting for being the next Bishop last winter. Apparently, only Pastor Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez was asked “to address the allegations against him” and he did so. The then Bishop Mark Holmerud felt the need to supplement Pastor Rabell-Gonzalez self-disclosure as not being complete enough. There were apparently statements by some female parishioners or co-workers that they felt harassed by him and verbally mistreated. Then-Pastor Rohrer was not called to do a similar self-disclosure, even though apparently the Synod had information at the time that the church they pastored had some financial irregularities involving combining the payroll account with a bequest in order to me their (then Pastor Rohrer’s payroll of their $90,000.00 annual salary, $40,000.00 of which was supposed to be met not from church assets but from outside income (unclear what sources). Control of the bequest account was taken away from them but none of this was known to the people voting at the time except for the outgoing Bishop Holmerud. That was the 1st strike.

      Pastor Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez was apparently beloved by his small, predominantly Hispanic (mostly Mexican) congregation, who followed him from his last church (which had been a small congregation or a mission plant, unsure which). He was very active pursuing immigration rights and other issues important to his community. In other words, he should have been an ELCA darling. Rohrer was elected and now Rabell-Gonzalez was under them. In the short span March, 2021 to early December, 2021, Bishop Rohrer apparently received additional complaints against Rabell-Nelson which amounted to more of the same: harassment of female parishioners and verbal mistreatment of sorts. It was only LATER made clear that none of this was sexual in nature and I say this now for a reason which will become very clear in a moment. Bishop Rohrer investigated the allegations and found them insufficient to discipline him. At the same time, Bp. Rohrer directed that see a psychologist which had already been chosen by them, and that he sign both a Non Disclosure Agreement and a Non-Disparagement Agreement. He declined to sign and continued pastoring his flock. This came up a second time and he again refused. He got a lawyer and the lawyer’s question was, “If there is insufficient evidence of wrongdoing, why is he required to see a psychologist and sign off on NDAs and an ND? Good questions. After he hired the lawyer, Bp. Rohrer at her next Synod Council meeting took a vote based on information they all had and voted to fire him (unclear if it also revoked his pastoring credentials). The Synod rule is after this vote, the action shall be taken by the next Sunday. Which happened to be the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe and everyone was there for the church service and extensive celebration they had planned. Pastor Hazel Salazar-Davidson, Assistant to the Bishop on Authentic Diversity and Inclusivity and Service explained to Bp. Rohrer that this action could not be taken on the Feast day as it would be seen an an action of supremacy and white colonization and she requested that the action not be implemented at that time of all times. Bp. Rohrer countered with, “But them’s the rules” and literally said, “I am the Bishop” and when continued protestations were offered they simply said, “Look, when I come here with decisions made it’s really just to inform you and not always to get further input.” That shut down the discussion. On that Feast Day Sunday, Bp. Rohrer had the Rev. Salazar-Davidson accompany them to the Feast Day. At the Feast Day, they informed Salazar-Davidson that she would be leading worship and that she could say nothing of what happened. (Note: Rohrer does not speak Spanish. Salazar-Davidson does, which was ostensibly the reason the Bishop did not lead worship on this date). Just Preach The Feast Day and Carry On. No preparation and no script of any kind. The congregation gathered with their finery and their respective roles (Aztec dancers, foods for the celebration, etc) asking what they were to do, and where they would go. They were expectant and somewhat compliant as a group until after the sermon / message when Salazar-Davidson went to prepare the Communion table, one person asked, “Where is Pastor Nelson?” and then a chorus of voices echoed the same questions, along with, “What’s happening?” It went downhill from there because it was then they were told he’s no longer their pastor. They were worried and asked why? No explanation was given at that time.
      Someone grabbed the statue of the Virgin Mary and processed out of the church along with the rest of the congregation. And that’s how they left the ELCA. Reunited with their Pastor Rabell-Gonzalez, who ministers to their congregation at least at the start in a parking lot. He was stripped of his credentials in the ELCA.

      Salazar-Davidson was the one who really “outed” Bishop Rohrer and said a few key things: They don’t listen. They don’t want to hear it. The church’s “rules” are rooted in white supremacy. Bp. Rohrer has a white male “presentation” and they are intimidating and triggering, reminding Salazar Davidson of how her ancestors must have felt with the white colonizers. Salazar-Davidson was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the entire debacle and asked to go “on leave from call” (take a leave of absence) and things went south from there. This was either denied or deferred, and then her application for disability and to maintain healthcare was jeopardized until the Synod offered her a loan to pay her portion of her health care benefits, etc, etc., etc.

      So white supremacy administered in the guise of an intimidating white male presentation, not listening to what the Inclusivity assistant explains and the action she recommends, these were the unforgivable sins of Bp. Rohrer. I am NOT defending Bp. Rohrer’s actions. But it’s clear that racism or even an allegation of racist practice and system must be handled in the ELCA by being summarily dismantled. This is their next churchwide assembly focus: how to dismantle racism in the ELCA-so-white organization.

      Bp. Rohrer, similar to their treatment of Pr. Rabell-Nelson, was found not have to committed any kind of misconduct, but was asked for their resignation which they declined to give immediately. Bp. Rohrer issued an apology for their insensitivity and I’ll try to do better and be better etc. Then ELCA Churchwide went back to their days as pastor of Grace Lutheran and financial irregularities and came up with, ‘there are now additional allegations etc. on which we must move forward” and then Bp. Rohrer tendered their resignation. It was clear the ELCA wanted Bp. Rohrer out by whatever means, just as Bp. Rohrer wanted Pr. Rabell-Gonzalez out by whatever means.

      It is also clear that the trauma done to the Hispanic congregation, and the fact they the Synod literally lost an entire congregation who walked out that day never to return, that Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson was the impetus behind showing how actual and systemic white supremacy trumps everything in the ELCA and that THIS, not blaspheming the Holy Spirit, is the only unforgivable sin.

      ELCA personalities are cannibalizing each other. The ELCA is dismantling its own house while it still lives there. There is no there there.

      Blessings on you.

  • David Keck says:

    This or something like it was bound to happen as in their judgmental condescending journey into cultural control of faith the various victims were bound to clash for attention and prioritization. This will continue, and, as long as Christ is not the center of the Church and its teaching, as long as the Gospel is not the focus, they will continue to drift, lose members, and have little to offer that is a comfort to its members.

  • David M. Keck says:

    If only we read. learned, and understood history. Jacobins and Girondins, The Great Terror, Robespierre, watch your back.

    • Dennis Dean Nelson says:

      As has been said, Those who do not know history will be doomed to repeat it.