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Evangelical Lutheran Church elects first transgender bishop

The Rev. Megan Rohrer, a pastor in San Francisco, was elected bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The Rev. Megan Rohrer at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Francisco in April.
The Rev. Megan Rohrer at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Francisco in April.Meghan Rohrer / AP

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.”

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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.

It wasn’t until 2010 that Rohrer and six other gay and trans pastors were reinstated into the national assembly. (Johnson, who lost to Rohrer on Saturday, was another.)

“In 2009, when the [Churchwide Assembly] voted to ordain gay pastors, people were so worried this is going to be the death of us — that we were going to lose people,” said Murray, author of “Made, Known, Loved: Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Youth Ministry.” “And, yes, some people left. But the truth is, they were going to leave anyway.”

The exodus, he said, “opened up” the church.

“It freed us to be more loving and live our truth even more than before,” he said. “We’re still learning how to live that truth — in deciding what to say, when to speak up — but in 2009, we would have been completely paralyzed.”

Rohrer has been profiled in Cosmopolitan and appeared last year on the Netflix reboot of “Queer Eye.” They’ve been open about reconciling their faith and their queer identity. With their family, Rohrer said, “It's been a journey.”

"It takes time sometimes for people to practice pronouns and get all of that right," they said. "I'm very fortunate to have family members who love me enough to go on the journey wherever that leads."

Rohrer recalled talking to their grandmother about the bishop election process two Christmases ago.

“I told her I’d have to get new robes, new outfits,” they said. “She wrote me a check for a thousand dollars and said, ‘Buy all the robes!’ She said, ‘I have no doubt you're going to be elected bishop. I just don't think I'll live to see it.’”

On Saturday afternoon, Rohrer called her to share the news.

“She was in tears and just so delighted,” they said. “She could hardly believe it; it was so wonderful.”

In terms of trans issues, Rohrer said the ELCA is now “leaps and bounds ahead” of some other mainline denominations.

In 2015, the Rev. Asher O’Callaghan became the first regularly ordained transgender minister in the ELCA (as opposed to being ordained through the “extraordinary candidacy process," like Rohrer). O’Callaghan now serves as pastor at Highlands Lutheran Church in Denver, in the Rocky Mountain Synod.

“The leadership in our church has, for a long time, publicly and politically been supporting transgender individuals,” Rohrer said. “I think when they were trying to figure out issues about gay people being pastors, they learned a lot of lessons. So, thankfully, we didn't restart from the beginning with transgender pastors. The churchwide offices are able to focus on ways to affirm the dignity of all people.”

So far, Rohrer said, there hasn’t been any negativity about their election.

“I've only been surrounded by gratitude and thankfulness and people who were excited about this,” they said. “People who have transgender children, who have trans grandkids, who are just excited that this is an opportunity to share their faith with other people.”

Rohrer will succeed the Rev. Mark W. Holmerud, who has served as bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod since 2008 and will retire in June.

Rohrer, who is scheduled to begin their six-year term on Sept. 11, campaigned on a promise to promote low-income housing in the Bay Area and address potentially discriminatory policies within the synod, Religion News Service reported.

They also hope to restart the conversation with LGBTQ people who have been hurt by religion.

“The Lutheran tradition comes out of a spirit of reformation,” Rohrer said. “Martin Luther was responding to the fear of the Black Plague, and he found a way to see hope and possibility in the world. He had this ability to point to this unending love that Jesus has and the ability to translate it for a new generation.”

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This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.