A shepherd finds the perfect flock
Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church sits on a quiet residential corner in the outer Sunset district of San Francisco.
Upstairs in a meeting room, a small group is gathered around rectangular folding tables to sing Grace before they eat. The sound of a sweetly harmonized “Amen” floats up to the rafters of the high-ceilinged room.
Church members gather every week for a potluck dinner with their pastor-- to share food, fellowship, and spiritual conversation. The group has an easy familiarity with each other; most of the congregants are older folks who have lived in the neighborhood a long time, and have been going to this church for decades. As they eat dinner, Pastor Megan Rohrer plays a contemporary pop song as a launch pad for discussion.
Some heads nod to the beat, but it’s clear that this kind of music isn’t the normal fare for this group. The room is filled with graying heads. Then, there’s the 34-years-young pastor, who stands out for another reason, too.
“You can kind of tell from 20 feet away that I’m genderqueer, trans, or a big diesel dyke—which isn’t how I identify, but it’s how I look from the outside,” says Pastor Megan Rohrer.
Rohrer was called to lead Grace Lutheran in February 2014, becoming the first openly transgender head or solo pastor of a Lutheran Church. But Rohrer’s path to ministry was not an easy one.
“I grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is the Midwest and cultural heartland of Lutherans,” says Rohrer. “The motto [there] is like: Be in the paper when you’re born and when you die and don’t get credit for anything in between. Because your job is to just, like, fit in.”
But they actually found it hard to fit in in South Dakota. A word about pronouns here: Rohrer prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” At this point in their life, they say they feel comfortable with both male and female aspects of their identity, and English doesn’t have a pronoun that captures that.
“It’s kind of a fascinating place to exist in the world—that people can’t really pin you down,” says Rohrer.
Rohrer grew up religious. They say that as a child, people recognized their gift for helping others, so ministry seemed like a good calling. But when they came out as a lesbian while attending a Lutheran college, religion was no longer welcoming.
“The people who were in my religion classes with me would sing hymns when I walked by, to try to get rid of my gay demons. And I would just sing harmony. I didn’t know what to do,” Rohrer says.
After college, Rohrer came to identify as transgender, and eventually found their way to a progressive Lutheran seminary in Berkeley. They were ordained in 2006, working extensively with homeless people and associate pastoring at several churches in San Francisco before being called to lead Grace Lutheran Church.
Rohrer says they know a lot of people have felt let down by traditional churches, places that may have been un-welcoming, fundamentalist, or judgmental.
“Identifying as trans makes people hear my sermons differently and hear what I’m saying differently,” says Rohrer. “We do something called ‘Bible Study That Doesn’t Suck’ online. It’s completely normal bible study. It just has a title that says that it doesn’t suck, which gives people the opportunity to give it a second chance -- because they think Jerry Falwell or Fred Phelps is what every Christian believes, and you should write off all Christians.”
After going years without a permanent pastor, Grace Lutheran’s aging congregation was dwindling. The church council at Grace was tasked with finding a new pastor to help the congregation survive and thrive into the future.
Sally Ann Ryan is president of the council and says Rohrer was their top choice.
“She is so alive. So with today, but also with the past, with the Bible,” says Ryan. “She preaches everything from the Bible and that, but it’s in today’s language, more than most people do. She appeals to all ages, I’ve found.”
You may have noticed that Ryan is using the pronoun “she” to talk about Rohrer. Most people that I spoke to at Grace refer to their pastor as “she.” Though Rohrer prefers to use the pronoun “they” when possible, it’s not really an issue at church.
“I really am much more interested in being someone’s pastor at the end of the conversation than having them get my gender right,” Rohrer explains. “My job as a pastor is to care more about what’s going in the person I’m talking to than about what’s going on in my own life. And you can imagine that throughout the lifespan of doing ministry with people, that if your only concern was to think about what offended you, you would be a really crappy pastor.”
Rohrer’s gender identity, or the fact that their partner is a woman, was a non-issue for council president Ryan when it came to choosing a new pastor.
“What she does in her private life is up to her,” says Ryan. “What she does in her church life is what’s important.”
Pam Ryan, council president Sally Ann Ryan’s daughter, grew up at Grace. She’s in her 30s now and has a teenage son. He doesn’t come to church these days, because there are no other people his age. But she says Rohrer’s fresh perspective may just bring her son back into the fold.
At a free healthcare event the church held around Easter, the teen chatted with the pastor about safe sex, and then got to help burn palms for next year’s ashes.
“So he got to talk about condoms and lighting a fire with our new pastor,” says Pam Ryan. “So he left here like, ‘Cool, she’s cool!’”
Rohrer says that more than being a trans person, the radical thing about their presence is the age difference.
“You could multiply my age times two and I would still be one of the younger people in this congregation,” says Rohrer. “So I think it’s radical for them to have a 34-year-old who’s hanging out at their congregation and bringing life to them.”
But Rohrer says being publicly known as a church leader from a marginalized group comes with its own pressures.
“Most people don’t know other trans pastors. When you’re of a very small group there’s this sense that if you screw up, it means everybody who’s like you is not okay. Or if you screw up they’re going to pass rules saying transgender people can’t be pastors because that person screwed up,” says Rohrer. “And so there’s something really beautiful about people accepting you for the fullness of who you are so that you don’t have to be a superhero all the time. You can be Clark Kent … I get to be just a normal person who screws up the bulletin every once in a while, you know?”
Despite the occasional typo in the weekly church bulletin, Rohrer and Grace seem to be getting along just fine. The congregation grew in membership by 34 percent from the time the new pastor arrived and the fall of 2014. Rohrer says that number is “a fancy way of saying that the congregation of sixteen grew by six people. But it sounds fancier in the percentage.”
Rohrer recently underwent a trans-related surgery.
“I let them know that I would be having surgery, that I wouldn’t be sharing with them the nature of my surgery, and that if they guessed, that was fine, but they shouldn’t tell me they figured it out,” says Rohrer. “But it’s pretty obvious: I went from like a triple D to an A, essentially.”
Rohrer says the congregation’s support during the healing process was both touching and surprising like a 98-year-old woman in the congregation who said, “Now that you’ve had this surgery, what are your pronoun choices, and are you going to be changing your name?”
Rohrer says they’re convinced that they’ve found the perfect pastoral fit at Grace Lutheran:
“People who truly embody the word Grace. Never in a million years, in a million years, did I think that I would be a part of a church that could welcome me and allow me to be a pastor fully identifying as how I am.”
So Pastor Megan Rohrer has found a spiritual home. And the Grace congregation has found just the right shepherd to lead them on their journey.
You might say it's a match made in heaven.
This piece originally aired on September, 10, 2014