Thursday, April 30, 2015

Poverty, Lutheranism and a Circle Round-Economy: Is it Time to Reform Again?

Almost 500 years ago Martin Luther began a reformation centered on the idea that paying money for forgiveness was not the way a church should operate.  

After a near death experience with a bolt of lightening, Luther reversed course on his overly anxious, rule following faith.  He believed that God had already gone all-in to forgive and reconcile people and there was nothing we could do to screw up this reconciliation that God had already assured through Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

Lutherans, and I speak primarily about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) where I am rooted, have echoed this reformation spirit on in our singing, preaching and praying.  

Yet, almost 500 years later, we haven't figured out how to reform the economy of our churches.  

If all people are equally deserving of access to God regardless of how much money they have or can give, then why are so many churches closing when their economic ability to pay the full time salary of a pastor or paying for their church building dwindles?

What happened to the idea that a pastor was in charge of a parish, or a geographical region?  That meant that when someone in the neighborhood was in need, the pastor was there for them and their family.  If pastors invested as much time learning to love the things that the people in the neighborhood love as we do in learning about the hierarchy's plans for raising money from the dwindling congregants and congregations, perhaps communities would feel like a church in their neighborhood was a gift. 

Some congregations believe that a successful pastor must spend more of their time "on the clock" in the congregation where the trickle up money was offered to them.  Letting this big givers shape the clock of the pastor and determine the issues that are important to them is sliding back to the very thing Luther inspired reformation against. 

If our offering is truly going to God and the pastor's job is to serve God's people then giving money to the church is not a democratic vote on how the pastor spends their time.  I believe that God loves all the people in the neighborhoods around the church.  And if the money that pays the pastor is God's money in action, then God would likely vote that the pastor love and serve all of God's children, not just those who make it to church on Sunday.

Grace Lutheran in San Francisco:
I'm not suggesting pastors never care about their members.  My congregants will tell you that I love them mightily.  I'm learning to love what they love, I'm working to repair, repaint and ensure that our property is safe and welcoming.  I also made the budget the main focus of my first year at the congregation.  Together, in my first ten-months at the congregation, we shrunk the church's 2014 deficit from about $50,000 to about $2,000. 

We did this by partnering with other congregations and non-profits, caring for the poor, through wise investments and only spending the interest of our savings.  In addition to decreasing our deficit we also raised over $30,000 for other groups.

Lest you think this is the kind of economy that is only possible at a large church with wealthy members, remember that my congregation called me with a unanimous vote of 16 and the 20-30 members who join us for worship are mostly retirees. 


Currently the ELCA struggles with how to grow and serve congregations in what could be called a trickle up economy.  This means people who attend church, give money and some is then given to local Synods and then the Synod gives a portion of this money to the national churchwide programs. The money trickles up the church hierarchy. Trickle up is the extreme response to the reformation.  It flips the trickle down economy that was seen as unfair during the first reformation on its head, but it doesn't solve all the problems the reformation sought to address.

The trickle up economy is rooted in mistrust that others will not handle money correctly or share it fairly.  On the local level, congregations share with others less than they should because they selfishly fear that other congregations will take "their" resources, members or do better than "us."   Forgetting that it is God's money, when it comes to our money we are proclaiming mistakenly that God can/should only show up in our sanctuary on Sunday.

Of course, there are always exceptions to every generalization and stories about generosity are applauded at meetings, evangelism classes and in Lutheran publications.  Yet, local gatherings have begun to look more like infomercials to ensure the trickle up of money and less like events that celebrate and highlight the new ways and stories of God present in our neighborhood and world.

Dublin Street Art
Today, I encourage Lutherans everywhere to join me in living a circle-round economy.  This means money trickles up, down and sideways.  I think this circle-round economy is what Synod's and the churchwide office envision too.

I recently went to a meeting where an outside group got really confused about why it seemed like all the San Francisco Lutheran churches and non-profits were always giving money to each other.  Supporting special projects or helping each other get through a rough patch, the congregations and non-profits cooperate so much that outside groups wonder if they are too financially entangled.

What this outside organization saw as a red flag, I call a double rainbow.  For the past decade I mostly raised money for one homeless non-profit.  Over the past few years I started raising funds for more groups - particularly when there was nothing in it for me personally.  My fear was that people would give less to my favorite group when I started to add other great projects to the list.

Instead, the opposite happened.  Those I had helped to raise funds worked harder to help me with my favorite projects, because I had worked so hard for them.  Those who had given in the past gave more and new people learned about my work when I cared about something that was their favorite thing.

This year I'll be hosting lots of fundraisers.  Some will be for the groups closest to my heart (Grace Lutheran and Welcome).  Others will be for collaborative groups I'm a part of: SF CARES, the Castro Lion's Club.  Also this year, I'm going to host fundraisers for other congregations and organizations: St. Francis and Santa Maria y Martha Lutheran churches and Project Homeless Connect.

Our funds trickle to the side when a congregation is in need.  Congregations may wonder if helping will affect their own ability to meet their economic goals for the year, but if we knew other congregations would have our back when times are hard, sharing would be easy.  And more often then we know, funds trickle down from Synod and churchwide offices.  Sometimes to accomplish big goals (fight malaria, end hunger and povery) our money needs to trickle up.  

What are some practical ways we can support the circle-round economy?

Build up the Lutheran Brand: Whatever funds are currently being put into developing informercials and print campaigns designed to inspire a trickle up giving, should be put into media campaigns to rebuild the Lutheran brand.  For example, if the Synod had tv spots and ads in print media celebrating the welcome of Lutherans or our justice work it would benefit all congregations, not just those with wealthier congregants.  It would even inspire circle-round giving in congregational budgets.  I know I'd use some of our congregations advertising budget to help pay for Lutheran branding.  

And don't forget social media is free.  What if we were able to get #IamLutheran to trend?  Even if most of the people inspired by the project never step foot in my church, if it helps with evangelism in a church that can't afford advertising, I'd be delighted. 

When St. Paulus Lutheran and Grace Lutheran gave away ashes in the Civic Center Bart station the most common question we were asked was "what faith are you?"  When we answered Lutheran, people exclaimed "oh good!"  But, they didn't know there were Lutheran churches in the neighborhood.

What if all the people who thought "oh good" new where their local Lutheran church was and that they were welcome there. 

This is just one example of how we can reform our thinking about giving and participate in a faithful circle-round.  What are your ideas about how we can inspire a trickle-round economy?

In the News: Bay Area Reporter

Mixed reaction
to Jenner interview


Bruce Jenner during the ABC interview last week. Photo: Courtesy ABC

There was mixed reaction from trans community leaders to former Olympian Bruce Jenner's announcement that he is a woman and undergoing a gender transition.
Jenner's news, made during a two-hour prime time interview with veteran journalist Diane Sawyer on ABC's 20/20 , showed him as humorous, somewhat nervous, and candid in his realization that "for all intents and purposes I am a woman."
Much of the interview was conducted at Jenner's Malibu home.
Jenner explained his transition this way: He feels he was created by God who said, "Hey, let's give him the soul of a female and let's see how he deals with that."

"So, here I am," Jenner said, choking up. "Stuck – and I hate the word – a girl stuck in a guy's body. I hate that terminology. I'm me. I'm a person and this is who I am ... My brain is much more female than it is male. It's hard for people to understand that, but that's what my soul is."

Jenner, 65, who won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics, is known by millions for his participation in the hit reality series Keeping Up With the Kardashians. He did not state a new name during the interview, which was seen by an estimated 16.9 million viewers April 24. Sawyer also said during the program that for now, Jenner has not indicated that a new pronoun be used.
That fact rankled some who watched the show.

Veronika Fimbres, of San Francisco, who is a transgender woman, said that she was "uncomfortable" with Jenner's continued use of male pronouns.

"He is holding onto his straight male white privilege, which he seems reluctant to acquiesce," Fimbres said. "I can only hope that his good intentions have a good outcome."

Pastor Megan Rohrer, the transgender leader of Grace Lutheran Church in the Sunset district, had no issue with Jenner's continued use of male pronouns. But Rohrer, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, acknowledged that pronoun usage could be a slippery slope. 

"It's a gray space," Rohrer told the Bay Area Reporter. "Jenner wanted he/him to be used in the ABC interview, so you could ethically go with that. GLAAD guidelines say that you use the pronouns expressed by the person." 

Sawyer's interview touched on many topics. Jenner spoke of his relationships with his family – his four biological children with two ex-wives, and his two biological children and four stepchildren with ex-wife Kris Jenner. Neither his former wives nor his children with Kris Jenner nor the Kardashian children appeared on camera. His four eldest children did appear on camera and voiced support for Jenner.

He recalled his struggles with gender dysphoria during his childhood in Tarrytown, New York.
Jenner also stated that he had begun undergoing hormone therapy as early as the 1980s with the intention of transitioning. But he stopped. "I lost my nerve," he told Sawyer.

Jenner drew a distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity. 

"Sexuality was totally different than what my issues were," Jenner said. "And I always felt heterosexual." He also added he had never been with a man. "I am not gay ... as far as I know, I am heterosexual."

Sawyer brought up the issue again later in the program, asking if Jenner would consider himself a lesbian after transitioning if he dated women. He did not agree, finally describing himself as "asexual – for now."

Throughout the program, educational bullet points were shown, such as one explaining, "Sexual identity is who you go to sleep with. Gender identity is who you go to sleep as."

During the interview Jenner acknowledged being a Republican and said he hoped to present transgender issues to party leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio). He said that he's "not a fan" of President Barack Obama, but gave him credit for saying the word "transgender" during the State of the Union address in January.
Fimbres wondered if the Republican leadership would accept Jenner. Log Cabin Republicans, a lobbying group for LGBT conservatives, did issue a statement after the interview welcoming Jenner into the fold. 

The program did point out the high level of violence directed against transgender people, particularly transwomen of color. Jenner also made it clear that he does not consider himself a spokesman for the transgender community.

Fimbres was happy that the show acknowledged the violence that transgender people face. But she was displeased with what she called Jenner's "dissing" of Obama.

"Bruce Jenner is not the face or spokesmodel of trans folks to me," Fimbres said. "He still needs more counseling and guidance as he continues on his journey." 

In the immediate aftermath of the interview, many LGBT people took to social media, describing Jenner as a "courageous hero." But not all saw him that way.

"Anyone who chose to go through the journey of gender transition is courageous and strong," Cecilia Chung, a transgender woman and longtime community leader, wrote on Facebook April 25. "Jenner is no exception. To go through this private transformation in front of the camera is going to add multiple layers of complexities and inherent risks."

Chung also wrote that she thought Jenner had the best intentions, but that she has no faith in the mainstream media. "Let's hope for the best for Jenner's upcoming documentary series and for the media to respect his journey," she wrote.

Chung was referring to Jenner's upcoming reality show that will air this summer.
Rohrer said overall, the Jenner interview was a "sign of progress."

"When people are given the freedom to make their own choices about their bodies, faith, and politics our world is a better place," Rohrer said. "There were days when all trans people had to answer medical questions the same way or they wouldn't get approved."

Added Rohrer, "The fact that Jenner's story and imagined future is different from mine and other trans people is a sign of progress."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

In the News: West Hawaii Today

Vision event to benefit Kona’s homeless

The Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity is partnering with Project Vision Hawaii, the Kailua-Kona Lions Club and pastor Megan Rohrer from the Welcome Ministry in San Francisco to put on the Kona Vision Event to benefit homeless people and other low-income people with their vision needs. The event will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Old Kona Airport Park Makaeo Events Pavilion.

Dr. Susan Senft and Jenn Brown, staff at Island Eye Care Inc., will administer free eye exams. Free glasses will be ordered for attendees and later distributed by the church’s HERO Ministry. The Hawaii Island HIV/AIDS Foundation will offer HIV/HCV screenings. Lisa Lea, a SNAP outreach specialist for Hope Services, will assist people with SNAP applications. Representatives from the West Hawaii Community Health Center will provide information about services offered at the center and information about signing up for health insurance. Sarah Huddy from the Kona Commons SuperCuts will offer free haircuts. A free meal, blood pressure, and blood sugar screenings will also be offered during the event.

For more information, contact the church office at 329-5733 or visit

- See more at:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Ethical Case for Autism

As the first openly transgender pastor ordained in the Lutheran Church, I know the difficulty that comes from judgment, fear and bad science.  Having spent the past thirteen years primarily working with the homeless and hungry in San Francisco, there have been moments when my family has raised eyebrows and perhaps wished my life was safer or easier to explain their Midwestern neighbors and friends. 

As I slogged through the hard won battle with the Lutheran church to recognize LGBTQ pastors fully, there was something comforting about knowing there was a large community walking with me, supporting me and praying for me.  Yet, as I listen to GOP Presidential hopefuls, conscientious objectors to vaccinations and chirpy talk shows blithely validate parental desires to prevent, repair or erase autism; I wonder where my community is.

Diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, with what used to be called Aspergers, my autism is one of the best things about me. While Aspergers is considered mild on the autistic spectrum, I believe my autism makes me more ethical and better at my job. 

The ability to hyperfocus makes me extremely good at research and sticking with a task until it is complete.  In 2014 this gift helped me publish 3 books, create an award winning illustrated documentary and create a succulent labyrinth garden at the church.  

My literal thinking and joy of following ethical rules means problems society has unnecessarily complicated seem simple to me.  I believe the solution to homelessness is housing and to hunger is food.  These na├»ve assumptions compelled me to do my part and in 2014, I helped get nearly 1,000 homeless individuals eye exams and prescription eye glasses and received an honorable mention as an Unsung Hero of Compassion by His Holiness the Dali Lama.

There are countless examples of people who excel at their jobs, because of autism.  Having a brain that sees the world differently, may annoy and scare parents, but it helps our world become more innovative.  Parents may wish their autistic kids were more social, but in a work situation these same behaviors might help a brilliant worker stay focused when office mates are gossiping and wasting  hours on social networking sites.

If you’re still not on board with my ethical argument for autism, consider these two examples.  First, consider the ethical impact of exposing children to the world’s most infectious, preventable disease.  Now consider the ethical impact of an autistic child.   Jenny McCarthy, the notorious parent of an autistic child, during her Dirty, Sexy, Funny show on Sirius XM, reported that her autistic son called the police on her when she was illegally texting and driving.  McCarthy was unremorseful and shared that instead of ending the dangerous habit of texting while driving; she instead threw her son’s phone out the car window.    

Rule following, when the rules are deemed ethical, is one of the “symptoms” of autism.  Sounds horrible, right? 

It took decades to discredit reparative therapies that sought to erase or retrain sexual and gender identities.  Similar therapies for autistic children mask or hide characteristics of autism without the consent of the children living with autism.  While it may be important for the parents of autistic children to force their children to be more sociable and to learn eye contact, we should also be able ethically talk about the harm this can kind of therapy can cause.

For example, some individuals with autism experience touch as painful.  The therapeutic method sometimes used to eradicate this “symptom” from children is to hold them tight and not let go.  The idea is that the child can learn to endure the pain.  This method is repeated until the child stops exhibiting a negative response to being held. 

We’ve decided it’s abusive to inflict physical pain on adults to get them to stop having a gay identity, why is it ok to inflict pain on children to prevent their autistic identity?

Some may argue that my space on the mild end of the autistic spectrum clouds my judgment on this issue.  They may be right.  But until autistic children are given the ability to advocate for their own needs and wishes, it may require high functioning autistic adults “coming out” to raise awareness on this issue.

Minimally, we miss the point when we limit our conversations about the measles outbreak to the question of whether or not parents can choose to vaccinate their kids.  We must ethically question the motivations those of the parents, who go to dangerous lengths to try to eradicate autism from their children's lives.  Like so many other kinds of diversity that teach us about what it means to be human, we should instead ask how we can learn from people living on the autistic spectrum.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Trip to Romance Faith - Latest Living Lutheran Post

Today, as I stood in the Jordan River (see photo), I remembered both Jesus' and my own baptism. This trip is a part of an expedition I'm on to discover the wonders of God.

To date, I've seen six new wonders, two natural wonders, visited the most sacred places of Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity, got as close as non-Muslims can get to Mecca, dipped myself in four sacred waters, listened to the Dalai Lama and visited 10 countries. In the next week I'll visit two more wonders, have an audience with the pope and learn about early Christians in Egypt and Turkey. -

Read the rest at: the ELCA's Living Lutheran

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Support Pastor Megan!
Get a t-shirt and the next edition of Pastor Megan's next  book!  The shirt is only available for the next 6 days, so make sure you order soon.  Click here to order.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

In the News: KALW

 Listen to the Broadcast

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.”

Finding Grace
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. Since the new pastor arrived, the congregation has grown in membership by 34 percent. 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.