On Saturday, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America elevated the Rev. Megan Rohrer to the role of bishop, making them the first transgender bishop of any major Christian denomination in the U.S. They were also the first transgender person to be ordained and to serve as a pastor in the ELCA. Rohrer, who lives in San Francisco, will oversee the Sierra Pacific synod, which includes nearly 200 congregations in California and Nevada. They rose to prominence from work with the LGBTQ and homeless communities, as well as from media coverage, including an appearance on Queer Eye. Slate spoke with Rohrer about making history, grappling with hate in Christian communities, and finding faith in a queer identity. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: How have the past couple days been for you?
Rohrer: It feels a little bit like the Holy Spirit took the lid off of a fire hydrant and is spraying holy water all over everywhere.
When did you start to think that you could become a bishop?
I was in Norway speaking at the St. Olav festival in 2018, and there was a misprint in the paper that said I was a bishop—a transgender bishop. And the trans pastors in Norway said, “We’re so glad that [mistake] happened because now all of Norway believes that this is possible.”
And I realized that I hadn’t believed that it was possible before that moment, so I did a pilgrimage to try to figure out why. One of my distant relatives is the patron saint of Switzerland, so I visited his hermitage and tried to imagine myself as part of the saintly bloodline. Then I went to Germany and walked some of the cobbled roads that Martin Luther had traveled. And just really started to believe it.
Then I went to Philadelphia, where Bishop Guy Erwin was encouraging me and proclaiming loudly that this is something that could be my path. I prayed about it for a couple years after. My name was [nominated] prior to the pandemic, but we delayed our assembly to vote for a bishop over a year. And so that whole year, I just allowed myself to imagine what it would be like.
Could you explain how this process worked?
There’s a series of votes from representatives from the congregations within our synod, which is just a fancy word for groups of Lutherans in the same geographical region. The top seven [vote-getters] address the assembly with a five-minute speech. And then it is narrowed down to the top three, who do a question-and-answer period. Then it is narrowed down to two. We each gave a five-minute concluding statement, and then the final vote took place.
It wasn’t clear that you would be elected until the very end.
I got the minimum number of votes you need to be elected.
What did you think when you heard the results?
I was in shock. From the photos I’ve seen, it appears that most of the color has gone out of my flesh.
How would you explain the historical nature of this?
I am a Ph.D. candidate in transgender theology. I have spent a lot of time studying all of the wonderful trans people that have been an asset to the Christian community, and I think it’s a wonderful affirmation that the full diversity of God’s creation can be used for God’s purpose. And my hunch is that learning about my story might help people notice some of the biblical stories that always existed, but maybe haven’t been noticed as much.
Is there any particular story that you’re thinking about?
There are interesting details of the stories that ancient readers would have noticed that we may have missed. Like it says that the way Jesus calls the disciples to follow him is he looks out into the sea, into the fishing boats, and he sees these men sewing their nets and decides to choose them. Now, it’s possible that Jesus knew these people’s hearts and their characters. But sewing in that time and place was women’s work; typically fishermen would pay women to sew their nets. Jesus saw people who were doing gender-transgressive things and saw that these people can be up to the same transgressive ministry work that I’m about to be up to.
Why do you think this happened now?
I think I’m a person of the kind of leadership skills that this area of Lutherans is looking for, with my work with the homeless and the hungry and with my work decreasing bias. But I also think that the rise of legislation and the volume of anger towards trans people that seems to come from faithful people makes a church that has put gender justice at the center of our work ready to call someone who will say that all people are loved by God, regardless of how their body is, regardless of how you identify, and regardless of if others accept that God can love you.
In a video on Cosmopolitan, you said the religious abuse you received made you want to study religion. Why was that the case—when so many others are driven away from it?
I have always felt a really deep connection to God ever since I was a small child. A lot of it has to do with the Lutheran faith. We baptize children because we believe that all the work of saving people and caring for people is done on God’s end, and we’re free from all of this shame and wondering if God can love us. Much of my knowledge of what it meant to be a faithful person was to be a reformer, like Martin Luther. And so I think I wanted to find a way to translate God’s unbreakable love to people.
You said that when you became queer, you became more faithful. And you also said that’s not the typical response. What did you mean by that?
Being able to love yourself is one part of the formula that Jesus asks us to do to love our neighbors as ourselves. And for queer people to be able to claim our identities is to love ourselves. There is a subtlety to trans life that we don’t always share with non-trans people. There are lots of nuances about who we love and how we love. I’ve learned so much about faith and about God by loving my wife. And by being a parent—the more you learn the breadth and the depth of love, the more you learn the breadth and the depth of who God is.
I think of my trans journey as a pilgrimage. Some pilgrimages, you go to another country, you go to a sacred site. My trans experience is a pilgrimage through parts of who I am, and parts of how I relate with the world. It teaches me a lot about the beauty in how complicated [God’s] creation is. I have embodied wisdom of what it is like to be socialized female, I have embodied wisdom about some of the things that men experience in the world, and I have embodied wisdom from the places I’ve dwelt in between. I hope this will make me a good shepherd for other congregations. And someone who’s better able to translate Scripture and Jesus’ love to as many people as possible.
Do you think there are any parts of being queer that give you an understanding of something that straight, cisgender faith leaders might not have?
An understanding of what it means to hold on to God’s love, even when everyone in the world thinks they have a say in it. At certain times, I would travel and be in a church in a new place and not know if it would give me Communion or not. And that’s a hard way to try to step into a church’s door. So my greatest hope is that as I step into this new role, I can remove hurdles from other people’s paths, until we truly share Communion together as equals throughout the whole global church.
Given that you came from a more conservative Christian world, what do you think it would take before we see more stories like yours in those kinds of churches?
Well, my grandmother lives in South Dakota. She began talking about how proud she was of her trans pastor grandchild at her women’s Lutheran gatherings, and the people there would then feel like they could talk out loud about the queerness of their own children and kids. I think as more friends and families are able to speak out loud about the trans people that they love, our world will begin to be a place that is more welcoming.
What has the response to this been?
My grandmother was elated. I’m not sure if my mother believes that it’s true yet. My kids keep walking around calling me the bishop, which cracks me up. One of them asked if I can only move diagonally now. And there’s even some people who have started trying to tailor outfits because if there’s a trans bishop, they should be fabulous and probably have glitter involved in at least part of it. You can’t go on Queer Eye and not have, like, really great shoes. But I also have received just thousands upon thousands of messages from people who are just elated that this day has come.