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Out of the closet, out of the pulpit

A former Methodist pastor, defrocked for being a lesbian, wonders how to heal her life and her church.

November 06, 2005|Beth Stroud | BETH STROUD was associate pastor at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia before being defrocked last week. She continues to serve there as a lay minister.

IT WAS A TYPICAL busy fall weekend at church. Volunteers worked at the pumpkin sale on the lawn and served meals to homeless families in the basement. I gave my neighbor and her granddaughter a ride to the church where I have been associate pastor for six years, and I stopped by the doughnut shop to pick up snacks for the confirmation class. But on Monday at 8:50 a.m., my life was changed forever, when I received an e-mail informing me that I had been defrocked.

What had I done to deserve this? Simple: I am a lesbian, and I live with a partner I love. I am not alone, of course. I am only one of many gay and lesbian people who serve the United Methodist Church and other Protestant denominations as pastors. But nearly all of us are in the closet to one degree or another. In some parts of the country, we may live in parsonages with our partners, and we may even be relatively open about the subject with our congregations, as long as we don't send the bishop a letter that says "I am gay." In other regions, we may be afraid to tell anyone, even our closest friends.

Until 2 1/2 years ago, I was in the closet too. Or more accurately, half-in, half-out. Most of the folks in my congregation in Philadelphia knew I was a lesbian, although few had met my partner, and I never talked about my sexual orientation or my relationship from the pulpit.

When I was ordained in 1997, I took a vow to uphold the teaching and discipline of the United Methodist Church, knowing that there were a few sentences of church law with which I disagreed deeply -- sentences declaring "the practice of homosexuality" to be "incompatible with Christian teaching." Although I was single at the time and not in violation of the law, I knew that if down the road I fell in love, I was not going to reject a lifelong relationship because of my ordination vow. In that sense I was being dishonest when I took my vow.

But the larger truth is that we were all dishonest together. The church was happy to receive my gifts as long as I paid the price for its discriminatory policy by remaining in the closet. Once I met my partner and found that I was hiding the most important relationship in my life, that price was too high for me.

When I came out, I met with my bishop and said, "I am a lesbian, and I am in a committed relationship with my partner." He looked worried. I said the same thing to my congregation. They applauded. For them it was a no-brainer. Acceptance is a part of our faith as well as a part of our day-to-day neighborhood life.

A church legal process ensued, which led to a trial (I was defrocked), then an appeal (I was reinstated) and then a request for a ruling from the church's highest judicial body, the Judicial Council. The end result: As of Monday morning, I am no longer a United Methodist minister.

I'M SAD. All week, I've been crying off and on. I'm remembering how much I love standing at the communion table or baptizing a person who has just become a Christian. I grieve the ministry that I may never have again: simply being a pastor to a few hundred people who are hungry for love and truth and guidance, and helping them seek God through their worship services, their Sunday school classes, their ministries to the homeless and their pumpkin sales.

But even more, I grieve the dividedness in our church and in our country. I value being a United Methodist in part because I want to be in a relationship with people who are not all alike and do not think alike. But it is so hard for the people in my congregation to even understand the perspective behind the ruling against me. They just can't believe it and think it's outrageous.

Meanwhile, many United Methodists and others who truly believe that all homosexual relationships are sinful have never visited my world, where strong and healthy families of all kinds raise happy children, work together in a peaceful neighborhood and love and serve God together.

How will we ever bridge all that divides us?

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