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United Methodists scrap their anti-gay bans. A woman who defied them seeks reinstatement as pastor

Twenty years ago, Beth Stroud was defrocked from her beloved job as a United Methodist pastor in Philadelphia. In a church trial, she was found guilty of violating “Christian teaching” because she had acknowledged living in a committed relationship with another woman.

Earlier this month, delegates at a United Methodist Church conference struck down the UMC’s longstanding anti-LGBTQ policies and created a path for clergy ousted because of them to seek reinstatement.

Stroud — even while recalling how her 2004 ouster disrupted her life — is taking that path, though some other past targets of UMC discipline are choosing otherwise. Stroud is optimistic that United Methodist clergy from eastern Pennsylvania will restore her pastoral credentials at a meeting next week.

Ahead of a church service last Sunday, Stroud pondered what reinstatement would mean, and shed a tear. “It’s about how compelling that call is — that after 20 years, I still want to come back,” she said.

At 54, she doesn’t plan a return to full-time ministry — at least not immediately. Now completing a three-year stint teaching writing at Princeton University, she is excited to be starting a new job this summer as assistant professor of Christian history at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio — one of 13 seminaries run by the UMC.

Yet even with the new teaching job, Stroud wanted to regain the options available to an ordained minister as she looks for a congregation to join near the Delaware, Ohio, campus.

“I think a church will be able to use me in some way where my credentials are important — like being asked to celebrate Communion on a day when the regular pastor is out of town,” she said. “Those would be really meaningful opportunities.”

When Stroud finally made her decision, she knew it was the right one.

“It felt really good to write that email, to request reinstatement,” she said. “I want to continue to be a part of the church and its work in the world.”

But the decision did not come easily as she followed the UMC’s deliberations on the anti-LGBTQ policies.

“The first thing I felt was just anger — thinking about the life I could have had,” she said. “I loved being a pastor. I was good at it. With 20 more years of experience, I could have been very good — helped a lot of people and been very fulfilled.”

Instead of pastoring, she spent several years in graduate schools, while earning modest income in temporary, non-tenured academic jobs. There were challenges, including a bout with cancer and divorce from her wife, although they proceeded to co-parent their daughter, who was born in 2005.

Had she not been defrocked, Stroud said, “My whole life would have been different.”

The process that led to Stroud’s ouster began in April 2003, when she told her congregation, the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, about her same-sex relationship. The church — where Stroud had been a pastor for four years — set up a legal fund to assist with her defense and hired her as a lay minister after she was defrocked.

When she later moved to New Jersey, she sought a new church to join, and settled on Turning Point United Methodist Church, a predominantly Black congregation in Trenton.

On Sunday, as Stroud sat in the pews, she got a shout-out from Turning Point’s pastor, Rupert Hall.

“You guys may not realize this, but for the last 15 or so years, we have been blessed to have — as a loving, supportive, active member of Turning Point — a rock star,” Hall said.

“The United Methodist Church stripped Beth of her credentials to be a pastor, and her name is known throughout the world as a martyr for those of God’s children who call themselves and who are identified in the LGBTQ community.”

There were cheers when Hall said Stroud now had a chance for reinstatement.

The UMC says it has no overall figures of how many clergy were defrocked for defying anti-LGBTQ bans or how many reinstatements might occur.

It’s an option that won’t be exercised by Jimmy Creech, who like Stroud was ousted from the UMC decades ago. Jurors at a church court removed his clergy credentials in 1999 after he presided over a same-sex union ceremony in North Carolina.

Creech is grateful that the General Conference, near the close of its recent proceedings in Charlotte, North Carolina, passed legislation allowing reinstatement of pastors defrocked in cases like his.

“This is an act of reconciliation and restorative justice, a move to heal the broken community of the Church,” said Creech, who earlier doubted such a move would ever happen.

However, Creech, 79, said he won’t seek reinstatement.

“Simply knowing the Church now provides for it is satisfaction enough for me,” he said via email. “Because I am not nor cannot be in pastoral ministry at this time in my life, I do not think reinstating my ordination is appropriate.”

Creech was ordained in 1970 and served various parishes in his native North Carolina.

In 1984, the UMC General Conference approved a law forbidding “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being in ministry. Creech said that action prompted a member of his church to tearfully confide that he was gay and had decided to leave the UMC.

Creech began doing biblical studies about sexuality, concluded “the church was wrong” and became an activist on LGBTQ issues in North Carolina. He briefly became a pastor in Nebraska, and soon was put on church trial for presiding over a union ceremony in 1997 for two women. He was acquitted but, after returning to North Carolina, presided over a ceremony for two men. That led to his 1999 defrocking.

Creech said he remained in ministry thereafter, often serving as guest preacher in churches around the country.

“I realized I’m still the same person. I’m still a pastor. The church never took that away from me. What it did was take a title from me.”

Amy DeLong, a lesbian pastor from Wisconsin, fought for LGBTQ inclusion in the UMC for years. She formed an advocacy organization, protested the bans at General Conferences, conducted a same-sex union — and in 2011 underwent a church trial for it. She was suspended from ministry for 20 days and still kept fighting.

In 2019, she watched the bans upheld once more by that year’s UMC General Conference. By 2021, she was done. After nearly a quarter of a century as a UMC minister, DeLong took early retirement.

“I couldn’t stomach the hypocrisy anymore,” said DeLong, who no longer considers herself a Methodist. “The harm they were doing, in my opinion, outweighed whatever good they were doing. They lost the right to shape me and to have any authority over me anymore.”

DeLong welcomes the lifting of the UMC’s bans but says LGBTQ pastors in the church still face inequality.

“It’s good that language is gone. … It needed to never be a part of who we were,” she said. “But gosh, just all of the senseless brutality weighs so heavily on me.”

The UMC was the last of major mainline Protestant groups to repeal policies that excluded LGBTQ people from marriage and ministry. Religious LGBTQ people were part of the fight for change across denominations, as illustrated by the Shower of Stoles, an exhibit in the care of the National LGBTQ Task Force featuring liturgical vestments of activist clergy and members from the UMC, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other churches.

“You can never underestimate the challenges that queer people have faced in faith communities,” said Cathy Renna, spokesperson for the task force. “And on the flip side of that, the courage of those who stood up and said, ‘No, these are my values. This is my faith.’”

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AP reporter Luis Andres Henao contributed from Trenton, N.J.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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