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Stroud holds hope for United Methodist Church, despite verdict


Stroud holds hope for United Methodist Church, despite verdict

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

The Rev. Beth Stroud (right) hugs her partner, Chris Paige, after Stroud's conviction by a United Methodist trial court.

Dec. 3, 2004        

By Linda Bloom and Linda Green*

PUGHTOWN, Pa. (UMNS) –  Irene Elizabeth “Beth” Stroud may have lost her ministerial credentials, but she has not given up on the United Methodist Church.

The former Philadelphia clergywoman, whose sexual orientation led to a Dec. 2 guilty verdict by a church trial court, had not expected to win her case but expressed hope afterward “that in time and through God’s spirit, the United Methodist Church will change its (Book of) Discipline.”
Because Stroud, 34, had publicly acknowledged that she was living in a committed relationship with another woman, she was found to have violated the church’s law book, which forbids the participation of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” in the ordained ministry.

The trial court — or jury — of 13 clergy members voted 7-6 to withdraw her credentials. “In the divided vote, I feel the dividedness of the church, but I feel hopeful,” Stroud said. She considers the trial to be a “teaching moment” for the denomination, she said.

The two-day trial was held at Camp Innabah, a church-owned retreat center in the denomination’s Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference. Retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel of Smithsburg, Md., presided.

Despite being unable to perform the sacraments, Stroud said she is eager to continue her ministry at First United Methodist Church in Germantown, Pa. — where she had been an associate pastor since 1999 — as a layperson.

Stroud was charged with violating Paragraph 2702.1(b) of the 2000 Book of Discipline by engaging in practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings. The charge originated from a complaint filed by Bishop Peter Weaver, who led the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference until Aug. 31 and currently serves the New England Conference.

The charge was supported by four specifications of evidence, and the trial court found Stroud guilty of each specification by a vote of 12-1.

The first specification focused on an April 19, 2003, letter that Stroud sent to members of her congregation, speaking of her struggle “to respond to God’s calling” while “a lesbian living in a committed relationship with a partner.” In that letter, Stroud wrote that she realized being open about her sexuality “will put my credentials as an ordained United Methodist minister at risk.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
The Rev. Beth Stroud (right) hugs a member of the trial court that revoked her ministerial credentials.

Specification 2 referred to an April 27, 2003, sermon in which Stroud told how she “came to understand that I was a lesbian” while a student at Bryn Mawr College around 1990. In the sermon, she again acknowledged a possible loss of her credentials. She also introduced Chris Paige, the partner with whom she had “lived in a covenant relationship for two and one-half years,” to the congregation.

Specification 3 noted that on July 23, 2004, the conference’s committee on investigation inquired about the physical nature of Stroud’s relationship with Paige and whether it included sexual contact. Stroud provided some context about the relationship and added, “But, yes, that is a part of our relationship. It’s a part of who we are as a loving couple and as partners.”

Specification 4 said that because of the evidence, the committee believed Stroud was a self-avowed practicing homosexual in a monogamous, committed relationship with a specific female partner while in the ordained ministry of the United Methodist Church. 

Following the verdict, Stroud has 30 days to decide whether to appeal the outcome to the committee on appeal for the denomination’s Northeastern Jurisdiction.

Speaking after the trial, the Rev. Thomas Hall, who was lead counsel for the church, told United Methodist News Service, “We do not like bringing charges against a colleague, but the Book of Discipline is very clear about what it means to be an ordained United Methodist minister. It is terrible that we had to bring charges, but this was about accountability — holding ministers accountable to appropriate behavior.”

The Rev. J. Dennis Williams, who served as Stroud’s counsel, said he was disappointed that Yeakel had limited the scope of the defense. Yeakel had ruled that certain matters the defense team intended to present were not appropriate for a trial court but were matters to be considered by the Judicial Council or General Conference – the church’s supreme court and top legislative assembly.

“The trial was not about winning or losing,” Williams said. The proceedings did show how the issue of homosexuality and the ordained ministry could be debated without anger, he added. “Perhaps this can be a piece in a journey that will help us to look at this issue not just from law, but from theology.”

The Rev. Fred Day, senior pastor of the Germantown church, expressed frustrated and disappointment with the process. “This is not the United Methodist Church of our past heritage or best future, to be driven by rigid rules and regulations, but by ever-widening circles of grace,” he said.

Speaking for the jurors, the Rev. Jeffrey Snyder, chairperson, told the press that the trial “was an extremely thoughtful and difficult process.” Snyder, who is pastor of Columbia United Methodist Church in Lancaster County, said the split vote regarding the penalty against Stroud was evidence that “there is not one uniform thought concerning this issue in the United Methodist Church.”

A statement made on behalf of Bishop Marcus Matthews and the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference also mentioned the lack of uniformity. “While the trial may be over, the pain and division over homosexuality is not ending,” it said.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
Family and friends surround the Rev. Beth Stroud (center) and her partner, Chris Paige (to Stroud's right), after Stroud's conviction.

Bishop John Schol of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, a friend and former colleague who testified on Stroud’s behalf, said he was “saddened that Beth’s fitness for ministry has been questioned.”

But Schol said he believes “our love for one another and the church is stronger than our disagreements.” Schol wrote a unity statement that was overwhelmingly approved by the 2004 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative assembly.

He wants members of the denomination to learn from one another, he said. “I call everyone in the church to be healers and bridge builders,” he said in a statement. “Pastors and church leaders have the opportunity to share and interpret to their congregations and communities concerning the church’s actions today in ways that build understanding rather than heighten divisiveness.”

The trial period included selection of the trial court members, an opening worship service, two-hour sessions of presentations by church and respondent counsel on the afternoon of Dec. 1 and the following morning, and jury deliberations for both the verdict and penalty.

During the trial, Stroud explained that the first stirring of her call to ministry came at an early age through a family dedicated to the United Methodist Church. “We were one of those families that was at the church often three or four nights of the week as well as Sunday mornings,” she recalled.

After college, she decided to go to seminary, but she was uncertain of her calling until she interviewed some pastors of predominantly gay and lesbian congregations in New York for a story she was writing. An inner voice told her, “I don’t want you to write about this, I want you to do this,” she told the court.

Stroud said she expected that at some point during the road to ordination, someone would ask her about her sexuality and she would have to be truthful, but it never happened.

Schol, who appeared as a witness for Stroud, said she told him about her sexual orientation before they started appointments together as pastors of West Chester (Pa.) United Methodist Church in 1997 but indicated she was not in a relationship then. “She wanted me to know that because she didn’t want to hurt my ministry or the ministry of the church,” he added.

He considers Stroud a “person of great integrity” and a great preacher who was impressive in that first appointment, he said. “I believe Beth was called to that ministry.”

The Rev. Fred Day, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church of Germantown, told the trial court he believed Stroud has “been faithful to the sacred trust of ministry.” He described her as deeply spiritual and grounded in the faith, highly effective as an administrator, and a model teacher and leader of the church youth. “She is truly a transformational leader in our church,” he said.

In his closing argument, Williams told the trial court “the heart of the issue is whether all United Methodists, regardless of status, are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.” He urged the jurors not to look at a narrow spectrum of facts but at the rest of the Book of Discipline as well.

Hall, in closing, reviewed the specifications of the case and noted that Bishop Peter Weaver had done everything possible, under the Book of Discipline “to bring reconciliation and just resolution” to the case before filing the charge against Stroud.

“Beth’s calling is not in dispute,” Hall said. “Her decision to live outside the boundaries of what we’ve agreed to live within is in dispute.”

Before the Stroud trial, the last public church trial occurred in March, when the Rev. Karen Dammann of Seattle was found not guilty of the charge of engaging in “practices incompatible with Christian teachings.” The trial court of the denomination’s Pacific Northwest Conference did find that Dammann had openly admitted to being a practicing homosexual.

In early May, the Judicial Council ruled that it did not have the authority to review the findings of the Dammann trial court. But the council reaffirmed that a bishop may not appoint a pastor who has been found by a trial court to be a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”

*Bloom and Green are United Methodist News Service news writers.

News media contact: Linda Green or Linda Bloom, (646) 369-3759 or


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