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Gay former minister understands Frank Schaefer's plight

Beth Stroud, a Methodist pastor, said she knew what to expect when she told her Philadelphia congregation in 2003 that she was a lesbian.

Beth Stroud at Princeton University Campus. (AKIRA SUWA/Staff Photographer)
Beth Stroud at Princeton University Campus. (AKIRA SUWA/Staff Photographer)Read more

Beth Stroud, a Methodist pastor, said she knew what to expect when she told her Philadelphia congregation in 2003 that she was a lesbian.

A church trial. A guilty verdict. And a vote to strip her minister credentials.

All three happened.

What shocked Stroud was the jury vote on her punishment: 7-6.

One shy of being able to serve as an openly homosexual pastor in the United Methodist Church.

A decade has passed since Stroud challenged the church, drawing intense national attention and supporters and protesters to her trial.

Now the Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon faces a similar firestorm. On Nov. 18, Schaefer will be tried for presiding over his son's 2007 marriage to a man.

Stroud, 43, will not attend the proceeding in Chester County. "I don't necessarily know that I'd want to relive that again," she said.

But as she watches from afar, she says she thinks things may be different for Schaefer. The church's opposition to gay ministers and gay marriage has not changed, but Stroud says she believes many church members have.

"It won't be the same exact 13 [jurors] in Frank's case. But if it were the same 13 people as in my case, only one of them would have to make a different decision this time for the outcome to be different," she said. "I don't want to say it's likely. But I think it's possible."

Today, Stroud is in academia, working toward her doctorate in religion at Princeton University. Her partner of 13 years, Chris Paige, has stepped into the role of activist. Paige is executive director of Transfaith, a religious nonprofit organization led by transgender individuals.

The couple live in Lawrenceville, N.J., where they are raising their adopted 8-year-old daughter, Nevaeh. In February, they married in New York.

Stroud has not talked much about her trial in the last few years. But when reflecting on it, she quickly connects again with the loneliness of being closeted that drove her to go public from the pulpit of Philadelphia's United Methodist Church of Germantown.

"If I used a personal story [when ministering], it was always my second-best story," Stroud said in an interview last week, saying that reality frustrated her first as a pastor in West Chester and later in Philadelphia. "Because the stories that really were the most meaningful to me were stories about coming out as a lesbian and realizing that God loved me just the way I was."

The Sunday after Easter 2003, she stood before a full church and preached on the scheduled scripture, the story of Jesus appearing before doubting Thomas and the disciples in a house with locked doors. She told the group that even when she was hiding a part of herself, Christ broke in and was there with her.

Then she told them about Paige and the home they shared.

Church officials charged Stroud with violating Methodist doctrine, and her trial followed in December 2004. It was held at a retreat center in Spring City she had visited as a child, the same place Schaefer will face his trial this month.

"It was this place that I was very used to as this very peaceful and beautiful place of renewal," Stroud said. "All of a sudden it was a courtroom."

On one side was a clergy member acting as the prosecutor. On the other side, an ordained pastor led Stroud's defense. Licensed lawyers could advise both parties but not speak during the trial.

The prosecutor insisted to the jury that non-celibate lesbians could not serve as ministers, then asked Stroud personal questions about her intimate life.

Stroud said she had hoped to show that church law was out of line with its founding documents, which profess being in ministry with all people.

She says she does not think her message came across. The jurors found her guilty, by a vote of 12-1.

"The prosecution and, to another extent, the presiding bishop really wanted to make the case very narrowly about the charges," she said. "Was I a self-avowed, practicing homosexual or not? And that was a very cut-and-dry question."

Doctrine challenged

Stroud says she thinks Schaefer may face the same challenge. The father of four - three of whom are gay - says he intends to argue that while he broke one church doctrine, his decision upheld others, including a tenant to minister to at-risk youth considering suicide over their sexuality.

Still, Schaefer has said he anticipates the judge, a retired Methodist bishop, will limit testimony from his experts to keep the proceeding moving.

After Stroud lost her credentials, her Germantown church hired her as a lay person, allowing her to continue many of her former duties such as visiting the sick and leading Sunday school.

These days, she is still deeply connected to the church and worships with Paige at a Methodist congregation in Trenton. She said the couple were drawn to the group not because of the denomination but because of its outreach to the poor and acceptance of their family.

She still feels a closeness to the pastors she once called coworkers, a bond that was reinforced earlier this year.

In January, Stroud, who had never smoked, was found to have advanced lung cancer.

She was told she has just months to live.

Wanting to spend a few days relaxing with her family, she asked a friend in the ministry for suggestions on where to get a cheap Shore house rental.

Instead, the man and other pastors from the region donated several thousand dollars for the rental.

"He said this is our way of saying you're still a part of us. You're still connected. We still believe in your ministry," Stroud said, calling the gesture deeply touching.

Stroud said it was difficult now to see another pastor where she was a decade ago. But she never anticipated her trial would have an immediate impact on church doctrine. Change may happen during her lifetime, she said, but not during her career.

What is encouraging, she said, is seeing the church's doctrine being challenged by a pastor from a conservative congregation with less progressive views on homosexuality than her former church in Germantown.

"I stepped into a long process," she said. "And this is another step in that long process. That's really affirming."