Jun 20, 2024 | John W. Coleman

‘We Don’t Know How’

Thanks to her reinstatement by clergy members of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference May 21, the Rev. Dr. Irene Elizabeth “Beth” Stroud can preach and serve Holy Communion as an Elder again. She did so for the first time in 20 years June 16 at First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG) in Philadelphia.

That’s where she was serving as an associate pastor in 2004 when an historic church trial led to the withdrawal of her ministerial credentials because she admitted to being in a committed relationship with another woman.

The United Methodist Church’s recent General Conference, meeting in Charlotte, N.C., voted May 3 to reinstate former clergy who were defrocked for reasons of sexual identity. It took that action after first removing from its Book of Discipline a decades-old prohibition against lesbian and gay persons serving as clergy.

FUMCOG’s pastor the Rev. Alisa Lasater Wailoo welcomed Stroud back exuberantly before a nearly full sanctuary. The congregation celebrated Father’s Day and students graduating or elevating in their academic pursuits. But the climactic moment that drew a standing ovation amid joyful, tearful smiles, was when Stroud quietly, humbly stepped into the pulpit to preach.  

She credited the congregation for its support—including hiring her to serve as lay staff for a time—and for sometimes breaking rules in its witness for justice. Then she recounted milestones in her difficult life’s journey since she left: moving to New Jersey (where she joined Turning Point United Methodist Church in Trenton); earning more degrees, including a PhD; getting unstable teaching jobs at Princeton University; divorcing her partner; enduring her father’s death and mother’s relocation; and surviving an ongoing bout with cancer.

‘We hoped my coming out would change things’

“We hoped my coming out would change things,” she said. “And it did. It was one piece of a larger movement; but it did change things. Here we are…. It only took 20 years.”

“We Don’t Know How” was her sermon title. She recalled Jesus’ parable in Mark 4:26-32 about scattered and planted seeds that, after much time when nothing seems to be happening, somehow grow and sprout forth “because the harvest has come.” Her own harvest has suddenly come, she shared, after prolonged waiting and hoping, amid years of disappointment and uncertainty.

In just the past month she has been reinstated as an Elder. Her adopted daughter, a young child at FUMCOG when she was on staff there, has graduated from high school and will soon enroll in college. And Stroud has been hired to teach History of Religion at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, one of the denomination’s 13 affiliated seminaries, beginning this summer. That rare opportunity came suddenly after many disappointments in her search for scarce tenure-track teaching jobs.

“I don’t know how all of a sudden everything turned around,” she admitted. “I don’t know how my former colleagues were inviting me back into ordained ministry, crafting legislation that would make a path for me to be reinstated so quickly… getting me onto the agenda for annual conference in just weeks—weeks!—after the discriminatory laws were repealed.

‘Seeds, seeds, seeds’

“I’m not sure if the seed is what God plants in us, or if we ourselves are the seeds that God plants,” she said, repeating the phrase “seeds, seeds, seeds. “But we sleep and rise each day. And there’s not a thing we can do sometimes to make that seed grow.”

Following her sermon, Stroud celebrated another holy mystery of hidden growth and transformation. For the first time in two decades, she consecrated Communion bread, made from seeds, and then served it to all who came forward.

Afterward, she recognized and thanked FUMCOG member Barbara Revere and the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm, who co-led the Eastern PA Conference delegation at General Conference, for persuading her to request reinstatement of her clergy status immediately after the General Conference vote.

Following the benediction, Stroud spent generous time greeting church members, guests and friends with hugs and conversations.