The Rev. Ruth Mary Frost was born in 1947 into a family with strong Lutheran roots. She is third generation clergy in her family. Her father, Dr. Gerhard Frost, was a prominent pastor and poet-theologian in the church, and was a beloved college teacher and seminary professor at Luther Theological Seminary where he taught for over twenty years.
Frost graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa in 1969 with a B.A. in fine arts and religion. She did graduate work at the New York School of Theology and the Vancouver School of Theology, B.C., before attending Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she earned her Master of Divinity degree in 1984. Prior to seminary, Frost worked as a college instructor in religion and fine arts at Luther College in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Frost entered Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1980. Frost maintains that the seminary's inhospitality to LGBT people at the time was made up for by the fact that it was in seminary that she met her partner, Phyllis Zillhart. "It was an expensive dating service, but it worked," she teases. After a successful interview (closeting her identity) with the Lutheran bishop of the New York Metro Synod, Frost left the interview and ran into the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade which was making its way up Fifth Avenue. "It took the Holy Spirit several thousands of people to show me the way out of the closet," she says. "Seeing all the placards the crowd was carrying that read "I'm gay and I'm proud," I realized I couldn't say 'I'm gay' to the church and I certainly wasn't proud." She returned to Minnesota and declined to pursue a call process further. A year later, Frost was fully out and claiming life with her partner, believing that she had left ministry behind forever. She spent the next five years working as a counselor at Pride Institute, the first residential addiction recovery center in the U.S. for LGBT people, and then at Chrysalis Center for Women. Frost's relationship with Zillhart deepened and strengthened rapidly during this time, leading them to refuse church positions that would have required them to be closeted. Frost remained in the Twin Cities area until, five years later, friend Anita Hill passed on information about a congregation in San Francisco that was seeking a lesbian pastor.
This congregation, St. Francis Lutheran Church, issued congregational calls to both Frost and Zillhart. They were ordained January 20th, 1990, together with Jeff Johnson , without official sanction from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). The ordination "extra ordinem" was attended by over 1,000 persons with over 70 Lutheran and ecumenical clergy participants at the historic St. Paulus Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart and Jeff Johnson were the first openly lesbian and gay people to be ordained in the Lutheran tradition in the U.S. Together they founded and co-directed Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministry (LLGM), which provided advocacy, outreach and spiritual support to LGBT people in the Bay Area. During the first five years of this ministry, they provided extensive support to people living with AIDS and their families. In 1995, LLGM went national and the focus changed to providing new ministry opportunities to LGBT people in the Lutheran Church nationally.
Shortly after their ordinations, charges were filed against St. Francis and First United Lutheran Church (the congregation that had called Johnson) and an ecclesiastical trial was held in July of 1990. The ELCA discipline committee that heard the case ruled to suspend the two congregations from the ELCA for five years, while also calling on the denomination to reconsider its policy of excluding gay and lesbian clergy. The five-year suspension period was intended to provide the opportunity for either the congregations or the denomination to change policy/practices. When neither happened, St. Francis and First United Lutheran congregations were expelled from the ELCA on January 1, 1995. Frost continued serving as Associate Pastor for outreach and Evangelism at St. Francis until 2005.
An accomplished stained glass designer, Frost has also worked with congregations to express their mission and identity through the arts. Her stained glass can be found in private residences, restaurants and churches in the upper Midwest and in the San Francisco Bay area. Her best known works are her depiction of Saints Francis and Claire in a window at St. Francis which looks out on its garden Memorial Terrace and two walls of glass in Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Sacramento, CA. The latter commission depicts diverse, inclusive, Christian community and is believed to be the first time an identifiable gay family has been included in the windows of a Lutheran church in the U.S.
Frost and Zillhart were legally married in California on August 17, 2008, after having been among the throng of same gender couples who had married at City Hall four years earlier, only to have their marriages revoked. In 2005, Frost and Zillhart decided to move back to Minnesota where Frost works as a chaplain for Hospice of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Zillhart also serves as a hospice chaplain.
In 2008, Frost, together with Richard Andersen, her colleague in Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, co-founded a ministry called Third Act Life Discovery. Third Act invites people to consider the question "Who do I want to be and how do I want to live in the third act of my life?" More information about his ministry is at www.thirdactlifediscovery.org
In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to rescind the requirement that LGBT pastors must be celibate, i.e., refrain from sexual relationships. Frost and Zillhart were among a number of lesbian and gay clergy who then applied to be "received" onto the official ELCA roster of clergy. Frost, along with Zillhart and colleague Anita Hill, were received in a special "Rite of Reception" in the St. Paul Area Synod on September 18, 2010. The ceremony opened with a litany of confession read by Rev. Herbert Chilstrom, the former Presiding Bishop of the ELCA who was in office at the time of the trial of St. Francis and First United. The litany acknowledged the history of injustice that has characterized the policies and attitudes of the church towards LGBTQ people as a whole. Synodical Bishops Peter Rogness of the St. Paul Synod and Craig Johnson of the Minneapolis Synod, officiated at this Rite of Reception celebration. "We were honored to be able to stand with Anita Hill as we were all received into the ELCA." On October 21, 2010, Frost's ministry was officially recognized when she was issued a Letter of Call to Specialized Ministry as Hospice Chaplain for Hospice of the Twin Cities. On February 27, 2011, Frost and Zillhart were invited to return to their former congregation in San Francisco to participate in a joyful "Rite of Restoration" of St. Francis Lutheran Church back into the ELCA. Of that experience, Frost commented, "While there were many that did not live to see this day, for those of us who were there, it was a bittersweet but deeply joyful celebration."
(This biographical statement provided by Ruth Frost.)
Biography Date: April, 2011
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) | Hill, Anita | Johnson, Jeff | Zillhart, Phyllis | Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM) | Activist (religious institutions) | Artist/musician/poet | Church Trials | Clergy Activist | Marriage Equality | Frost, Ruth
“Rev. Ruth Frost | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed September 22, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/ruth-frost.
“I graduated from Luther College, Teaneck NJ, in 1974. Of all the professors I have ever had, Ruth Frost was the nicest and most helpful. At that time in my life, I had already been diagnosed with dyslexia. As far as I know, Ruth wasn't aware that I'm dyslexic. The only people who did know were; Dr. Rudolph H. Harm and Rev Rev. J. Philip Worthington. Ruth took her time to explain many things to me. We had great discussions! Just recently, I was diagnosed as also having a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome. Knowing that now. Makes me grateful, that someone like Ruth cared enough to help me.”
– as remembered by Lisa Van Clief on August 14, 2014
“I was a colleague of Ruth's at Luther College in Teaneck, New Jersey during the early 1970's. I enjoyed discussing ideas with her and remember distinctly her interest in Sinclair Lewis's Narnia series.”
– as remembered by Fred Harm on January 22, 2014
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