By Mark Ellis —
Paul Williams, the former leader of a church planting organization known as the Orchard Group, has transitioned to female and is now known as Paula, according to the New York Times.
From his earliest memories, Paul was not comfortable with his gender identity. He followed his father’s footsteps into ministry, married a minister’s daughter, and fathered three children. Living in Long Island, New York, he enjoyed hiking and mountain biking, according to the Times.
But he kept his battle with gender “dysphoria” a closely guarded secret.
In late 2012, he couldn’t contain the secret any longer and confided in his son Jonathan – the leader of a church plant in Brooklyn funded by Orchard Group.
Paul told his son he wanted to live as a woman – transgender.
“I was relieved for a split second, not really knowing or understanding what it was,” Jonathan told the Times. “This was before Caitlyn Jenner or ‘Transparent.’
But then the potential impact began to sink in: “Oh, wait a second — wait a second. This is a way bigger deal. I would rather you be gay or be splitting up from mom,” he told his father.
After all, his father had been his male role model, mentor, counselor, and helped launch his church.
He felt a flurry of confusing emotions, including betrayal. “I didn’t want to know my dad’s new name for six, seven months after it happened.” Then he learned the new name is Paula, but still felt angry.
Paula Williams, 66, is still married to Jonathan’s mother, and they share a Christian counseling practice, but they are separated.
Jonathan kept his father’s secret for a several months. “I’d be upstairs crying before church. Like, this is miserable. My dad was my hero, and my dad’s not my dad any longer. I’d stop crying and come down and I’d preach and be really glad and say hi to everybody, and then I’d get home and go to sleep. My wife would be like, ‘You’re super depressed,’ and I’d go, ‘I know, I’m super depressed, I don’t know what to do about this.’ I got counseling about three months after I found out. And I went to him for three, four years dealing with it,” he told the Times.
In 2013, Paul Williams told Orchard Group that he could not live as a man any longer and the board demanded his resignation. A 2014 announcement on the organization’s website said, “Paul retired quietly from Orchard Group,” and wished him and his wife “God’s best as they step into the future.”
In July 2014, still using the name Paul, he wrote a blog post describing his lifelong struggle with gender “dysphoria,” which he defined as “the struggle of a person who feels they are in a wrongly gendered body.” The post ran on the website of the counseling practice he shares with his wife.
Paula visited his son’s church for the first time in September 2013 following some hormone replacement and cosmetic surgery. Jonathan worried about people’s reactions.
But when he saw that people reacted to Paula relatively normally, he found that difficult to handle. After the visit, he didn’t talk to his father for another six months.
Jonathan kept his father away from his daughters, not wanting them to see their
grandfather as a woman.
“I was really depressed, not doing well, really struggling,” he told the Times.
In 2014, Jonathan finally introduced his father to his two daughters, who were 4 and 6.
“I said: ‘Girls, you’re going to meet Grandpa, but it’s no longer Grandpa. Grandpa is a woman. Grandpa feels she’s been a woman her whole life, and now she’s going to start living as a woman. So now your Grandpa’s going to look different.’”
At a church staff meeting in 2015, Jonathan told his staff the church would move toward an affirming stance for gay, lesbian and transgender members, allowing them full participation in the ministries of the church.
Last year, when congregants were informed about the change, about a quarter of the church left.
“We’re a more transparent church,” Jonathan told the Times, but he doesn’t want sexual issues to dominate, either. “I’m very clear that we’re a Christian church,” he said. “Where we plant our flag is in Jesus Christ. We just happen to be inclusive and affirming. But we’re not the gay church. And that’s something I’ve said from the stage: No, we’re a Jesus-believing church.”