The Rev. Dr. Karen S. Bethea opened Set The Captives Free Outreach (STCF) Center with seven members, April 9, 2000, in conference room 125 of The Comfort Inn, Woodlawn, Md. In three months, the number had grown to 30, and, within a year, there were 125 members. By November 2002, when the ministry moved into its current Windsor Mill, Md. location, membership had grown to 700.
Now 2,000 members strong and growing, the church is preparing to celebrate STCF’s 15-year anniversary and Rev. Bethea’s elevation to Apostle, an assignment she’s been working toward since a very young age. “I was 12. I can’t even explain it, but I’ve always loved God. I grew up at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, and I loved hymns. At age 11, I’m memorizing hymns and singing them around the house. So, I knew back then something divine was going on with me, but I didn’t get it,” says the pastor affectionately called Dr. Karen.
“I didn’t really understand why I was having those feelings until I got older, and then I began to understand… ‘Oh, God will draw you. Okay, he’s been drawing me,’” she explains.
At age 15, a visit to a very small but very much alive church with a neighbor led to an experience that expanded her relationship with God. “I had an experience called the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, where you began to speak in tongues, and I felt God on another level. It was just amazing. That whole experience just opened my understanding. All of a sudden I’m reading the Bible, and it all makes sense. And, I’m knowing that this is not my intellect. This is something divine.,” she says, in a voice still filled with awe and wonderment.
Two years later, when she preached her first sermon, the 17-year old was prepared with an outline and notes, but she was not prepared for the effect it had on the church or the wisdom and depth that came forth. That simple Youth Day message, “Prepare to meet thy God,” led her to an even deeper understanding.
The soon-to-be Apostle says, “I, at an early age, learned that God’s wisdom can supersede your intellect, because I knew the things that came out of my mouth were not in my intellect. They came out of my spirit. He said, ‘Out of your belly, shall flow rivers of living water.’ I knew that, that was the spirit of God in me.”
By age 20, she had begun preaching up and down the East Coast. And despite some naysayers, she also birthed an international traveling women’s conference of 10 female clergy promoting women’s empowerment. The Women Who Soar (http://www. thewomenwhosoar.com/), travels the globe, sharing and teaching God’s word.
“When people say, ‘God opens doors for you,’ I know exactly what that means, because I’ve had some men that weren’t too kind say to me that, ‘you know God’s not going to use you. You’re a woman.’ At this age – I’m now 55 – I have preached Germany, Canada, Bermuda, Israel, Africa, England… I’ve been all over everywhere, and I’m still going. God really has shown me over a period of time that He’s with me, and I so enjoy Him and just doing [his work].”
When asked about the success of her ministry, the pastor, originally ordained by founder and senior pastor of The Potter’s House of Dallas Bishop T. D. Jakes, says that it’s simple. She does what God tells her to do.
“That’s my motto. Whatever he tells me, I do it. Now, I do it sometimes scared, but I do it. Some of the things he says, it makes me nervous. Some of the things he tells me to do, I don’t like, and I don’t want to do. But I’ve learned over the years to not obey him is so expensive that I’ll just do it. I don’t have to like it, but I’m going to do it.
“Follow him, Proverbs 3, 5 and 6… ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not to your own understanding. B, but in all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.’”
That path, which has led Dr. Karen to establish a local support group for females in ministry (the Female Clergy Support Group of Maryland) and ministries that serve children, teens, young adults, couples, seniors, health, and others at STCF, is now leading to her affirmation as Apostle, this month, and Bishop, next year.
Rev. Bethea, who is mentored by the Rev. Dr. Ann Lightner Fuller, pastor of the Mt. Calvary African Methodist Episcopal Church in Towson, Md.,, began preaching under the title of evangelist and explains the organization of the administration of the church. “
In Ephesians chapter 4, verse 11, you see the five-fold ministry. These are the ascension gifts that Jesus gave to the church. As organized as God is, of course he left something in place to oversee that, to take care of it, to strengthen it… It’s listed there. It’s the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, the governing body for the Christian church.”
“The five-fold gifts,” she continues, “that’s in you at birth. God decides those. You can’t pick one of them and say I want to be… No. You don’t decide those. They are divinely assigned. Then, someone outside of yourself acknowledges it and says we acknowledge that you’re functioning in this particular office.”
For years, people told the pastor, whose church’s bible study classes draw 52 percent of the membership, that she is really an Apostle. In response, she has told them, “That’s fine. Just let me be a pastor that does apostolic works.”
But, that was not the end of it, and, “Finally,” she said, “my bishop nailed me down and said we need to affirm that you’re operating there. Next year, I’ll be consecrated a Bishop, but I’m already functioning in both those offices.”
Happy with her work, she says, “It’s an honor, but I am so task oriented. I’m more about getting the work done.”
Members of the church are looking forward to the celebration and have kept as many of the details as possible a secret. The Anniversary/ Apostolic Affirmation Banquet will be held 2 – 6 p.m. April 18, at Turf Valley Conference Center in Ellicott City, Md. Ticket information is available at http://stcfoc.com/2015/.
Rev. Bethea is excited about the honor and looks forward to the celebration. But, for her, it is all about doing God’s work. “At the end of the day, I just want to do the work. I want to see people happy. I want to see people healthy. I want to see people set free,” she exclaims.