Update: Frank Schaefer reinstated as United Methodist pastor

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Editor's Note: This story was updated June 25 to include comments from Jen Ihlo, the chair of the appeals panel, on the decision-making process, as well as reactions from the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, and the Rev. Scott Campbell, who represented Frank Schaefer in the appeal. 

The Rev. Frank Schaefer had his ministerial credentials reinstated by a United Methodist regional appeals committee June 23, three days after a hearing held near Baltimore.

The denomination’s Northeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals restored his credentials and ordered the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference to compensate Schaefer for all lost salary and benefits dating from Dec. 19, 2013.

Process Behind The Decision

Jen Ihlo, chair of the Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals, said she wished the decision-making process could have been more public.

“How we held our conversations could be a model for the church,” she said. “We ought to be able to have loving, respectful conversations about hard subjects and still part as friends.”

How the committee got to that point required every member’s time and effort.

In March, the committee members met with a representative from JustPeace, who led them through a process to help them stay focused and centered on their work. JustPeace was created in 1999 by the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration to help find new ways of dealing with church conflict. Since 2004, it has worked as a separate entity in Washington.

“In hindsight,” said Ihlo, “this helped the committee bond together. It helped us build trust and respect for each other. I really appreciate the way our committee worked and how seriously we took our task.”

Ihlo said doing that groundwork was important as the committee moved forward. They became clear what their job was: to decide whether the penalty given Schaefer was in violation of church law.

In its written decision, the committee was unanimous that the defrocking penalty was, in fact, a violation of church law. Schaefer received that penalty for not being able to uphold the Book of Discipline “in its entirety.”

“You can’t punish someone for future behavior,” Ihlo said.

Ihlo said there were no “Twelve Angry Men” moments during the committee’s discussion, referring to the 1957 movie starring Henry Fonda. “The committee members were saying, ‘Help me understand where you’re coming from,’” she explained. “At the end of the day, we parted ways saying, ‘gosh, we hate to leave.’”

The lessons learned, Ihlo said, were that it’s important to build trust and respect for one another before entering into hard conversations. “We spent a lot of time trying to understand each other, to know each other, as well as the matter before us.”

Ihlo, a federal prosecutor who works for the Department of Justice and is a member of Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, said she entered into the process having no idea what to expect.

“These committees don’t meet that often,” she said. “There was really no prototype to follow.”

By Erik Alsgaard, Baltimore-Washington Conference

The nine-member panel unanimously ruled the lower church court’s penalty against Schaefer was "illegal." An eight-member majority of the committee supported a penalty modification to the 30-day suspension Schaefer had already undergone. The committee’s ruling still could be appealed to the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court. 

The former pastor of Iona United Methodist Church in eastern Pennsylvania, Schaefer was defrocked after a November 2013 church trial found him guilty of violating The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, by conducting a same-sex marriage ceremony for his son. He also was found guilty of violating the church’s order and discipline.

In the penalty stage of the trial, the court suspended Schaefer from his ministerial duties for 30 days and declared that if he could not “uphold the Discipline in its entirety” at the end of the suspension, he would surrender his credentials. He refused to do that, and on Dec. 19, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Board of Ordained Ministry asked him to give up his credentials.

In a statement immediately after the decision was released, Schaefer expressed happiness over his “refrocking” by the committee.

“I never did understand the severity of my punishment for an act of love for my son Tim,” Schaefer said. “The committee of appeals understood that my defrocking sought to penalize me not for what I did but for what I might do in the future.” 

The Rev. Christopher Fisher — who served as counsel for the church, the equivalent of a prosecutor — said he will "be prayerfully examining the appeal ruling to determine if it is in compliance with church law."  Fisher said he had no further comment.

Tim Schaefer, Frank’s son who now lives and works in Boston, said he knew something significant had happened “because my phone would not stop vibrating on my pocket for almost an hour with texts, calls and Twitter updates."

“I am thrilled about the decision and I’m incredibly proud of my dad for fighting to remain with The United Methodist Church to be an advocate for LGBTQ community,” he said.

Errors of church law

The committee’s 11-page ruling stated that “errors of church law vitiate the penalty imposed by the Trial Court,” including “the mixing and matching of penalties that are designed to be distinct” and predicating the imposition of a penalty on “a future possibility, which may or may not occur, rather than a past or present act.”

The 2012 Book of Discipline (in Paragraph 2711, Section 3) allows church courts to impose a range of penalties, including revoking a person’s credentials.

The appeals committee identified what it saw as two problems with the church court’s penalty in Schaefer’s case.

1) The possible consequences delineated in the Book of Discipline, the ruling said, "are discrete — with each of the 'alternative penalties' having a 'different severity.'" The "Trial Court is not free to mix and match" a 30-day suspension with loss of credentials.

2) The ruling also said the church court’s penalty “cannot be squared with the well-established principle that our clergy can only be punished for what they have been convicted of doing in the past, not for what they may or may not do in the future.”

Just as civil courts cite precedent, the appeals committee cited previous rulings by the Judicial Council, including one from the 1960s, in support of its decision.

In its ruling, the appeals committee also noted that like other United Methodists, its members “have diverse views on issues related to human sexuality.”

However, the ruling said, every committee member takes seriously the bishops’ statement at the beginning of the Discipline that the law book “represents the current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together,” and that it “defines what is expected of its laity and clergy as they seek to be effective witnesses in the world as a part of the whole body of Christ.” The committee added the emphasis.

“Most importantly, the Committee is profoundly united in the belief that the objective this Committee has been charged to pursue in this case is nothing less than a resolution that is just,” the ruling said.

Reaction to ruling

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the vice president and general manager of the unofficial evangelical caucus Good News, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” at the committee’s decision.

“The appeals ruling leaves no room for trial courts to give grace to those found guilty of an offense.  When Rev. Schaefer declared during the trial his refusal to uphold the Book of Discipline, he was renouncing his ordination vows, and the removal of his credentials was an appropriate step to take,” he said.

The trial court gave him 30 days to reconsider his decision, Lambrecht said. “An act of grace on the part of the trial court is now deemed to be inappropriate.”

Many will see this as another example of bishops and clergy not being held accountable to “live with the parameters of our covenanted way of discipleship,” he added.

“This ruling will unfortunately only strengthen the calls for some form of separation, in an attempt to resolve the current crisis in our theology and church government.”

The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, echoed that sentiment. 

“This ruling is unfortunate and will only add to the chaos engulfing The United Methodist Church,” he said. “I believe this decision is a willful misreading of the original verdict which graciously extended every opportunity to Schaefer to avoid being defrocked.”

The Rev. Scott Campbell, counsel for Schaefer, praised both the decision and the pastor he represented.

Campbell described Schaefer "as a country preacher from a modest church in Pennsylvania" who "is leaving veterans of the movement to change The United Methodist Church shaking our heads in amazement."

"Frank Schaefer's faithful, hope-filled, loving journey continues to inspire the rest of us, breathing new life into every corner of the church — even corners that contain trial courts and appeals committees," Campbell said. "I know that I speak for countless others when I say that we are grateful and overjoyed at this outcome."

Schaefer's bishop responds

Bishop Peggy Johnson, the episcopal leader of Schaefer’s regional conference, said she was informed of the committee’s decision and intends to return Schaefer to service as an ordained clergy member of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.

Johnson referred the complaint filed by a member of the Iona United Methodist Church to a counsel of the church. According to the denomination’s law book, a trial occurs only after mediation, or other steps fail to provide “a just resolution.”

“This has been a challenging judicial process, and I express my heartfelt appreciation for the diligent efforts made to ensure due process and uphold our United Methodist Discipline with respect, understanding and compassion for all involved,” the bishop said.

“I also ask for continuing, supportive prayers for the Rev. Schaefer, his family, and the members and churches of our conference and our denomination, as we struggle gracefully to find common ground.”

Heading to new conference

Bishop Minerva Carcaño, episcopal leader of the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference, In December invited Schaefer to become a member of her conference.

Carcaño announced June 24 that at Schaefer's request, she and Johnson have agreed to transfer Schaefer to the California-Pacific Conference. Carcaño said she will appoint him to Isla Vista Student Ministry in Santa Barbara, California, a ministry that will build on the work of Santa Barbara Korean United Methodist Church in that community.

Church teachings on Homosexuality

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has proclaimed the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”

Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under the Book of Discipline. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties. However, church law does not censure those who disagree with church teaching on this matter — only those who actually take actions that violate church law.

The Book of Discipline states that marriage is between a man and a woman. It also affirms that all people are of sacred worth, that all are in need of the church’s ministry, and that God’s grace is available to all. The church implores congregations and families not to reject gay and lesbian members and friends.

Schaefer will be responsible "for leading the administrative work of this congregation and reaching out to the large college community that lives, studies and works at the doorsteps of this church," Carcaño said. The transfer will be effective July 1. 

"I am aware of the fact that these steps on our journey to wholeness may be troubling to some among us," Carcaño added. "This burdens my heart, but we must be the church of Jesus that excludes no one.  I will continue to hold up for all of us the need to be servants of Christ of the highest moral character whether we are straight or gay."

Schaefer called the decision “a hopeful sign for our LGBTQ community” because the committee “recognized that I was wrongfully punished for standing with those who are discriminated against.”

Many in the church already have been “moving toward love over legalism,” he said.

“Indeed, people throughout the United Methodist Church, who invited me into their pulpits, sat with me at their dinner tables and supported my family with their donations, have refrocked me already. Their movement of love embraced me, and together we are moving forward to bring about that day when our denomination no longer excludes any of God’s beloved children. And I will continue to work toward that goal.”

Since 1972, debates over the denomination's laws regarding homosexuality have surfaced every four years at General Conference — the denomination's top lawmaking assembly. General Conference has consistently voted to keep the language identifying homosexual practice as incompatible with Christian teaching, and over the years, the assembly has expanded on restrictions against gay clergy and same-gender unions.

Gilbert and Hahn are multimedia reporters for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tennessee.

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