By Kathy L. Gilbert*
SPRING CITY, Penn. (UMNS) — The Rev. Frank Schaefer has been given a 30-day suspension by the jury in his church trial and told that if he can’t uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety he must surrender his credentials.
Schaefer was found guilty Nov. 18 of violating the church’s law against pastors performing same-sex unions and of disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church. He acknowledged having performed the same-sex wedding of his son, Tim, in 2007.
The 30 day-suspension will cover both convictions, the jury said in a decision announced about 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Schaefer also is to be monitored by his district superintendent in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference and must meet with the conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry during the suspension period.
The Rev. Amy DeLong of the Wisconsin Conference was found guilty in 2011 of having officiated at a same-sex union and given a 20-day suspension, as well as assignments her jury felt were needed to restore the “covenant” relationship.
The jury of ordained ministers in the Schaefer trial heard a full day of penalty phase testimony Nov. 19, with Schaefer himself saying, “I cannot go back to being silent. I am now an advocate for LGBT people in the world and in the church.”
Schaefer’s words also echoed in closing arguments. He had earlier acknowledged performing the same-sex wedding of his son, Tim, and refused to promise not to perform a same-sex wedding again.
The Rev. Christopher Fisher, counsel for the church, told the jury, “You have heard him, he is non-repentive, unapologetic and committed to disobeying the Book of Discipline.”
The Rev. Robert Coombe, the opposing counsel, asked the jury, “Who was hurt by Rev. Schaefer performing his son’s wedding?”
Coombe added, “You have an opportunity… It is in your hands. I hope your hands are connected to your hearts.”
Fisher, in response to Coombe, told the jury, “We should let him (Schaefer) go, wish him well and free him from our church.”
Penalty phase witnesses included members of Zion Iona United Methodist Church, where Schaefer has been on staff for 11 years. (He’s currently on leave.)
William Bailey, a longtime church leader, said his relationship with Schaefer began well but soured when he learned the pastor had performed a same-sex wedding.
“It came to the point when we could no longer attend church there,” Bailey said. He added that membership and giving have declined at Zion Iona.
On cross-examination, Bailey acknowledged the church had problems beyond some members objecting to Schaefer’s role in the same-sex wedding. He said conflict around worship style arose between Schaefer and the church music director, Deb Boger. Jon Boger, her son, filed the complaint against Schaefer.
Christian Watson, another church member and director of Christian education, said when she needed pastoral care during the illness and death of her mother, Schaefer told her he could not offer the help she needed.
She also said she had conversations with Schaefer in which he told her he did not think the United Methodist Book of Discipline had to be followed.
Two other church members, John Schlegel and Drew Gingrich, offered a different perspective, saying they want Rev. Schaefer to come back as soon as possible.
“We have church on Sunday, I want him to return immediately,” Schlegel said.
Gingrich, 21, said he was “born and raised at Zion Iona.” He said Schaefer shows the “unconditional love of Christ. He welcomes everyone. I would be ecstatic for him to come back. He is a friend, mentor and my hero.”
The Rev. James Todd, district superintendent of Schaefer’s appointment, described the congregation at Zion Iona as a “complex scenario.”
When the word first got out about the wedding, Todd said he called a meeting where there was a lot of support for the pastor. Then, during the summer, listening sessions in smaller groups found some participants were supportive and some not.
Schaefer wrote a note in his clergy profile in 2006 stating he had three gay children and planned to preside over the wedding of his gay son. At the time, Todd explained, there were two forms he was to review—a clergy interview form and a clergy profile. Todd acknowledged he did not read Schaefer’s profile.
The Rev. Tom Frank, a Wake Forest University professor and author of a book considered a standard text on United Methodist polity, said the Book of Discipline contains a lot of statements that do not correspond with each other.
“Pastoral judgment is the critical element,” he said. “I view the Book of Discipline as a pastor’s book. The Discipline guides our lives but any form of covenant requires pastors to use it for pastoral judgment.”
The Rev. Paul Stallsworth, pastor of Whiteville (N.C.) United Methodist Church took a moment of personal privilege before he testified about the Articles of Religion.
“Let’s be candid,” he said. “What we are trying to do is not enjoyable. We cannot approach this penalty phase with a victor’s glee. Ours is an unfortunate task.”
He went on to say the Book of Discipline was based on the word of God. He said a pastor who violated the rules should be “openly rebuked that other pastors may fear to do the same … The penalty should be determined for the good of all.”
The two people central to the trial, Schaefer and his son, Tim, both took the stand to talk about their lives and love for each other.
Tim Schaefer, who grew up as a “PK,” said he was always interested in law and in the church. He recalled attending at age 12 or 13 one of the church’s annual conferences.
At that point, he said, he was struggling with his sexuality and at the gathering heard such negative messages about homosexuality that he considered suicide.
“I remember crying and praying every night ‘God take this away from me. I don’t want to go to Hell, and I don’t want to be a bad person,’” Tim Schaefer said.
He said he didn’t want to bring shame on his family so he didn’t talk to them. A friend’s mother called his parents to tell them their son was gay, in deep pain and considering suicide.
“There was a lot of crying and hugging, and my parents held me and told me they loved and supported me,” Tim Schaefer said.
Today he is married and living outside of Boston attending a United Methodist church where he said he and his partner are loved and accepted.
Asking his father to perform his marriage was “the most difficult decision of my life,” Tim Schaefer said. He knew his father would be hurt if he didn’t ask him but also know his father would putting his job in jeopardy by performing the service, he said.
Frank Schaefer testified that what he has gone through of late has changed him into a full-fledged gay rights advocate.
“I will minister to all people equally,” he said. “We as a church need to stop judging people, stop treating people as second-class Christians and that is going to be my message.”
Schaefer said someone had given him a rainbow stole, and he asked Gwinn’s permission to wear it. Gwinn said he had ruled rainbow stoles were allowed in the courtroom.
Schaefer also addressed from the stand Watson’s testimony that he didn’t offer her pastoral care.
“Sometimes I have to refer people to trained counselors,” he said.
* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].