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The Flagship

Dec 27
America Tonight

Meet the pastor who was defrocked for officiating his son's gay wedding

The Rev. Frank Schaefer was no different than many other Methodist pastors with a conservative upbringing. His slight German accent would punctuate his gregarious Sunday morning masses in Lebanon, Penn., for years.

He believed strongly that homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teachings. That is until 2000, when he received a phone call from a woman who wanted to remain anonymous. 

"This lady said, 'I need you to know that your son is considering suicide. And it's because he's gay,'" Schaefer said. "I remember thinking, 'My son is not gay, she must have the wrong number.'" 

The Rev. Frank Schaefer hugs his son Tim.

When confronted, his 17-year-old son Tim came out to Schaefer and his wife, Brigitte. He said he cried himself to sleep. He said he prayed to God to make him "normal." He said when that didn’t happen, he thought of suicide.

"When he came out sharing this with us, we just couldn't hold back our tears," Schaefer said. "My wife and I just embraced him and told him, 'We love you, son. You know it doesn't matter to us. You still are our son. We love you, no matter what." 

He adds: "We realized that this was not something he chose. He did not choose to be homosexual." 

His son's coming out led the reverend to accept the LGBT community with open arms. It also brought about his defrocking from the United Methodist Church. 

Faith on trial

Four years after he came out to his family, Tim fell in love with a college classmate. After dating that man for two and a half years, they got engaged.

"I was ecstatic," Schaefer said. "I was just overjoyed and I congratulated him. And the next thing out of his mouth was, 'Dad, would you do the wedding?'”

“You just feel honored that your child would ask you,” he explains. “And so I immediately reacted from my heart and said, 'Absolutely, son.' And it was almost simultaneously after I had given the answer that I thought, 'Uh, oh, what is this going to do in my role in the Church?'" 

The Book of Discipline forbids United Methodist ministers from presiding over gay marriages. Schaefer informed his bishop that he would be officiating the wedding. There was no controversy at the time. 

Tim and his fiancé were married in Cohasset, a tiny coastal town in eastern Massachusetts. The reverend and his wife went back to Lebanon, Penn., where they lived peacefully for six years. 

"I don't remember anger as much as I felt embarrassed. It was like an invasion into my privacy, into our private family affair."

Frank Schaefer

Then last April, Schaefer received a call from his bishop. One of his congregants had obtained the license from Tim’s wedding and was filing a complaint. In the United Methodist Church, a complaint might lead to a trial very similar to a civil court – with a judge, jury and a prosecutor. 

"I was totally shocked," Schaefer said. "I did not expect this. I didn't even think about this ever becoming an issue because it was so long ago."

In fact, if the complainant had waited 26 more days, the issue would have exceeded the Methodist Church’s statute of limitations. 

"I don't remember anger as much as I felt embarrassed," Schaefer said. "It was like an invasion into my privacy, into our private family affair… I felt like this is going to be known by everybody in the Church now. And I knew it was in a conservative area and many people are conservative in my Church and I just dreaded having this become an issue." 

What Schaefer didn’t realize, however, was that he was about to become a prominent face of the LGBT movement. 

'Coming out' as an advocate

The Rev. Frank Schaefer speaks during a news conference.
AP

"Each trial takes on its own character and its own context. There's no standard penalty for any violation like this,” explains Robin Hynicka, a Philadelphia pastor who belongs to the “reconciling” faction of the Methodist Church, which supports same-sex marriage. Reconciling Methodists are on one side of a growing rift in the country's largest mainline Protestant denomination.

The two-day trial was held in the gymnasium at Camp Innabah, a United Methodist retreat in Spring City, Pa. There were about 100 viewers on both sides of the debate, and LGBT advocates sang hymns and held signs of support outside. 

"There was one point where the crowd got a little bit excited because one of the cross-examiners had suggested that what if this case was about racism?" said Rev. Paul Fullmer, the chaplain at Lebanon Valley College, who witnessed the proceedings. "And the woman he was cross-examining said, ‘Well, maybe it should be about racism!' And people cheered, and the judge said, 'Stop! We need to have control in this courtroom.' It was a lively crowd."

LGBT advocates rallied in support of Frank Schaefer outside his trial.
Getty Images

Schaefer didn't deny that he performed the same sex marriage. In fact, he embraced it unapologetically, and wore a rainbow-covered stole on the witness stand. 

"My evolution from being a silent supporter to becoming an advocate for the LGBT community is very similar to an outing process of a gay person," Schaefer said. "I wasn't going to lie about my position. So, I started talking about my beliefs, that I did not think homosexuality was a sin."

"Once I have the time to actually sit down and process this, pray about it and really let it sink in, I think I will probably feel an emptiness."

Frank Schaefer

Frank Schaefer
Frank Schaefer at his United Methodist Church trial.
Getty Images

The jury, which consisted of fellow Methodist clergymen, came to a decision: a 30-day suspension. At the end, Schaefer would either surrender his credentials or vow to uphold the United Methodist Book of Discipline in its entirety.

When Schaefer walked out of the courtroom, he had already made up his mind, and he hinted as much to the swarming TV cameras. Schaefer had become a national face of Christian activism for LGBT rights. 

"It's incredible,” he said. “I would have never expected a media firestorm like that to happen based on my trial.”

On Dec. 16, nearing the end of his suspension, Schaefer held a news conference. He announced that he would not voluntarily surrender his credentials. But he would also not stop performing same-sex marriages. In three days, he was to meet with the Board of Ordained Minsters, which would issue its response to Schaefer's decision. The ball was back in the Church's court. 

‘God isn't finished with him’

Right after he was defrocked, Schaefer – wearing his rainbow stole – greeted and prayed with supporters.
AP

On the drive to the Valley Forge Conference Center in Norristown, Pa., Schaefer was nervous. He'd been a minister for 20 years. But deep down, he was confident that the Church would let him keep his pulpit.

Some of his congregants, like Ellyn Ross, were less hopeful. "I'm fearful," Ross told America Tonight. "I don't know what to expect, exactly... I know that God isn't finished with him yet. He has lots of wonderful, beautiful things to do in this world. And I would hope that he would be able to still do those within the United Methodist Church."

The meeting was much shorter than expected. The Board of Ordained Ministry took Schaefer's credentials and then held a short news conference to announce to the nation that he was no longer a minister with the United Methodist Church.

Frank Schaefer
An LGBT advocate rallying outside Frank Schaefer's trial.
Getty Images

"I think I'm still in shock," Schafer said. "I haven't really processed the news. Once I have the time to actually sit down and process this, pray about it and really let it sink in, I think I will probably feel an emptiness and I probably will have to work through the trauma of it all and count my losses and mourn my losses."

Despite all of this, Schaefer said he has no regrets. "I followed my heart,” Schaefer said. “Every decision I made, everything I said, everything I did [was] because of my conscience."

Schaefer has received offers to preach from other denominations, as well as other Methodist churches. And he's said he's strongly considering an offer from a particularly prominent church region in California. Still, much like he was at a news conference after the announcement of his defrocking, Schaefer remains defiant.

"I will not give up the fight," Schaefer said. "I'm still a minister in my heart. And I will continue to minister. I will continue to be a voice for the LGBT community."

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