By Erik Alsgaard*
WASHINGTON (UMNS ) — Frank Schaefer, the United Methodist clergyman who was defrocked Dec. 19, is now a member of Foundry United Methodist Church and mulling over an offer to move west.
Schaefer, his wife, Brigitte, and two of his four children – sons Kevin and Jordan – were received into membership by the Washington congregation, with dozens of people surrounding the family on the platform during the installation.
“Frank needed to be in a United Methodist church this Sunday that would love him and affirm him,” said the Rev. Dean Snyder, Foundry’s pastor, in remarks introducing Schaefer. Snyder acknowledged that when he learned the news of the defrocking, he felt sick to his stomach and that he had been discouraged. “I wanted him (Frank) to come and encourage us.”
Snyder noted that a “love offering” would be taken for the Schaefer family. An online portal had been opened on Friday, he said, and in the first eight hours, more than $5,000 had been contributed.
Time of discerning
Schaefer was found guilty in a Nov. 18-19 church trial of violating The United Methodist Church’s rules against performing same-gender weddings. He had performed the wedding of his son to another man in 2007. The board of ordained ministry in the denomination’s Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference met with Schaefer Dec. 19 and ordered him to surrender his credentials. Schaefer said he intends to appeal.
Snyder told the Foundry congregation that in the defrocking process, Schaefer not only lost his ministerial credentials but any United Methodist connections because ordained elders do not have membership in a local church but in an annual conference. He was, in effect, a Christian without a church, Snyder said.
Schaefer, who still resides in Lebanon, Pa., gave the sermon at both morning worship services, receiving several standing ovations. He said he and his family are in a time of discerning whether to accept the offer from Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the denomination’s California-Pacific Annual Conference. She had issued a statement Dec. 20 inviting Schaefer to join in ministry in her conference, though noting that only a conference board of ordained ministry could reinstate his credentials.
“I was in New York,” Schaefer said, “between doing interviews, and feeling kind of depressed. My phone rang, and for some reason, I answered it. It was a bishop!”
Schaefer said he told Bishop Carcaño, “You made my day.”
“As much as I felt rejected by what had happened on Thursday, I felt welcomed and accepted by this (phone call),” he said. At a news conference in the Foundry sanctuary after the morning worship services, he said the phone call “strangely warmed my heart. I am leaning towards taking the offer, but I need more time for discernment and prayer.”
Schaefer spoke on the lectionary text for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Matthew 1:18-25, and offered Joseph as a model of love and biblical obedience.
Showing grace under pressure
When Joseph learned Mary was pregnant, he was going to quietly dismiss her, rather than subject her to public disgrace. “He was a righteous man,” Schaefer said. “No public trial; no stoning.”
Joseph showed grace and love, even amid great pressure, he said. “That’s what God wants us to do: act in love and grace.”
Sometimes, showing those acts is impossible, Schaefer said. When people find themselves in such a position, “they’re in good company,” he said.
“When I went through my church trial,” Schaefer said, “I had hoped the church would be more like Joseph. I had violated one of their rules, yes, but I was disappointed to be found guilty. I was devastated last Thursday (when he was defrocked).”
The denomination’s Book of Discipline forbids United Methodist clergy from performing same-gender weddings, and it forbids such services from being performed in United Methodist sanctuaries. The denomination officially states the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman. The church also affirms that all people are of sacred worth, that all are in need of the ministry of the church and that God’s grace is available to all. It implores congregations and families not to reject gay and lesbian members and friends.
Schaefer said that being a United Methodist is the only way he knows how to be in ministry, but that he doesn’t blame the entire church for what happened.
“There are people who stand for inclusion and grace in this church,” he said. “You (Foundry) are a part of that tradition.”
Schaefer pointed out to the congregation the stained glass window over the balcony in the sanctuary, which shows Jesus with outstretched, welcoming arms. “You are following this example,” he said.
He told the congregation that he has received hundreds of e-mails, most of them supportive. He said some of the notes were from people who said they were going to leave the church because they were fed up.
His response to those people: “Don’t. We need you in our fight. If you’ve left, come back. I am committed to doing whatever it is in my power to take back my church.”
Schaefer said The United Methodist Church has been in “homophobic captivity” for more than 40 years, and he senses that change is on the horizon.
“Things are happening,” he said. “It is time to intensify the fight for inclusion. This is not about doctrine, not about theology; this is about lives. We need to start to listen to the pain of our LGBT brothers and sisters. This is about life and death.”
Will this fight lead to a split in the church?
“I think we’re already split,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “I’m hoping for a change in the Book of Discipline. Something has to change, something has to give. We’re at a moment of great tension.”
Foundry webcast its second morning worship service, and an audio version of Schaefer’s sermon is available online at www.foundryumc.org.
*Alsgaard is editor in the ministry of communications for The United Methodist Church’s Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. Sheila George contributed to this UMNS report. News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]