Scars and hope emerging from Schaefer trial, struggle to resolve United Methodist same-sex wedding laws

February 10, 2014

United Methodist News Service

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rev. Frank Schaefer, then pastor of Zion Iona United Methodist Church was found guilty of violating the United Methodist Book of Discipline in a church trial and lost his ministerial credentials. Those involved — from the Schaefer family to church members supporting and opposing his actions to Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson — talk with Kathy Gilbert of United Methodist News Service about the pain and about hope for what may happen next

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Before the waiting photographers, before the interviews with Barbara Walters and Anderson Cooper, before he lost his ministry credentials in a church trial, Frank Schaefer was a country preacher with a German accent leading a small United Methodist church in rural eastern Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t just the German accent that set him apart. His conservative social views, mirroring those in his community, started evolving when three of his four children came out as homosexuals.

It was love for his oldest son, Tim, that led Schaefer to violate The United Methodist Church’s law book forbidding clergy from officiating at same-gender unions.

First calling

Frank and his wife, Brigitte, were born in Germany. In the early 1980s, Schaefer was living in Germany working as a professional English translator. Brigitte was a highly skilled surgeon assistant. They had three young children, Tim, Debbie and Kevin. Their last child, Jordon Pascal, was not born until they moved to the United States.

Schaefer wanted to go to the United States to improve his English skills — to learn colloquial English, slang. He admits he also was looking for an adventure.

Church was always important to the couple. They met in a youth group at a church in Germany. Finding a church home was one of the first things they did when they moved to Norfolk, Va. They were happy to find what they saw as a “small, lively” church where they got involved in working with young people.

Schaefer started hearing God’s call to ministry. His pastor was so sure Schaefer was destined to be a pastor that he pressed a catalog and application form from Valley Forge Christian College into his hands.

Schaefer prayed about what to do and ended up attending that school. He was a student pastor at Morrisville United Methodist Church while in seminary at Princeton Theological Seminary. While trying to decide on a denomination, he called United Methodist Bishop Susan Morrison. At the end of that conversation, she welcomed him to The United Methodist Church.

He served five years at Avon Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pa., and was resident chaplain at Hersey Medical Center while pursuing Clinical Pastoral Education. He was appointed to Zion Iona United Methodist Church in 2002. The four children were “preacher’s kids” and Brigitte a “preacher’s wife.” The family was in love with The United Methodist Church and Zion was a growing, thriving congregation — membership increased from 332 in 2002 to 470 in 2012.

White, hot spotlight

The world descended on this quiet country church and Schaefer after news of the charges and trial. One headline screamed,“Church puts pastor put on trial for loving his son.”

Overnight, Schaefer was on television, radio and in news publications from The New York Times to Al Jazeera America as well as local and statewide news outlets in Pennsylvania. The timing was perfect for the media because several states were debating legalizing same-gender unions and LGBQT rights.

Schaefer was found guilty Nov. 19 in a church trial and defrocked Dec. 19.

On the second day of his trial, Schaefer said he suddenly felt the Holy Spirit calling him to a new ministry. While testifying, Schaefer put on a rainbow stole and said, “I cannot be silent any longer. I must speak out for the LGBQT community.”

Later in an interview in his home, Schaefer said, “God has taken all my excuses, and just sort of pulled me by the collar, and said ‘This is what you need to do.’”

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